Posts Tagged ‘certainty’

PSALM 1

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Religion traditionally specializes in stereotypes and absolutes. A stereotype – from the French referring to the “solid” or fixed plates used to set images for printing – is a preconceived notion of an entire class of things (like human groups) based on your observation of a few individual examples. In the passage above, “the wicked” and “the righteous” are moral categories applied across a wide range of characteristics, behaviors, and lifestyles. With a stereotype, you are either in or out of the category.

An absolute is something that stands apart independently of all conditions or limitations. An absolute judgment is true universally and in every case, not only in this or that situation. When the supreme reality is regarded as absolute, God is conceived as outside of time, above the world, unchanging, and perfectly unique. Logically there can be no relationship with something that is absolute, beyond merely standing there in worship of its perfection.

Stereotypes and absolutes are especially useful to us during adolescence, when the project of identity-formation can benefit from some unrealistic classifications of ourselves, other people, the wider world, and the deity-in-charge. To really believe that reality is divided so cleanly between “this” and “that,” or that some things (like God and the soul) stand utterly apart from the complications of time and death, serves to calm our anxieties and support the certainty we (think we) need to function in life. Just knowing that “the wicked” will get what’s coming to them, and that we (“the righteous”) will one day have our reward, is enough to keep us in the game.

But eventually we need to grow up, become more realistic in our appraisal of life in this world and take a more adult perspective on the gray-scale distribution of good and evil – if these categories are even useful anymore. “The righteous” don’t always prosper, nor do “the wicked” always perish as we hope they would.

Reality is not like that, and a genuine faith connects you to reality. Belief keeps you safe inside your world, but your world is not reality.

MATTHEW 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Using the imagery and terminology of Paul’s theory of Christ (Christology) we might define temptation as the down-pulling lure of our lower nature, as our preference for instant gratification over self-control, solid proof over the risk of faith, power and title over humble service. (Of course, we always have the option of saying, “The devil made me do it,” but that only amounts to a refusal of responsibility.)

In fact, these three types of temptation, represented by the words satisfaction, certainty, and superiority are the very ones that Jesus faced during his desert solitude.

The seduction of pleasure is the lure towards what feels good, what gratifies our impulses, satisfies our cravings, and scintillates the pleasure centers in our brains. Jesus was tempted to break his fast with a meal of warm bread, but he resisted for the sake of staying focused on his calling. He turned down the temptation of physical satisfaction and pleasure, which strengthened his resolve but also opened up a higher level of vulnerability.

Passing that test, he was next tempted to demand some sign of supernatural support that could anchor his security in a divine guarantee. We feel this within ourselves as a rising demand for some sign or miracle that will prove God’s presence and commitment to us. Our inner child wants desperately to know that some higher (taller) power is looking out for us.  Instead, Jesus turned it down, choosing to “live by faith, not by sight.”

Finally he was taken up to a mountain so high that he could see all the nations of the world. Here he was tempted to abort his mission as world liberator for the more attractive role of world conqueror. Once again, our lower self (ego) prefers recognition and glory to humble sacrifice. This is difference between the love of power and the power of love.

                                                                                            

A higher level of application in this story takes hold of Paul’s identification of Christ as our “new self” (see Ephesians 4:22-24), whose awakening requires that we surmount the conspiracy of lower needs, drives, and impulses for the sake of our maturity and spiritual fulfillment. Our path will take us from the “river baptism” of our conversion to God’s purpose for our life, through this “wilderness of temptation” where that purpose is tested and made strong, and finally into our “world mission” as liberators in our own right.

In reality, however, our journey will periodically (and unexpectedly, for that is the nature of temptation) double-back into the desert for clarification and realignment. The danger, and the reason why so many apparently “perfected” believers end up falling so hard, is that we might come to regard ourselves as deserving of pleasure, protected by angels, and confirmed in our success as better than others.

Jesus kept his focus. Neither the visceral urgency of hunger, his mental-emotional need for validation, nor the ego’s desire for supremacy and control were able to pull him from his chosen path. In the months and years ahead, he would have to occasionally withdraw into the mountains for meditation and renewal.

The devil would come around every so often, but because temptation equals opportunity plus inclination, genuine temptations became fewer and farther between.