Posts Tagged ‘ego’

PSALM 51:1-12

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

There is a high probability, although we can’t be absolutely certain, that David wrote this poetic prayer in the aftermath of his moral collapse. We hear in its words a profound sense of guilt and a desperate longing to be made clean. The sin he had tried to hide could no longer be blanketed behind a veil of denial and self-justification. As long as he persisted in walling off this part of himself, he was living a divided life.

For the ego this is rather typical, but for the soul – that dimension beyond our personality where our autobiography is archived and our highest spiritual aspirations are conceived – this divided state is intolerable. Whereas the ego coordinates the multiple roles we play in life, our soul thirsts for wholeness and authenticity. While David’s ego could go on with the charade of self-justification, his soul was tormented and in deep need of forgiveness.

Repentance involves a series of subtler moves beginning with the admission of guilt, and moving on through inner remorse, self-examination, personal confession, acceptance of consequences, attempted restitution, a pledge toward moral improvement, letting go of the past and moving on. The forgiveness of God makes all of this possible by holding before us the promise of freedom, love, and fulfillment.

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JOHN 6:1-21

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

We are told that this revelatory sign of feeding the multitude happened when “the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.” Put that together with the parallels between the First and New Testaments, of the provision of food in the wilderness (manna and quail/loaves and fish) and the deliverance through/over the water (Sea of Reeds/Sea of Galilee), and what you’ve got is a clear identification of Jesus as the New Moses. Jesus has come for our freedom, the writer is saying, and what we are set free from is ignorance, ego, and the fear of death. How these three conditions of our spiritual slavery fit and fuse together can be summarized as follows.

The price of self-consciousness (ego) is a gradual and somewhat anxious separation from the maternal reality. Through time we are gathering to ourselves greater degrees of control, autonomy, and individuality. These are not bad in themselves; in fact, they are necessary to the progress of our personal development as human beings. As the shadow side to all the gains and benefits of a healthy sense of self, however, we become increasingly aware of our vulnerability, our exposure to the erosions of mortality.

As our anxiety intensifies we try to compensate by attaching ourselves to whatever we hope will bring us security and happiness. It may be wealth and possessions, success and power, codependent relationships, or the afterlife rewards of religion. In the end we can no longer see through the knots and tangles of our attachments to the real truth of our existence.

Jesus came to emancipate us from this enslaved condition. By the path of love, we are enabled to rise into the light of truth and enjoy a life authentic and free. Love, Light, and Life: the three great themes of John’s Gospel.

1 JOHN 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Our writer knew how easy it is for anyone to say “I love God” without the experience of inner release (faith) to the Divine Reality that is Love itself. The world is full of nicely developed egos who prefer dogmatic certainty about God to the authentic experience of God. In the name of this God of dogma, outsiders have been crusaded against and heretics persecuted, ostensibly in order to “defend the faith,” but in reality it’s always been about preserving the ego in its range of anxious control.

This sounds like we’re making the ego into a purely negative principle, when in fact it is neither negative nor positive, but paradoxical. To the degree that fear rules in us – that is, the variety of fears related to losing control – the challenge or invitation to let go, relinquish, and surrender what we’re holding onto for the sake of entering into a deeper and wider freedom is taken (note the term) as a threat and impossibility.

So how can we know that the ultimate reality beneath and throughout all that we sense and feel is really Love, and not the cold abyss we fear as we cling here to our ego securities? We, you can believe this writer, or you can believe in the revelation of Jesus as this writer has. But when it comes right down to it, your full persuasion won’t happen until you take the leap yourself. “God is love” names an experience that requires your “death” at one level and brings you to life – real Life – at another.

1 JOHN 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

We said earlier that faith is a risk. How so? Simply because of the fact that its venture of belief is in something beneath the level and outside the range of our sensory certainties. Furthermore, faith is properly speaking not the content of the belief but the act of believing – of trusting in, relying upon, or surrendering to the reality behind your notions about it.

It is not sufficient, then, merely to believe that something exists, even if that something is God. Faith is not choosing to believe in God even though (as the skeptic might argue) firm evidence is lacking, but is rather deciding to commit yourself to God and to what you understand God is about in the world.

The claim in this passage, that God is love, is therefore much more than a piece of Christian dogmatic knowledge. Love is not being singled out and elevated here as a quality or attribute of God – that God is loving, among other things. This is not dogmatic knowledge but convictional knowledge, not a matter of defining God but an exclamation out of the deep experience of God: God IS love!

And how exactly does that involve risk? Simply because the experience itself is entered only as we leap from the elevation of our ego and release ourselves totally to the gracious and generous “womb” of the divine ground beneath and within us. Such release is commonly feared by the ego, since its formation is really the achievement of control, by stages, along the developmental path toward maturity. We might grieve the ego and its separations, but the leap of faith depends on it.

1 PETER 2:19-25

19 For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin,
    and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

The desire for approval coincides exactly with the ego’s most passionate pursuit: recognition. To be noticed, validated, accepted, affirmed, praised, rewarded, promoted and glorified – this is what we might call the ladder of upward mobility in ego ambition. Whether at the first rung of this ladder or the last, the primary reference of value is “me” – the self-involved ego.

The gospel of Jesus went to the key term in this motivational system, insisting that human liberation and the healing of our world are possible only as we are able to rise above and get beyond the neurotic contraction of “me” and “mine.” If he ever proclaimed a heavenly treasure for those who would give everything to the poor and follow him, it was only to get them invested in his kingdom movement. In addition to promoting restorative justice through the redistribution of wealth, their time together would give him opportunity to open their hearts and free them of the need for reward.

Jesus wasn’t on a sweeping campaign through the world, scooping up as many converts as he could on his way back to heaven. His kingdom movement was about waking people up, setting them free, and making them whole – NOW, not later on or somewhere else.

But sadly this is the direction Christianity went. As an institutional religion under the “Christian” banner, the irony is that the farther it went along, the more unlike Jesus it became. Condemning the world that Jesus loved and separating itself from the people that Jesus sought, the Church turned out to be his greatest adversary. Keeping pure by staying inside, pleasing God by being obedient, waiting for Jesus to come again: Only a few have seen through this trance as the Church’s business plan, not the original gospel of Jesus.

ACTS 2:14a, 36-41

14a But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them:

36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

This may be the very point at which early Christianity lost its way. How faithful to the original message and First Voice of Jesus is this exhortation to “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”? Not close at all! Jesus didn’t proclaim his gospel as a way out, or call on his followers to separate themselves from the world.

And then there’s this: “Repent … and be baptized so that your sins may be forgiven.” In the original gospel of Jesus there was no “so that” – no conditions to be satisfied nor repentance required before God was willing to forgive. His “good news” (gospel) was that it is already done! Forgiveness has been accomplished. God’s love for the world is unconditional, boundless, and preemptive.

So then, why the sudden reversal? How could the revolutionary message of Jesus so quickly get turned into its diametrical opposite – that people still need to be forgiven, and only those who satisfy the conditions against God’s love will be saved (rescued)?

Our clue might be given in this story of Peter’s first “church sermon” during the Jewish feast of Pentecost. Already in the previous chapter a matter of ecclesiastical policy had to be worked out, as a replacement for the traitor Judas needed to be identified and properly installed. The author of Acts (traditionally Luke) wrote the larger narrative in order to give an account of Christianity’s rise from a ragtag band of twelve to the organized religion it would become.

                                                                                                 

How do you get from an itinerant company following the winds of the spirit and going toward human need, to a corporate institution where membership qualifications, a leadership hierarchy, and doctrinal conformity are paramount? The short answer is that you change how you do things.

The fact is, Jesus’ gospel of unconditional forgiveness doesn’t fly well inside a church where there’s no wind. Churches, denominations, and religions are inevitably faced with the challenge of defining the difference between insiders and outsiders. For Jesus there were no outsiders, which made it meaningless to speak of insiders. By opening one’s life to the liberating power of God’s love and living courageously in that freedom for the purpose of liberating others, Jesus would sometimes say that a person “entered” the kingdom of God. But this kingdom has no membership.

It’s not easy for people to get their minds around this concept of community as a spreading organism rather than an enclosed membership, but Jesus repeatedly pushed back on demands that he should set up a board of directors, organize the roster, and publish an orthodoxy. When he died, however, the demands won out and Jesus’ kingdom movement became an established religion.

That’s the sociopolitical explanation, but there is also a psychospiritual one. It has to do with the fact that unconditional forgiveness, genuine community, and a relentless pursuit of human liberation are impossible for our egos to accept. If God has forgiven me without conditions, then in accepting it I will be empowered to do the same on behalf of my enemy. But loving my enemy will require that I let go of my self-definition as the righteous and innocent opponent of my enemy.

The problem is that my ego has no reality underneath these labels of self-definition; it is a pure construct. Letting go is certain death.

To love as Jesus said God loves, and to forgive regardless of whether our enemies see their error and repent, requires too much of us. Who I am must be given up on the cross (released, set aside, transcended) so that a greater love can move through me (resurrection).

Frankly, I’d rather not. Please change the message and compensate me with the salvation I have earned by repenting, getting baptized, and believing the right things.

Thankfully, the Christian Church obliged.

ISAIAH 25:6-9

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8     he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

What is this “shroud” and “sheet” that covers human consciousness? It must have something to do with the “tears” and “disgrace” that the poet dreams will one day be wiped away by God.  And this? What’s at the root of this heavy anguish?

The answer is clear: death – or better, the fear of death.

Considered by itself, death is simply an end, the period at the end of our life’s sentence. Despite all the claims, no one knows for sure what’s after death. Clearly, the body that dies succumbs to decay and decomposes into inorganic compounds – the “dust to dust” of the old graveside eulogies.

The popular confidence in something, classically called the soul or “the real me,” that survives the body is actually quite recent in the history of religious belief. By far the most ancient and widely held notion is that when your time is up, you’re done. The personal ego that spent a lifetime (however short or long) managing an identity, collecting and casting aside the things of this world, and chasing all the while after an elusive happiness (or maybe running like hell) – that gig is up when you die.

When thinking human beings consider the prospect of mortality – and more specifically the certainty of their own death – a peculiar distress can come over the mind. Further reflection reveals that this life is characterized by pain, loss, and endings, along with the anguish these can provoke. The Buddha called this “dukha”: Life is suffering.

                                                                                              

What do humans do with this creeping realization of their approaching end? They busy themselves with other things. Countless distractions are instantly available to take your mind of the depressing thought. It can be therapeutic to throw your focus into something else – sometimes the more petty and trivial, the better.

Some people try to numb the distress with intoxicants. For as long as the cloud persists and the muscles are relaxed, the matter is as good as forgotten. But then, after the headache, it’s back.

Religion has done its part, with the invention of an immortal soul – “the real me” – that simply skips like a rock on a pond, from this life to the next. Or, according to Oriental theory, across many lives. In this case, the dark punctuation of death is but the briefest transition – the proverbial “blink of an eye.”

Critics have exposed the liabilities of such an eye-blink philosophy, noting how the minimization of death translates for so many into a disregard for the genuine (and passing) preciousness of life. In their hope and anticipation of a better life to come, they let this one slip by. If this one is particularly miserable, then such hope for the by-and-by can help you hang on till the end.

But here’s the point. Whether you are futzing around with meaningless distractions, finding solace in a drug, or pinning your focus on a paradise beyond, you are living (but not quite) under the shroud of a dangerous delusion.

While it’s not necessary to fixate on the real limits and final end of your mortality, living your life in full acknowledgement of this fact can be one of the most clarifying and liberating certainties there is.

Suddenly this moment, the one you were just about to dismiss and forget, is full of mystery and beauty. When this realization dawns on you, mark the day, for it is a day of resurrection. Fear is wiped away and you are finally truly alive.

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is frequently used as a “proof text” for the orthodox doctrine of Jesus as God – even though the passage itself makes a very clear distinction between God (“the Father”) and Jesus (“Christ the Lord”). But isn’t being “in the form of God” equivalent to saying that Jesus was God? No, and here’s why.

We already know that New Testament authors made quick work of anchoring the identity of Jesus in a deep heritage of scriptural prophecies and mythic metaphors. The Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, the New Moses, the Cosmic Christ, Lady Wisdom, and the Second Adam (or New Man) were titles with rich histories of their own. They covered the continuum of time from creation, through Israel’s national history, up to the Day of Judgment and beyond.

In this poem, which Paul may have taken from an existing tradition, Jesus is compared with Adam – the archetypal First Man and “son of God” (as we read in Luke 3:38). According to the Genesis myth, Adam (along with his consort, Eve) was made in the “image” of God, which is another way of saying that he was in the form of God. God placed the couple in a grove of fruit trees and flowing streams. Among the different types of trees in the garden was the Tree of Immortality (at the center) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

According to the myth, one virtue that distinguished God from his son and daughter was his “knowledge of good and evil” – that is to say, his rightful authority to judge the difference and make the rules. God warned his children that partaking of this tree would result in their death; it was forbidden.

The children, however, were stirred in their ambition for this exceptional power by a crafty serpent, who encouraged them with the promise that its fruit would make them “equal to God” in that way. They took the fruit and ate it, whereupon they were suddenly aware of their “nakedness” (a metaphor of the self-conscious guilty conscience). Shortly thereafter the couple was evicted from the garden, and a sword-wielding angel (Death) was posted as guardian to its entrance. Without access any longer to the Tree of Immortality, the pair was condemned to live out a finite number of days “east of Eden.”

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The First Adam, then, was in the form of God but tried to make himself equal to God. As a consequence, he and his descendants (the entire human race) are subject to suffering, toil, time and mortality. Because of the First Adam’s disobedience, we all share the fate of death.

But Jesus was the Second Adam. He was in the form of God but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Whereas (the First) Adam was defiant, Jesus (the Second Adam) was obedient. Instead of ambition for glory, he demonstrated humility in suffering. In that way, not only was Jesus our example of faith and devotion, but in staying true to God’s will even unto death he has made salvation (immortal life) available to the rest of us. How so?

As a reward for his humble obedience, God granted Jesus entrance to Eden and access once again to the Tree of Immortality. Thus we have here a mythic representation of the central metaphor of early Christianity, resurrection. Now, with the Second Adam alive and inside of paradise, we who commit our lives to him and follow his example can look forward to our own future resurrection and safe transit to life everlasting.

So through this archetypal comparison of the Two Adams, Paul is making the point that egoism, the unbridled ambition for glory, is what excludes the individual – every last one of us – from sharing in the higher life of God. The more tightly we twist our desires around “me” and “mine,” the deeper we sink into mortality and its complications: attachment and loss, pain and suffering, futility and despair. The ego’s arrogant presumption to decide between good and evil is what spins us out and away from God’s will for our lives.

Salvation, then, involves “putting on the mind of Christ Jesus” instead, living for God and giving our lives for his sake.

PSALM 23

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3     he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
    for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

Faith is nothing supernatural, and even though it was named  a “spiritual gift” by the apostle Paul, it’s not something that God gives to some and not others. In its word origins, “faith” is not about knowledge or doctrines, or even your willingness to believe what the doctrines say. It is much more existential than that.

You can believe that God exists and still not have faith. You can even believe “in” God – meaning that you have a strong emotional allegiance to what (your) God stands for – and have no faith at all. In fact, as impossible as it may sound, it is frequently the case that individuals who lack faith are the most outspoken, “evangelical,” and aggressive about what they believe.

If it’s not believing that God exists or in what God represents, then what really is faith? Very simply, it is trust. But isn’t trust your willingness to believe what can’t be proven or doesn’t make logical sense? Yes, trust can mean that. Faith, however, is a different kind of trust.

You might trust another person’s word, the conclusions of scientific research, or even the testimony of scripture. In such cases you are choosing to accept a proposition (a statement or claim) as an instance of truth-telling. If the Bible says that God exists – or that heaven and hell exist, or that miracles happened, Jesus rose from the dead, and the apocalypse is coming – your willingness to believe it is based on your interpretation of what those claims mean and your determination of how trustworthy the source is.

But it still isn’t faith.

Faith is not a function of religion, and it really has nothing to do with religious claims. It involves what can be called spiritual intelligence, but you don’t have to be “spiritually smart” to have faith.

Faith is the act of releasing yourself in trust to the supportive and provident nature of reality. The alternative is not disbelief or atheism, but anxiety and the separation from reality caused by gripping up inside yourself and forgetting that you’re not alone.

Once upon a time, you knew this connection intuitively (if unconsciously) which allowed you to spontaneously and effortlessly relax into being. As the months and years passed, however, you learned how dangerous the world can be, how hurtful people can be, and how staying intact necessitates that you pull away and curl up inside a shell of safety and control.

At a certain point, what had once been effortless became effortful and risky, making the prospect of leaving this shell of identity and fully surrendering to reality seem like death itself.

This must be the “darkest valley” the psalmist writes about. When you’ve reached the limits of your control, when the bright path of purpose drops into darkness ahead of you and it feels like all security is gone, that’s when faith matters.

You die to the old certainties and let yourself fall into the gracious presence of “Thou.”

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.