Oscar Wilde wrote: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it... I can resist everything but temptation.” That approach may offer some relief, but it sells us short. The idea of always giving in scares me. I want to believe that the temptations that can confound us are not there to make life difficult, but to make us grow up. Temptation comes in many flavors, and few us can escape their allure. Three nasty ones that have dogged me: procrastination, where finding distractions takes on a high art form when wanting to put off the work that has to be done. Or, judging harshly, just because it is more satisfying than giving others the benefit of the doubt. And, getting buried in some intoxicating gratification, just because taking the long view can seem so long.
Whatever the specific temptation, they have a common purpose: they help us avoid confronting discomfort. The more we try to shake loose from discomfort, the more we can get bogged down. Giving in to temptations is understandable, and not always that destructive. The challenge is when we use them as a dodge. When sinking into temptations become the default way to avoid discomfort, then we find it harder to stay with the tough course of living a life that matters.
When we attempt to rise beyond the temptations that seem so ingrained, so unmovable, we sometimes may have nothing to show. There may be no change. But it because of that tough truth that makes the effort to try so rewarding: sometimes we succeed, and learn again how miracles can be so obvious when we have our eyes open, our hearts ready to receive, and our minds grasping the truth that there is no greater union than divine help and human grit. Even with this powerful combo, we know the path away from temptations is harsh. We take the path anyway because we know it is the path we deserve to be on.
One of the great joys of life comes when we understand that we are worthy of the peace, calling, and friendship that beckons us from a loving God. Life does not necessarily get easier with that insight—we still need the grit. It is that life gets holy. We see how we do indeed want to move from getting lost in a sense of entitlement to getting carried away in a life based in gratitude. We see how we want to move from a mind filled with self-absorption to one of self-giving. We see how we do want to advance from a preoccupation with pleasure to a life focused on gaining fulfillment.
When we stay grounded in those deep yearnings, we get a grip that trying to fight temptations is so much more than stopping bad habits and impulses. It is saying we will do what it takes for however long it takes to take in the grace that is all around us. We will do what we can to soak in more of the goodness that comes to us from all places, from all people.
I would like to imagine if Jesus were to expand on this idea of temptation, he would say: “you’re welcome to focus on the struggle. You’re welcome to concentrate on hard it is to get beyond the activities or urges that drag you down, that can hyper-isolate you. Think about them over and over if you wish. But that brooding will just become another destructive habit that feeds on itself. It will feel like there is no other choice. Here’s another way: think about how worthy you are of penetrating love, of practical hope, of healing faith. Think that, as surprising as it sounds, there is something good you can do with discomfort. With it, you can let your prayer become more honest; you can be more trusting with the people around you; you can be more attentive to the challenges of those who are not around you. You can see what is sacramental in human life: an abundance of ways to rise to our better selves. That is the journey of Lent.