Tuesday, September 22, 2015

“And Lead Us Not Into Temptation”

The following is the ninth of twelve monthly reflections about the phrases of the “Lord’s Prayer” and what they tell us about family life.

            As with most typical offices with a reception area, the office where I work has a container of mints at our front desk.  These candies, of course, connote hospitality to those who visit us or give guests a chance to freshen their breath when coming to us for a meeting.  The problem with these mints is that they are borderline addictive.  They are not the run of the mill, hardened peppermint circles that have a shelf life rivaling an army MRE meal.  No, these are soft, buttery, sweet mints that practically melt in your mouth the moment they touch your tongue and leave you seriously wondering what everyone would think if you ate one, two, or ten more.  While the mints are there to welcome guests, they also serve a second purpose: tempting all who work near them.  It is a real challenge to get through the day, walking back and forth near the candy dish and each time to continue towards my destination without putting a mint in my pocket.  Even with the knowledge that too many mints leads to things like cavities and tight pants, I have a hard time turning away.  That is the difficulty of temptation.  We often sense the result of a particular action will not end well for us, but the lure of the temporary gratification sometimes proves too great for our willpower.
            In one of the most instructive stories in the gospels, Jesus experienced temptation in the desert.  Satan tempts him with promises of food, proof of God’s favor, and earthly power, but Jesus is able to take the long view.  He knows that all that the devil offers is fleeting, that he would be hungry again, that testing God is a sign of a weakened faith, and that human allegiance is fickle.  We can learn a great deal from Jesus in this story.  Though we thankfully would not expect Satan to visit us in person and tempt us, we all experience the glamour of evil.  Like Jesus, we need to see past the immediate actions and consequences during temptation and consider the long-term implications.
            How do we prepare for temptation, which sometimes comes upon us unexpectedly?  The best answer I have found is that we must pay attention to our habits, no matter how small.  The little daily decisions of our life lead to virtue or vice depending on their orientation.  My behavior towards my office mints will say something about my ability to turn away when other, more significant food choices come my way.  Of course, there are much more serious things in life than overeating office mints.
Think of adultery for example.  This is something that has the potential to damage a marriage and family beyond repair.  How do I prevent such a tragedy in my own life?  It is not about waiting for an opportunity of adultery to present itself and then hoping I am strong enough to withstand it.  Instead, it is about the little ways that I control my habits that would leave me in a much better place to resist temptation should it ever occur.  The websites and movies I avoid, the jokes from which I refrain, the ways I pay attention to my eyes and words when interacting with a woman—all these contribute to the building of good habits that leave me better positioned in the face of temptation.  Of course, I do not do these things perfectly, and a collection of bad habits leads to vice.  Therefore, timely contrition and confession is another good habit that leads to greater virtue.
            One final curious thing about our phrase of the Lord’s Prayer today is the idea of requesting that God not lead us into moments of temptation.  Considering Jesus “was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil,” (Mt. 4:1) we may wonder what God is planning in all this.  It seems to me that God at times allows us to endure temptation for a greater purpose.  Jesus, after all, spent his time in the wilderness before embarking on his public ministry that would eventually demand his life.  Preparation for such a task is essential.  Thus, perhaps God’s permitting us to endure moments of temptation is a way of helping us to build good habits so that when the times of intense temptation arise, we are equipped and ready to handle them.  While it would never be God’s desire that we should fall into sin, we must remember that this is exactly Satan’s desire for us.  Building our will, self-control, awareness, and good habits through lesser temptations gives us a fighting chance when we really feel the strain of a difficult moral decision.  We must strive to be like Jesus in this respect, withstanding temptation and staying true to our vocational mission.  No opportunity is too small to contribute to this good effort, even if it is the bowl of mints at the office!