Desert Temptations

Homily for the First Sunday of Lent, Year C.

For the first three-hundred years after the birth of Christ, it was a risky business being a follower of Jesus. To practice your faith openly, or even to gather in private in someone’s home to celebrate Mass, was to take your life into your hands. Martyrdom was a real possibility. All that changed in the year 313 with the Edict of Milan which put an end to the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. In the years that followed, the Church grew by leaps and bounds. It seemed like everyone wanted to be a Christian now that it was no longer a risk to be one. There were a group of Christians, however, who were dissatisfied with this situation. They didn’t want the easy path. They wanted to respond as radically as the first disciples did to Jesus’ call to leave everything behind and follow Him. And so they left the cities and went to the desert. They went to the desert because that was where Jesus had been led by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil. And it was in the desert that Jesus had overcome the devil. And so it made sense to these early Christians to go to the desert as well. To follow Jesus as closely as possible, they would literally do what He did: they too would go the desert and do battle with Satan.

Away from the city, these “Desert Fathers,” as we call them today, discovered something interesting about Satan. It’s the same thing Jesus discovered in our gospel: the way Satan tempts you in the desert is different than the way he tempts you in the city. In the desert, Satan is forced out into the open. He can’t hide behind anything. Away from everyone else, living in a the most rudimentary housing with the most meager possessions, there’s hardly anything for Satan to tempt you with. None of his usual tools are at his disposal. And so he has to come out into the open and tempt you directly. The Desert Fathers, therefore, became experts in temptation. They got really good at naming and understanding the tactics of the devil. One Desert Father in particular, a man by the name of Evagrius, came up with a list of these tactics. He called them the “Eight Wicked Thoughts.” His list was later reduced by one, producing what we know today as the “Seven Deadly Sins.”

Evagrius’ list originally had eight sins because, according to the Book of Deuteronomy—which is where our first reading is from, there were eight nations that Israel had to overcome in order to conquer the Promised Land. First, they had to overcome Egypt, which was one nation. But after that, they still had to defeat the seven other nations who occupied the Promised Land when they arrived there. Similarly, Evagrius taught, there were eight sins that the devil could tempt a Christian to commit in order to prevent them from attaining the promised land of heaven.

One of the purposes of the Lenten season, is for us, as far as possible, to have a “desert” experience. We can’t literally go to the desert, but we can bring the desert to us. We do that by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Fasting and almsgiving help to reduce the number of distractions in our lives, and prayer helps us get away from the remaining distractions, at least for a while. But if we do this, if we really try to engage in these Lenten practices, we may find that the temptations of the devil become more prominent in our lives. When we bring the desert to us by reducing the number of distractions, the devil is forced out of hiding. He comes more out in the open. His temptations become more brazen. And we should be prepared for that. And we shouldn’t be discouraged when it happens, because it’s actually a good sign.

St. Ignatius of Loyola says this: “In persons who are going on intensely purifying their sins and rising from good to better in the service of God our Lord, …it is proper for the evil spirit to bite, sadden, and place obstacles, disquieting with false reasons, so that the person may not go forward.” When we’re following the path of sin, Satan has no need to attack us. In those moments, he’s actually our biggest fan, rooting and cheering us on. But when we begin to slip out of his grip, when we begin to more closely follow Christ, his temptations return in full force. And the closer we get to overcoming a particular sin, the stronger his temptations often become. Sometimes we think that we’re doing something wrong in the spiritual life when we encounter this kind of resistance, but it’s often actually a sign that we’re doing something right. It’s often a sign that we’re growing in holiness.

In the days and weeks ahead, we should not be surprised or afraid if we encounter temptation as we try to pray, fast, and give alms. To prepare for this, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth. As we try to fast this Lent, we may realize that we struggle with gluttony. We may discover that the demon of gluttony was content to cheer us on from the sideline of our life until we tried to overcome our disordered love for food. He’s now upset, and takes the field to resist our efforts. He comes out into the open to tempt us into giving up. Or, as we try to give alms this Lent, we may realize we struggle with greed or envy. Or, as we pray, that we struggle with pride or sloth. But this is a good realization. And when these demons come out in the open, when they begin to tempt us more brazenly, we can rejoice and know that we are moving in the right direction.

Finally, it’s important to remember that just as Israel wasn’t able to defeat the eight nations by their own efforts, Lent is not about overcoming temptation by our efforts either. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt “with his strong hand and outstretched arm.” It was because God was on their side, and that He was fighting for them, that they were able to enter into the Promised Land. And it is because God is on our side, and that He is fighting for us, that we will be able to conquer temptation and sin this Lent and one day enter into the promised land of heaven. Amen.