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Monday, November 3, 2014

Blessed are the Tempted

 Fifteen years ago, when I was a Methodist pastor, I preached from James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation, for when he has been proved he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him.”

   While this promise has universal application, I used the message to particularly offer hope to men and women who struggle with homosexual desires, knowing that they are often caught between a pair of destructive options. On one hand, some would counsel them to embrace their attraction as defining their identity and be “true to themselves.” Others, on the other hand, would condemn them for their desires, as if temptation itself is the problem.

   As with many other things in my life, becoming a Catholic has provided me an even deeper appreciation for James’s promise.

  One implication of the incarnation—the Son of God made flesh—is that Jesus has made holy everything he experienced. His hidden life in Mary’s womb, for example, sanctifies the mystery of maternity, as every pregnant woman becomes an icon of the Madonna and child.  Similarly, his baptism in the Jordan makes holy the waters of Christian baptism, which is not just a ritual bath but a new birth into divine life and a sacramental participation in his death and resurrection.

   Understanding this mystery should deepen our appreciation of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, his 40 day spiritual battle upon which our Lenten experience is based. It’s not just that Jesus experienced temptation so that he could better understand the trials human beings endure; he sanctified temptation itself as a potential source of blessing.

  Let’s be honest—most of us don’t view temptation as a source of blessing. Rather, the devilish desires with which we battle are a regular source of frustration and failure. If you’re like me, you’re embarrassed to go to confession with the same old sins. We lament like St. Paul, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

  Yet if I understand James’s promise correctly, every temptation brings an opportunity to experience the blessing found in overcoming it. The Greek word for “blessed” here is same word used for the eight “blesseds” of the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the poor in spirit..”), and it refers not  only to some future state of holiness but to a present state of happiness.

  The bliss possessed by the one who overcomes temptation is that pure happiness that a child experiences from pleasing his father. Somewhere beneath the cynicism that buries our childhood innocence we can recall that simple delight we took when we made our parents proud.

   A few weeks ago, for example, I had the unexpected delight of meeting a man who had worked with my father (my dad passed away suddenly in 1987, when I was 21). When I told him who I was, he broke out in a big smile and said, “You’re Bruce’s boy?” For a split second I was eight years old again, feeling the simple and untainted pride of being my father’s son. I could almost sense Dad’s firm hand tousling my hair and putting his arm around my shoulder.

   That moment for me was a small taste of the blessedness Jesus experienced at his baptism via his Father’s affirmation, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Yet immediately afterward, in the desolate hunger of the wilderness, Satan sows doubt about that very filial bond: “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” (Mt. 4:3)  A similar question would be hurled at his cross: “If you are the Son of God, come down..” (Mt. 27:40). In each instance, Jesus knew the present and future joy of doing his Father’s will.

    For those struggling with an especially burdensome temptation, during Lent or otherwise, draw closer to Christ and take heart! As C. S. Lewis said, God knows that “you have learned your driving in a hard school,” and your greater burden could lead to greater blessing. When by his strength you overcome your trials (through obedience and the grace of the confessional), you will be pleased to hear, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”

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