The Temptation to Give Up
I’d frequently retreat for a day into the mountains. There the tempter would sometimes come with me. The typical approach of the tempter was to list my various failings. The list was sometimes extensive and at least partly true. However, the major one was the attack on my sense of call: To be of some use to the holy and the world. The temptation was to give up because one could not, with ones limitations, be of any earthly use.
At root all temptation is to forget who one is. Now I’m not talking about self-image, although that’s a place to start, it’s about the continual discovery of our relation to the life of the spirit, the holy divine, to the sacred and sacramental: for Christians their relationship with Jesus as person and Christ and Buddhists their relation to Siddhartha and the Buddha. In each of the temptations of Jesus and also with Siddartha, who later became the Buddha, an attractive alternative or attack or both attempts to divert each of them from the heart of things, to be of some use to the holy as well as to the world. At root, I suspect, all temptation is to get us to forget that we are the beloved of God or as another wisely put it, “It’s not who we are, but whose we are.”
A year ago I traveled in North India to Bodhgaya where the Buddha was enlightened. The town was adorned with Temples painted with murals of the life of the Buddha. The temptations of the Buddha are displayed in colorful murals in many of the temples. It is of interest to me that there are few churches I know that display the temptations of Jesus. What if we named a church the Church of the Temptations of Jesus? I bet it would get a lot of visitors.
All kidding aside, the temptations of Jesus who would become the Christ and those of Siddhartha who would become the Buddha were strikingly similar. Each had a tempter or demon. Satan for Jesus, Mara for the Buddha. Both were tempted by appetites, the hunger and desires of the flesh. Jesus who was hungry after his fast was tempted by bread. Siddhartha was tempted by the three beautiful daughters of Mara.
For Jesus the temptation of the loaves of bread was more than a sign that he would have to control his appetites if he was to fulfill his call and mission. It was a temptation to feed the hungering world. Later he would feed the five thousand and the four thousand. However, at that time, he freely chose to feed those numbers of people because of their need and hunger and not because of his hunger or because of a desire to save the world from hunger.
The second of the temptations were, for Jesus, the pinnacle of the temple where Satan challenged him to prove he was the Son of God. It was also the temptation to self harm, even to commit physical and spiritual suicide. For Siddhartha, Mara sent an army that threw spears and arrows at the master as he practiced meditation. The weapons turned into Lotus flowers before they struck the young man.
One has to be able to control one’s fears, including fear of failure, inadequacy, or conversely pride and hubris. Both overcame their fear by knowing the truth-that the real self cannot be harmed. Both refused to give life to the apparent evil and by doing so denied its existence. Jesus would face into his real fears as he rises up to go to Jerusalem where he understands his life is in danger, and yet he goes. Jesus, not denying his fears, refuses to let his fear control him.
The Final temptation of Jesus and Siddhartha is to become earthly rulers. It is the urge to make the world conform to our ideas of how it should be. Who better to rule the kingdoms of the world than a spiritual master and the son of God? Both turn their tempters away.
Probably the ultimate temptation is to keep spiritual awareness to oneself. Both Jesus and Siddhartha realize that what they experienced has to be shared, taught and modeled. Jesus very next act is to leave the mountain of temptation and call Peter, James and John. Buddha also draws a circle of five disciples around him. The truth of the inner life is that one is not only an individual being, one is also connected to all living things. That at the heart of the world for Christians is a God of Compassion who calls each of us to be a beloved person who is called to prayer and action on behalf of a God who “loves mercy and justice and honors humility”. Micah)
On the mountains where I’d retreat, I’d frequently encounter visitors who’d comfort me. Once a butterfly alit on my salty knee and stayed there while I remained still and watched, or a chipmunk begged a peanut. There were long vistas from mountain tops and the tiny alpine flowers that in summer covered the ground; the melodies of songbirds and the flight of red hawks that soared in up drafts of air and the music of the mountain stream that sang, and I would stop to play my flute and sing with her. All these visitations and many more were as reassuring as the ministry of angels was to Jesus at the end of his temptations.
Most of us who also have a longing for the spiritual life have given in to a myriad of temptations. We probably have learned that not only do we need to ask for forgiveness, we also need to recommit to our call and our mission which is for me today to live simply and at one with all things and creatures and to be thankful. I try to work it on a daily basis, but the tempter still shows up and as time passes I have more resilience to tell it to go away.