The Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
But instead of listening to what God asked of them; they looked beyond the words, and with the help of the snake (the adversary) saw all the benefits of eating what God said not to do. They were easily tempted and they ate. And everything changed…
“The worst part about sin is not that we give into temptations, but we gradually adjust to the temptations and begin to see them as normal.” (Prof. Max Stackhouse)
Adam and Eve justified the temptation that led to sin, the fruit looked good for food, it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was to be desired to make one wise, it’ll all be ok.”
We all use justifications in our lives, even when we know better. Sometimes, we justify the temptations before us and we sin against God & our neighbors (and ourselves). Often those sins wreak havoc in our lives.
Jesus was tempted like we are. 40 days & nights of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus was famished. At his weakest, there the devil tempted him. Food, power, control. It would all be for Jesus if he just listened to Satan. And Jesus resisted the devil & his power, who even quoted scripture to Jesus. Jesus answered him back:
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God…Do not put the Lord your God to the test...Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Jesus did not give into the temptations; he remembered, he understood, he lived into his relationship with God. He refused to justify giving into those temptations just because he was tired or starving. He relied on the Spirit that helped him.
This Holy season of Lent is an opportunity for us to repent of our justifications and our self-indulgent appetites and ways, to follow the life of Jesus, trust in the Holy Spirit and remember and understand our place in creation, to use this holy time to focus on repentance and faith. But we must be careful, not to go overboard with such contemplation, not to solely focus on sin.
There is an old rabbinic story about a faithful Jew who every morning would write down on a piece of paper the words I am but dust and ashes and place the paper in his pocket. Throughout the day he would take out the paper and read it; the words, spoken by Abraham in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 18:27), served as a prayerful reminder of his unworthiness and humility before God.
One day he showed the paper to his rabbi. The rabbi was moved by his congregant's reverence. But the rabbi took out a second piece of paper and wrote the Hebrew words Bishvili Novra haslam - For my sake, the universe was created.
"Take these words, as well, and carry them too," the rabbi said. "Let there be balance in your life. Realize that of yourself, before God, you are nothing - but because you are created in God's image, out of love, you possess the greatest dignity imaginable: you are a child of God." [As told by Burton Visotzky in Genesis: A Living Conversation by Bill Moyers.]
Our Lenten journey with Jesus is a time for striking that balance between realizing our humility before God and our identity as God's beloved creation.
When we are consumed by the notion that we are in total control of our lives, when we have arrogantly self-absorbed because of what we possess and what we have achieved, when we feel the sting of sin, we should take out the first paper and remember: I am but dust and ashes.
But when we feel abandoned, when hope seems far away, when we feel lost in the wilderness and unloved, we need to embrace the message of the second paper: For my sake, God created the universe. To remember, I am God's beloved; I am created in God's image.
May this season of Lent be a time for working on that balance in our lives: a balance between humility & belovedness that leads us to selflessness and joy; knowing of the ever-present love of God in our midst.
Let me end with a prayer that I think nicely helps us achieve this balance. Somewhere around 1943, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the Serenity Prayer, an appeal for grace, courage and wisdom that was later adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs and has appealed to people around the world. May it be helpful for you this Lent.
The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.