The World, the Flesh and the Devil Want You for Their Own
When I was a young man in College I had a priest friend, who would say about a week before Ash Wednesday, “I am looking forward to Lent.” The comment perplexed me greatly. I was dreading Lent. It forced me to take a lot of onerous external practices which I did not really understand.
In my 20-year-old mind, I dismissed my priest friend’s comment as some sort of “weird piety.” Now, decades later, I find myself joined with my old friend. It’s not weird piety, it’s well-formed piety.
The Desert Places
Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, facing down Satan and the temptations he presented. The ancient practice of Lent lets us set aside 40 days to enter into the desert places in our own daily lives. These days are a classroom in which we learn to live differently, beginning now. It is the place of struggle, the field of engagement. There we learn the root causes of our challenges. There we are equipped with the weapons of our warfare to fight what the Scriptures and Tradition refer to as the “world, the flesh and the devil.”
The “world” does not mean the created order. God gave us creation as a gift. It is good. The world refers to the system that has squeezed the primacy of the Creator out of daily life. When we succumb to its seduction we give ourselves over to the idolatry of self.
The “flesh” is not our body. God fashioned our body and will raise it from the dead, made glorious by the Resurrection. The “flesh” refers to the disordered appetites that are the bad effects of sin at work within us.
The “devil” is not some figment of our imagination, but a malevolent fallen angel. Just as He tempted our first parents and tempted the Lord, he now tempts us.
We can’t defeat the world, the flesh and the devil on our own. But we don’t have to do it on our own The letter to the Hebrews reminds us: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Jesus Our Model
Jesus, the Word made flesh, is our Model. The temptations He engages are the prototype of all of the challenges we face in the continuing call to conversion.
The first temptation Jesus faced was to His identity. The devil asked the Son of God to deny that he is the Son of God! Jesus refused. The devil asks us the same thing. We have become Sons (and daughters) of the Father in Him. The devil tempts us to deny that and live for ourselves.
The next temptation was to idolatry. We commit the horrid sin of idolatry, succumbing to its lies almost on a daily basis. Like the Christians in ancient Rome, we live in an age which has “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, worshipping created things rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).
Finally, the devil offered Jesus the subtle but deadly temptation to violate integrity, to use the gifts and power of God improperly and put the Father to the test. How clearly this poisonous serpent lurks in our daily life!
In each of these encounters with the Tempter, Jesus shows us the method by confronting the lies with the truth of God’s Word. Here’s the twist: Jesus both used the Word of God written in the Scriptures and was Himself the Living Word. We live our lives in Him. That is why I say we enter the desert in Him.
In the Desert With Jesus
What does this mean for us? Two things. First, we do this by learning the Scriptures. We need to learn the Scriptures so well that like Jesus we will be able to reject temptation by stating what God has said. We must have the mind of Christ (I Cor 2:16) and one way we do that is by immersing ourselves in the written Word of God.
Second, we do this by living within the communion of the Church, the Body of Christ. The Church is not some-thing but Some-One. There, we find the resources we need to grow in holiness and struggle against the lingering effects of sin. There we embark on the journey of holiness, becoming what the Scriptures call “perfected” or completed in Jesus Christ.
And this brings us back to Lent. In my tradition, the Church begins Lent by inviting us to learn to wield the weapons of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It calls us to imitate our Lord by fighting the world, the flesh and the devil as He did. By these practices we grow in freedom by putting away the “old man” and putting on the “new man”, created anew in Jesus.
Jesus, in his Sacred Humanity, reveals the new man. He is the model, showing us the method. He shows us what God wants to do for us.
In His Divinity He is the Means. In Him we are redeemed. He gives us the capacity to grow in holiness and virtue by overcoming temptation. Through His Saving Life, Death and Resurrection, he makes it possible for us to live new lives, in Him — beginning now — and leading into eternity.
Jesus Gives Us Back Our Freedom
Sin is a wrong choice, an “abuse of freedom” God created us in His Image. At the core of that Image is the capacity to freely choose to respond to his loving invitation into communion with Him.
When we sin, we abuse that freedom and throw ourselves into slavery. However, as the Apostle Paul reminds the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ sets us free” (Gal. 5:1). We fractured our freedom and lost it. Jesus gave it back to us. The Cross is the splint which restores our capacity to live freely.
Let us enter the desert in Jesus and overcome the world, the flesh and the devil.