The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Stanley Spencer

On the Freedom of Choice

Two months ago, we celebrated the Baptism of the Lord and reflected on the event that inaugurated the most public period of Christ’s ministry, and revealed him as the one who shared fully the essence of God. What followed immediately was the second significant milestone in his life, the 40 days in the wilderness. Our season of Lent mirrors the days that Jesus spent in discernment and gave up some of his basic needs, before he chose to sacrifice his whole existence for the sake of the world. So do many of us choose to forego something of our small comforts as a way of empathizing and identifying with Christ’s suffering, in the wilderness and on the cross. Yet, there are other ways to prepare for Easter alongside or instead of fasting, such as re-examining priorities, discerning vocation, reflecting on faith, and pursuing forgiveness.

Your stance on Biblical interpretation will shape your understanding re. the physical conditions Christ encountered in the desert, the place where his temptations took place (e.g., in his mind’s eye or in reality), and the being with whom he conversed in the wilderness. But, one thing is reasonably clear: the voice to which the evangelists refer as the one speaking to Jesus is the same voice that we, from time to time, hear quite tangibly whispering in our own ears; the voice of deceit and accusation, whose purpose is to distort and discredit all that is good. For every sin that we commit is a misdirected use of something good that God created. As such, a surface interpretation of the three temptations of Christ sees each as an attempt to make him apply one of the core virtues – i.e., temperance, courage, and prudence – to a wrong extent, or with the wrong motivation, as we also do. And when we hope to avoid the consequences that ensue, we quite literally put God to the test, wondering whether he will, yet again, redeem the world for us. He does graciously fix our messes – sometimes and probably more often than we know; but, our greatest temptation is to take this for granted, as though God owes it to us, rather than does so out of infinite love, and forbearance.

However, here’s a deeper interpretation of the wilderness episode, as entertained by Fiodor Dostoevsky, CS Lewis, George Macdonald, and others: Jesus had only one temptation to overcome, which was to make the world better by taking away our freedom of choice. To provide limitless bread to satisfy our desires, stretch angels’ wings to catch us over the rocky patches, and impose a dictatorial, albeit benevolent, governance over our lives - but take away our free will. Yet, God will not bring us towards him by force or deceit, but rather by removing the hold that sin has on us. So, in the desert, Jesus discerned for himself the difference between the true Image of God that dwells in all, and in him most fully, and the attractive, yet fake image that would be easier to assume, but which would be inconsistent with who God is. This prepared him for the time when divine power welled up in him, over the three years that followed. As such, he applied it for the benefit of the people, but never for himself; he was often put to the test, but refused to call himself God (except in veiled terms in the gospel of John, a theological rather than historical work); and, he faced his final temptation, but would not let his cup pass. In doing so, he defeated evil metaphysically, and set an example for us practically.

George Macdonald wrote the following, reflecting on Jesus’ refusal to perform the divine signs on demand: “How easy it seems to have confounded them, and strengthened his followers! But such conviction would stand in the way of a better conviction in his disciples… To say, Thou art God, without knowing what “Thou” means, is of no use… A mere marvel is soon forgotten, and long before it is forgotten, many minds have begun to doubt the senses, their own even, which communicated it. Inward sight alone can convince of truth, signs and wonders never.”

The question to ponder over Lent might be, which miracles do we expect, and which ones do we regularly miss? How often are we so distracted by the voice of deceit, that we take the desert mirages we conjure, out of thirst, in our minds, to be “our rights”? I suspect that we tend to go through our lives desiring the miraculous downpour of the bread of heaven, and as soon as we receive it, resenting its taste. And where does the voice come from? Is it a real being outside of ourselves, or does it lie within, in the ambiguity of our human nature and its freedom? Does the voice speak loudly in times of hardship, so as to accuse God for what goes wrong, or lull us gently in times of plenty, so as to convince us that we alone make things go right? And how do we respond to this voice, especially when our stones take way too long to turn into bread, when we hit the rock bottom way too hard on the way down from the temple, and whenever we look towards the horizon, everything seems way out of reach and control?

I think that based on our personalities, we tend to have different ways in which we may give in to our temptations, and in which we overcome them. It might be worthwhile to spend the next few weeks figuring out how we, personally, react to the voice of the accuser – whether it’s by becoming apathetic, depressed, angry, impatient, or envious – especially since the voice wants to speak even louder whenever we become more intentional about our focus on God and realignment of priorities. But more importantly, we also know exactly which spiritual weapons Christ used in his wilderness journey: it was by prayer and scriptural word that he steadied himself in his discernment. How might we incorporate these tools into daily living, so as to sustain us over this Lent and beyond? Let’s keep working on this together, with God’s help. Amen.

J. Kirk Richards

Ilya Repin c 1903