St John of the Cross reminds us that God does not want us to love God with our intellect, but that we should love God with our hearts. In his Dark Night, he teaches that God’s work in us is to help us to overcome our distorted self-love so that we become capable of loving God and loving other people. Some of the spiritual wisdom of John of the Cross ring with so much spiritual force as I reflect on them: “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love,” “Love is repaid by love alone,” “In the evening of life you will be examined in love,” “When you experience something unpleasant, look at Jesus Crucified and be silent.”
We are created for a purpose beyond ourselves. Indeed, the rule of Christian life and service is what St Paul captures so well, “Jesus did not come to please himself” (Romans 15: 3).
And this brings me to the first ‘C’ that will lead you into temptation and how Jesus conquered it during his temptation—placing yourself at the center and God and other people and other realities at the periphery.
All the temptations of Jesus in the accounts in the three Gospels revolve around this desire to be the center-the triumph of the self over all other things.
The Oasis African Bible commentary puts it very clearly this way: “All three of Satan’s temptations were to get Jesus to use his divine powers for selfish purposes (Luke 4:3). Jesus was tempted to use his power in a self-centered manner for physical gratification (1 John 2:16), to acquire material wealth and power (Luke 4:6-7), and third, and probably more common to people in public leadership, he was tempted to perform a dazzling feat to attract crowds of amazed and attentive onlookers (Luke 4:9-11). This is pride (1 John 2:15). Satan behaved as if everyone has a price. His temptations implied that this world is what matters most.”
We human beings want to be at the center of things. We forget that unless the center is right, the circumference will not align very well. Remember that wanting to be at the center could lead to many other vices—you may not be willing to listen to other voices but your own; only your point of view matter and you will find it hard to accept advice or criticism with gratitude; your prayer will center on asking God do your bidding rather than asking for grace to submit God’s will; you will not be comfortable with failures or mistakes, and everything you do will be about you rather than about God and others.
Centering yourself on God and on love as Jesus did before the devil, will help you to be a good follower of the Lord. This will free your will to love and save you from many sins because as St Augustine writes, the root of all sin is self-love, by being self-absorbed and making yourself the center. This happens when you love yourself so much to the forgetfulness of God and others. It is a painful place to be and leads us away from what really matters in life beyond the imprisoning wall of the self.
The second ‘C’ that leads us into temptation flows from the first—Control. This is about how we use our power, resources, and our gifts. There is an African saying that says that it is good to have the power of an elephant, but it is foolish to use your power like an elephant because you will cause so much harm to people and ultimately destroy yourself. Sometimes, you desire for something and don’t get it, then you wish to destroy everything in your wake, or we get a position or appointment and we feel that we have the power to do whatever pleases us rather than serve the common good.
Once you make yourself the center of the universe, the next malady that will follow is to control the world in you and around you. Rather than embracing the power to do good, you will choose ‘the power over’ others. You will actually try to play God.
The world today is wracked by so many people who want power and influence, and who are seeking power as an end rather than a means. This explains the small and big fights going on in our world in families, groups, parishes, offices, chanceries, and rectories. How many of us in church leadership have become captive to power and wield it with so much autocracy that the lives of those who we serve are so badly affected that they pray every day to God, “when will this be over?”
How many of us in families are domestic tyrants ,
very overbearing in their homes, inflexible, stubborn and showing no mercy to others, and hurting their children and spouses? How many lives have been damaged in our churches and society because of abuse of power and religious or positional authority?
The response of Jesus to this temptation is to serve God alone, refusing to use his power the wrong way like inducement to people, manipulating them, or even ‘bribing them’ by dazzling them with miracles, signs, and wonders. He chose the right way, the Cross.
The way of Jesus says to us that sometimes it is good to lose control; sometimes it is good not to be in charge, sometimes it is good to lose your self-possession in the act of loving others. But in each of these cases, it must be in order to give of yourself to God and to others; to commit yourself to a cause, to sacrifice for others. This is what the Lord meant when he says, “If you lose your life, you will gain it” or as Francis Assisi writes in his famous prayer, “It is in giving to all people that we receive. And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.”
So, ask the Lord to give you the grace to let go and let in God; allow God to control your life. In the spiritual life, it is better to lose control, because unless we allow God to control us and direct our lives, we will lose our destiny. If we wait to figure it all out before we can follow the Lord, then the grace and blessings of the present moment may pass you by.
It is also important to know that the temptations of Jesus reflect his inner conversation about how best to accomplish his mission on earth, and it is obvious that he realized that the path to fulfilling his mission will be to allow God to become the pilot, to listen to God, and to follow the path of God.
The final ‘C’ is about command, which is a companion of control hence the saying ‘command and control.” St Augustine often prayed, “command me O Lord, for love alone can command.” Here, we see the heart of Christian discipleship to allow God to command our hearts, minds, and souls, by opening ourselves to the divine love that attracts us to all things good, true, and beautiful.
So, you need to ask yourself: What are the things commanding your attention and interest in life? What compels your imagination? Whose voices are you listening to? Whose laws are you following? What kind of virtues and values is driving what you do on a day-to-day basis? The responsorial psalm today offers us the answer to these questions and the attitude we need in order to overcome the temptation of command: “Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant”—the way of the Lord; the narrow and difficult road of discipleship will lead you into life and the vast depths of divine love.
There are many things that command our attention; like Jesus, there are times when many attractive things are placed before us by the devil and we are easily enticed or enchanted by them. We also in our desire to be the center, to control everything around us and others, love to issue commands and it gives us joy and satisfaction if people listen and follow our commands and obey us, but the person who has not learned first to obey God cannot exercise fruitful leadership.
This first week of this holy season, we are invited to place God and others at the center, to allow God to speak deep to us in these times so that we can acknowledge that God is in charge of our lives, and then with joy and humble heart follow the Lord’s command coming from the mouth of his Son in today’s Gospel: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Do this and God will deliver you from the temptations and trials of life.