As I’ve thought about what to write for this piece, I keep returning to the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, which the season of Lent mirrors. In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, the narrative quickly segues into the account of Jesus’ temptation. When the devil suggests Jesus turn a stone into bread (Jesus is understandably hungry after fasting for forty days), Jesus quotes Deuteronomy, “‘It is written that “One does not live by bread alone”’” (Luke 4:4). What most strikes me in this story is how shrewdly Jesus’ replies to the devil reveal what is behind each of the offers. In the first instance, the point is not that bread is bad and hunger good, but that wrong relationship to bread and satiation is dangerous. Physical nourishment is not the only nourishment, and it matters who is offering the proverbial bread.
I recall my high school days, when friends would give up things like chocolate, french fries and soda. They talked about Lent as one would a diet plan—a way of conquering urges and denying pleasure in the name of faith, rather than any kind of deepened self-awareness. Maybe this would have been a lot to ask of fifteen-year-olds, but even then, I was skeptical—not that I had a good counter-proposal.
In more recent years, my go-to discipline has been to give up smoking, a habit I enjoy but know to be harmful. I’ve never fully succeeded, and I wonder if Jesus’ way of cutting to the core of temptation might not cast some light on this. Part of the reason I continue to smoke is because of the camaraderie it can bring about. Over the years I’ve had strange and bizarre encounters with other human beings thanks to the little communion of smoking. As with the example of the stone/bread above, the nature of the temptation is altered depending on who is offering and what the motive, and more often than not (Big Tobacco aside) the chance to share a smoke doesn’t feel like an encounter with the “devil,” but a way of connecting with another of God’s children.
I’m not sure exactly where that leaves me. But to acknowledge Lent as an opportunity to notice the temptations that threaten to derail us from our call to love one another. It’s certainly complicated.