“Forbidden fruit tastes sweet”, or so the saying goes. When someone tells us that there is something we cannot do or something we cannot have, it automatically becomes appealing to us.
We know how true this is just from these first few days of Lent. Whatever we have sacrificed during these forty days all of a sudden tempt us in ways they did not before. Out of the blue, we cannot imagine how it will be possible to get through the day without a piece of candy or a glass of wine. During the year we may have no trouble having fish for dinner, but as soon as we begin abstaining from meat on Fridays we begin craving hamburgers, pulled pork sandwiches and chicken enchiladas.
It is human nature to desire what is forbidden to us.
The devil knows that and uses it to his advantage. In today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis, the serpent draws Adam and Eve to the tree that God has forbidden them to eat from. He invites them to look at it, to see how lovely the fruit is and, eventually, to taste it. He whispers to them that God does not want them to enjoy themselves. He tells them that if they do taste the fruit it will make them more knowledgeable and more powerful.
Unfortunately, we see just the opposite happen. Because they disobey God, Adam and Eve experience shame at their nakedness. They become self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skins. Not only do they lose friendship with God but they lose their home in Paradise. The devil used the lure of forbidden fruit to cheat Adam and Eve of everything they had and held dear.
Looking at ourselves, we can see how the drama of Adam and Eve’s sin has played itself out in our own lives. We fell into temptation because we believed the lie that sin would liberate us from the constraints of our parents’ morality, that it would empower us to live the way we wanted to and that it would give us pleasure and fulfillment. Sadly, we discovered just the opposite. Choosing sin left us in bondage to addictions. It poisoned our friendships. It saddled us with guilt, remorse and shame.
Thankfully, by turning to God we learned that we could break free from the allure of forbidden fruit. We discovered that by confessing our sins, we could leave our shame and guilt at the foot of the cross. By reading the Bible daily and receiving the sacraments, we became empowered to make healthy, holy choices that gave us the fulfillment and peace we were seeking. As we grew in our faith, the lies of the evil one were exposed to us and we found it increasingly easier to not fall into his trap.
All this is possible because of Jesus’ victory over the devil. Saint Paul tells us that sin entered the world through Adam and all of us fell victim to it. However, through Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation have now become possible to each of us. By His victory over the devil, each of us can know true freedom from sin, unhealthy habits and the grinding shame they inflict on us.
In today’s gospel, Saint Matthew tells us that Jesus goes into the desert specifically “to be tempted by the devil.” What He is doing is drawing the devil out from the shadows. Like a good soldier, He is forcing the enemy to reveal himself where there is nothing to hide behind. In the desert, the devil’s lies and deceptions are brought into the blazing heat of day. And Jesus defeats the temptations one by one causing Satan to make a hasty retreat with his tail between his legs. In the desert, Jesus won the victory for us and makes it possible for us to recognize the devil’s lies and defeat them ourselves.
The devil’s first temptation has a lot to teach us in this Lenten season. It would not have been a sin for Jesus to change stones into bread. He would be doing nothing wrong. However, Jesus had been fasting for forty days. Fasting was the way that Jesus was strengthening Himself to face the evil one. By saying “no” to food, He would then be strengthened to say “no” to temptation. The devil knows this and wants to undermine Jesus’ self-control and willpower.
The same temptation can happen to us, especially during Lent. The sacrifices and good works we are undertaking teach us good habits of self-control and willpower. They teach us how fulfilling it is to do good and control our emotions and desires. The devil knows this and will whisper to us that it will not hurt to take a break from our disciplines, that it will not harm anyone if we cheat on our resolutions. He hopes that if he can get us to fall to these small temptations we will be more vulnerable to serious temptation.
We have to fight those deceptions of the evil one, as small as they may seem. Remembering that Jesus has already won the victory for us in the desert, we can draw on His strength in our own temptations. The same Spirit that drove Jesus into the desert to do battle with Satan lives in us to vanquish all the his deceitful tactics.
At the same time, if we do fall because of our human frailty, we do not have to carry a burden of shame. We can turn to Jesus for forgiveness and for the strength to try again. Rather than believe the lie that our Lent is ruined because of one mistake, we can get up again and recommit ourselves to building up good habits and stronger discipline through our Lenten practices and sacrifices.
Just as Adam and Eve had everything they could ever want provided for them in Paradise, so we have every spiritual blessing in the heavens at our disposal through the Holy Spirit. Though Adam and Eve lost Paradise through their sin, we can never lose our friendship with God. Even when we fall, we can turn back to Him and expect mercy and forgiveness. Most importantly, we do not need to fall into temptation and sin at all because Jesus empowers us to fight it with the weapons of faith, love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity and self-control that He offers us. Strengthened by all these gifts we can know His victory in our lives and our homes.