Matthew 4:1–11; Wendell Berry, I, 1979 (This Day, p. 7)
Temptation resides in fear. How can I resist something bad in order to be good? But what if protecting one’s self is a temptation? There is a certain amount of reprogramming American Christians need to do in order to understand the nature of temptation.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the temptations of Jesus focus on the things that are important to a person in a wilderness environment. What if I run out of food? How will I get aid if something happens to me? Will someone remember me if I perish? The first two are obvious in the narrative. Stones to bread would provide nourishment. Dashed on the rocks is a legitimate concern since plunging to one’s death does occur in wild places. The third temptation appears related to power more than fear. Notice, however, the emphasis located in the worship. One can have everything one desires, including power, if one worships the fear of being remembered.
In each case, Jesus responds with Jewish scripture that notes how trusting in God alone is sufficient. Jesus does not escape temptation because he is perfect; he trusts God, something within our reach but never fully embraced. In our current political climate, the promise of security and comfort has caused us to be open to terrible acts of cruelty to fellow humans. Build walls, strike first before they strike you, and above all else, focus on your stored wealth because it is the sign of security. I am unsure we recognize the temptation structured into our language of security.
One of the easiest ways to realize that a person is not completely secure is to go into the wilderness—those places with limited access to protection. Wendell Berry’s first Sabbath poem is simple in its focus on how the poet is aware of his and nature’s impulse to fear. “I go among the trees and sit still. / All my stirring becomes quiet / around me like circles on water” opens the poem as we become immersed in the forest and its activity in our stillness. The forest creatures are aware that the potential for harm has arrived, and the stillness is palpable. But the wild places also make us aware of our own smallness.
THEN WHAT I AM AFRAID OF COMES.
I LIVE FOR A WHILE IN ITS SIGHT.
WHAT I FEAR IN IT LEAVES IT,
AND THE FEAR OF IT LEAVES ME.
IT SINGS, AND I HEAR ITS SONG.Wendell Berry, Sabbath Poems: 1979, I
The temptation is to feel the fear and respond with protection, but both Berry and Jesus appear to understand that by release the impulse to fear we awaken our senses to the divine and rest in that grace. We cannot hear the “trees move” if we are too busy worrying about our own protection. We are not called to harm ourselves. We are, however, called to be open to the grace that may appear in the places we fear most.