Lent and the Human Struggle
“Lent is a spiritual season which calls for greater openness to the word of God and conversion in every area of our lives. It is a time to face the darkness within and expose it to the light. Lent is the season to confront our demons and expel them.” Michael Ford, Eternal Seasons
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led (‘driven’) by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Matt. 4:1
This being human is complicated. We long for more in our spiritual lives, that’s for sure, but we’re not always ready for the harrowing journey of suffering, death, burial and resurrection that any true spiritual journey entails.
We want God as long as we can still have our successes, too. We like the idea of being on a journey of faith as long as it doesn’t require too much…well, faith. We dream of a promised land but we don’t want to leave anything behind. We want space for God as long as it doesn’t intrude too radically on our packed schedules and conflicting priorities. We want self-knowledge as long as it doesn’t cut too close to the ego bone. We desire to know and do God’s will as long as it doesn’t make us look foolish. We want love as long as it’s not too inconvenient. We’d like to buy the pearl of great price as long as we don’t have to sell everything we have. We wax eloquent about the Paschal Mystery one weekend a year as long as we’re not the ones doing the dying!
Not a Career or a Success Story
In one penetrating statement, Fr. Thomas Keating captures the mystery of the human struggle at the heart of any true spiritual journey. He writes, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound.”
“Really?? You’ve got to be kidding!” we might exclaim. What are we to do with the fact that the true spiritual journey must and always will involve very real humiliations of the false self—we who believe that bigger is better and more is…well, more? We who have learned to measure everything by numbers and new innovations, bigger buildings and “church growth plans,” slick marketing campaigns and taking everything “to scale”? How do we—who struggle to discern the difference between the true self and the false self and who have (in some cases) gotten quite proficient at harnessing the things of God to our false self programs—learn to surrender to the humiliations of the false self so that something truer can emerge? In a culture that celebrates all things “up and to the right”, how do we come to grips with a journey that is more accurately understood as “down and to right?”
These are the complicated themes embedded in the Scriptures that will usher us into the Lenten season next week. In Matthew 6, the passage that kicks off the season of Lent every year, Jesus draws attention to these aspects of the human struggle, warning us that we can take even the most spiritual ideas and practices (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting) and place them in service of “the old man” or the false self by making a public display of them. Turns out, Jesus says, we can become quite masterful at promoting ourselves, rationalizing, making excuses and defending ourselves rather than practicing the art of dying—dying to that which is false within us so that what is truest in us can live. As Richard Rohr commented, “Just because you’ve read a few good books doesn’t mean you’ve surrendered the ego and fallen in love with God.”1
How, we might wonder, did Jesus know to call attention to the finer nuances of the human struggle? The answer is simple: it is because he faced these struggles himself when he was led by the Spirit (Mark’s gospel says “driven”) from the warmth and affirmation of his baptismal moment into the wilderness to wrestle with the subtle temptations of the spiritual life. Clearly, this was a prerequisite to his earthly ministry; it is what prepared him to be who he was among us.
Facing the Emptiness
The Lenten journey is patterned after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness where we too, must face the subtle temptations to the false self so that we can be “cleared out” for real ministry. Here we face our own demons and they are rarely what we think! It is not just the temptation to drink pop or eat sweets or enjoy a glass of wine—as real as those temptations become after we have given them up for Lent! In the emptiness created by whatever it is we are fasting from, we become more aware of the compulsions of the false self and it is pretty ghastly stuff.
Here we experience the evil one’s proficiency at crafting very subtle and dangerous appeals to the instinctual patterns and false self programs we rely on for safety and survival, significance and success, power and control. We see how far we have to go on the journey of learning to trust God and God alone in the wilderness of our most primal impulses and needs. We are appalled to learn that the false self can and will co-opt anything—including God and the things of God—to secure our own survival, to prove ourselves to others, and to appear successful by whatever standards the group we identify with measures such things. If we are on a true spiritual journey, none of us escapes this basic human struggle—not even Jesus.
With Jesus in the Wilderness
A true Lenten journey demands that we look clear-eyed at our lives and wonder, Where am I tempted to place even the things of God in service of my instinctual responses to the human situation? In what ways am I tempted to “turn these stones into bread” –using whatever gifts and powers God has given me in order to secure my own survival? Where am I putting God to the test—continually “throwing myself down” in a display of ministry heroics in order to prove something to myself and others—expecting God to come to my rescue time and time again? When, where and how am I tempted to worship “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” – i.e. the outward trappings of success—rather than seeking the inner authority that comes from worshipping God and serving him only?
The “series of humiliations” Keating refers to have a lot to do with becoming more and more aware of how omnipresent our false self patterns are and how regularly we are caught in their grip. This can get pretty uncomfortable. But the good news is that “every movement toward the humiliation of the false self, if we accept it, is a step toward interior freedom and inner resurrection.”2 And just in case we don’t know what to do with the temptations we encounter in this inner wilderness, we can be assured that we are in the wilderness with Jesus, the one who knows how to deal with the wild beasts of our false self stuff.
As we read in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was able to perceive exactly what each temptation was really about so he could deal with it at that level. He knew that Satan’s strategy for derailing what God is trying to do in our lives is to seduce us to apply false self strategies to our very human impulses to survive and stay safe, to prove ourselves to others, to be seen as successful, powerful, and in control. Being able to discern what each temptation was really about enabled Jesus to decisively reject false self solutions in favor of the spiritual opportunities to trust himself to God. With each response, Jesus abandoned himself more profoundly to the reality of God’s providence and provision in the face of his most primal human needs and impulses—which is what the spiritual journey is really all about.
Such decisive responses cleared the way for God’s angels to come and minister to him and it prepared him for ministry that had been purged of any sort of lesser agenda. Jesus’ wilderness experience was the crucible that qualifies him to be our great high priest who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. And the temptations he faced “are the primal and universal temptations that all humans must face before they dare to take on any kind of power—as Jesus is about to do. They are all temptations to the misuse of power for purposes that are less than God’s purpose. Jesus passes all three tests and thus ‘the devil left him’ because he could not be used for lesser purposes. If you face such demons in yourself, God can and will use you mightily. Otherwise, you will, for sure, be used!”3
Journey with us Through Lent
Lent is just around the corner, and we are invited to enter this season as an opportunity to face more bravely the complexity of the human struggle for authentic transformation through greater surrender to God. To support this journey, we are launching a brand new season of the Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership podcast entitled “Ruth and Friends: Spiritual Transformation and….” In conversation with friends who bring expertise and insight into various aspects of the transformational process, we will face different aspects of the human struggle honestly and bravely, seeking God’s help to transcend the false and live into the True. The season kicks off with three episodes featuring conversations with Fr. Ronald Rolheiser on mature discipleship and the three struggles.
1 Richard Rohr, Spirituality in the New Millennium, October 3, 2009. | 2 Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), p. 23-24. | 3 Thomas Keating, The Human Condition (New York: Paulist Press, 1999), p. 38, 42.
©Ruth Haley Barton, 2020. Not to be used without permission.