Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the First Sunday of Lent.
The purpose of Lent is to prepare catechumens for Baptism at Easter Vigil, and to prepare baptized persons to renew our Baptism promises at Easter. Therefore, the Catholic Church considers Lent to be a “season of joy.”
On this First Sunday of Lent, we hear about Jesus being tempted by the devil in the desert (Matthew 4: 1-11).
First, the devil tempted Jesus to change stones into bread. This must have been very tempting, for Jesus was fasting at the time.
Second, the devil tempted Jesus to demonstrate his power by throwing himself off the parapet of the temple. Jesus, however, did not fall for this trick.
Finally, the devil tempted Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus, being God, rejected all these temptations.
Learning about temptations and tips on avoiding and overcoming them is always useful, but it is especially useful during Lent. Lent is, after all, a time when we attempt to show that the “spirit is greater than the flesh.”
Before discussing some points on temptation, though, let’s look at a story that I call “Toad’s Cookies.”
One upon a time, there were two friends – Toad and Frog. One day, Toad made a batch of delicious cookies. After tasting them, Toad said, “I must share them with my friend, Frog.”
When Toad got to Frog’s house, he offered him some cookies. After tasting one, Frog said, “These are the best cookies I ever tasted!” Soon, both Toad and Frog found themselves eating the cookies, one after another.
After a while, Frog said, “You know, Toad, I think we should stop eating the cookies or we are going to be sick.”
“You are absolutely right,” replied Toad, “Let’s eat just one more cookie and then we’ll stop.”
After each ate one last cookie, there were still many cookies left in the bowl. They didn’t stop eating, however, for they kept saying they wanted one last cookie. Finally, though, Toad said, “We must stop eating!” as he reached for another cookie.
Frog replied, “Yes, I agree. We just need willpower” as he reached for another cookie.
“Willpower? What is willpower?” asked Toad.
“Willpower is trying hard not to do something you really want to do,” replied Frog.
So, Frog put the cookies from the bowl into a box. “There,” he said, “Now we will not eat any more cookies.”
“But we can open the box,” replied Toad.
“That’s true,” replied Frog, “so I’m going to tie a string around the box. Now we won’t eat any more cookies.”
“But,” replied Toad, “we can untie the string and open the box.”
“Well,” replied Frog, “that’s true. Therefore, I’m putting the box on a high shelf.”
“That’s good,” replied Toad, “but we can get a ladder and get the box down.”
So, Frog got a ladder, took down the box of cookies, cut the string, opened the box, and took the box outdoors. Then he shouted to the birds, “Come and get some delicious cookies.” Soon, the birds came and ate all the cookies.
“Now we have no more cookies to eat,” said Toad sadly. “Not even one.”
“That’s true,” replied Frog, “but we have lots of willpower.”
“Well,” said Toad, “you can keep all the willpower. I’m going home now to bake a cake.”
Like Toad and Frog, you and I are often tempted even when we know something will be bad for us. Unfortunately, temptation to do wrong will always be part of our lives on this planet.
The big question is, then, how do we fight temptation. Fortunately, through the years, spiritual writers have given us some practical tips.
First, we should avoid tempting situations if we can. If you don’t want to be tempted to drink alcohol, for example, it is better to avoid being in bars and other places where alcohol might be present.
Second, fighting temptation requires virtue. Specifically, it requires the virtue of fortitude, also known as strength or courage. And because fortitude is a virtue, and virtues are gained by practicing them, we need to continually strive to strengthen the virtue of fortitude.
This brings us to point three. We gain fortitude – or any other virtue – by simple steps, not one giant leap. We practice. If we want to develop a virtue such as generosity, for example, we don’t start off by giving away all that we have. We start small, and we continue the behavior regularly. Likewise, if we want to have fortitude, we challenge ourselves in little ways to overcome something tempting to us.
Lent is a wonderful time to make little sacrifices in our daily lives to show that our spirit is stronger than our flesh.
And that’s the good news I have for you on this First Sunday of Lent, 2017.
Story source: Anonymous, “The Underground Railroad,” www.storiesforpreaching.com.
Originally in Readers Digest, July 2001.