Joining Jesus in the Desert

We begin another Lent. Once more we enter the desert, joining Jesus as he prays and fasts for 40 days. Jesus is the new Adam who overturns the disobedience of our first parents by conquering victoriously over the temptations of the devil. Christ is now our head; we are members of his Body. We can now share in his victory, freely participating in our own small way.

Jesus urges us to let our “yes” mean “yes” and our “no” mean “no” (Matthew 5:37). And he shows us how. He conquers Satan decisively. There is no wavering in his “yes!” to his Father’s will, nor in his “no!” to Satan’s whisperings.

The human story is often otherwise. Remember Eve in the garden. Rather than a firm “no!” she dialogues with the devil. Little by little, he twists the truth and lures her into disobedience. Adam, meanwhile, does not even put up resistance! He cowers away from the confrontation with evil.

We are true children of Adam and Eve. If we do not swiftly call upon Jesus and fight temptation, it only increases. We’ve all seen the “devil on the shoulder” shtick. The poor angel on the opposite shoulder never seems to have a chance. That is why it is so important not to waver in our “no!” The devil has no power over human freedom authentically exercised. If we firmly resist, he will flee (James 4:7). Joining with Jesus,  we rediscover the powerful depths of our human freedom.

In manifold ways we struggle to say “no!” with full freedom – “no” to the food we do not need, “no” to the snooze button, “no” to spending money we don’t have, “no” to letting our eyes and our heart wander in lust, or “no” to gossip and fault-finding.

If you’re like me, you have been waging some of those wars for years with seemingly no progress. Like the apostle Paul, the good that I desire I do not do, and the evil that I hate I do (Romans 7:19).

Praise God, I’ve had some breakthroughs in recent years. Some battles that once felt impossible have become manageable and even winnable – with the assistance of God and others. As I continue my journey down the path of  conversion, I am discovering that “yes” and “no” extend far deeper than the mere moment of temptation.

I have found quite helpful the book entitled Boundaries (by Henry Cloud and John Townsend). They explore this theme of “yes” and “no” at many levels. For example, it was eye-opening for me to see how easy it is to feel responsible for other people’s burdens, other people’s reactions, and other people’s emotions. It’s challenging enough to be responsible for my own! I don’t need to add a weight that is not mine to carry.

In theory, we are totally free to say “no” gently and firmly, without becoming apologetic or defensive, without battling through guilt. Sometimes we feel guilty when we are doing the right thing! We often need others to remind us and encourage us to hold firm and be truly free in our “no.” Without fraternal support, we can easily become susceptible to blaming and shaming. Whether in words (How could you…?) or in glowering glances of disapproval, the disappointment of others can feel utterly impossible to bear. In our instinct to survive, our brain tells us that we need to do something about these negative reactions, or else…or else what? The truth tells us otherwise. We are free to say “no.”

The Lord has also convicted me about my lack of freedom in saying “yes!” Like many of you, sometimes my “yes” was more about avoiding false guilt and shame – rather than fulfilling a deep desire for goodness and justice. Then enters the resentment or bitterness or anger at being manipulated, the moments of feeling trapped or overwhelmed, the pity parties – all the fun stuff.

In contrast to our stunted  and stumbling assent, the “yes!” of Jesus is free and wholehearted. He boldly declares, “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). There is no “I have to…,” no avoidance of conflict, no people pleasing. He freely says “yes!” and freely says “no!” He does so in human flesh and with a human will. He thereby opens up the possibility of our doing the same.

Lent is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, where he helps us to engage the age-old disciplines of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.

Effective fasting can come in many forms: giving up drinking, talking less, eating simpler foods, cutting out social media, etc. Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. Self-denial is a wonderful way to exercise our “no” muscles. If we learn to say “no” freely and habitually in smaller matters, we can learn to do it in the more challenging and complex situations that I have been describing.

Almsgiving can also take on many forms. It includes works of mercy such as visiting the sick or  imprisoned, working in a food pantry, doing chores for an elderly neighbor, volunteering in our parish, etc. If done well, these works of charity help us exercise our “yes” muscles freely and wholeheartedly in love.

Prayer, when authentically pursued, builds us up in communion. In healthy relationship with God and with each other, the old lies of our heart can be cast out. The truth of Jesus can set us free. God’s grace is a gift from on high to be received, not by isolated individuals, but by members of one body. That is the beauty of Lent. Individuals engage in penance, yes, but overall we do so together as one Body of Christ, as one faith community. By sharing in his desert vigil and by sharing in his passion and death, we also come to share in the glorious freedom of his resurrection.

Holy vs. Unholy Agreements

In moments of heartache, we humans are prone to make poor decisions by entering into unholy agreements. Jesus teaches us that the devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He does not abide in truth, and strives to keep us from doing so. In times of trauma he sows many lies, hoping that even a few will sprout. They often do.

That is why Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, urges us to be discerning about when and how we make decisions in life. Entering into an agreement is serious business, and should only be done under favorable circumstances.

In my last post I described my need to unlearn what I had learned in order to be more receptive to the love of God and others. I am convinced that all of us have much “unlearning” to do as we seek to abide in love and truth.

We learn many lessons in our life. Not all of them are good or true or beautiful. Some of them are lies about ourselves or God, unholy agreements that get ratified and renewed as we proceed through life’s more overwhelming moments.

By “agreement” I mean that we somehow give our consent to a false core belief or an ungodly vow that gets presented to us amidst a difficult situation in life. For example, if a child or a spouse is repeatedly called “stupid” or “fat” or “ugly” or “bad,” all too often she internalizes that identity; she begins believing at her core that it is actually true. Later in life, when others tell her she’s good or beautiful or a blessing, she doesn’t believe it! They’re just saying that because they don’t really know her. Many of you know all too well how difficult it can be to break out of these identity lies – even with all the divine helps at our disposal.

I have made unholy agreements in my life. Part of me really believed lies of shame – that something was wrong with me, that I was not lovable for who I was, that I could only be loved if I achieved or performed well enough, and so forth. Part of me believed lies of abandonment – that no one would ever really understand me, that others could not be trusted and would ultimately let me down or leave me alone to face the most difficult moments of life.

I have also entered into agreements in the form of unholy vows. Around the age of 11, I vowed that I would never be like my stepfather. True, my desire not to imitate his abusive behaviors was praiseworthy. But making that vow wounded me deeply. It distanced me not merely from my stepfather, but from my heavenly Father and from my own healthy masculinity. I began striving to perform and be strong on my own, rather than abiding in the Father’s love. I have since called on Jesus to deliver me from that vow and have received much healing and peace. I find myself more and more free to relate to God as a loving Father and to be his beloved son.

In my last post, I mentioned another inner vow, one of self-protection. Even as an infant I began believing that it was better to face life independently, figuring it out myself rather than crying out unheard. We are made by God to be interdependent, receiving and giving love in a community of faith. The unholy agreement that I made so long ago (and renewed often enough when I felt like others had let me down) has restricted my freedom to receive love. The end result has been a fruitless attempt to live against the full truth of my human nature. We are made by God for  communion and  vulnerable receptivity. Instead, there I was, striving to be in control and independent. It would never work in any lasting way. Thankfully God has been leading me in a new and better direction.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises (nn. 175-177), describes three moments in which we can rightly enter into holy agreements. The first is when God attracts our will in an almost irresistible way. Think of Jesus calling the apostles, and the way they left their nets behind and followed him. When God inflames our holy desire in that way, we have no doubt of his goodness and truth and beauty, and say “yes” quite eagerly and easily.

Secondly, there is the experience of “consolation” and “desolation,” and the discernment that follows. This was how Ignatius discovered his own conversion and his new calling. Once a vain and proud man, this wounded soldier spent months in a hospital with only a Bible and lives of the Saints to read. Even though he found these stories to be dry and dull (unlike the spirited tales of knightly escapades that he was hoping to read), they left a deep and lasting impact. He began to notice a difference. Even though the fantasy thinking of his knightly tales would get him excited in the short term, it left him empty and distracted and distressed. By contrast, the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints would inflame holy desires in his heart that would abide for long periods of time. They continued bearing fruit days afterward. This growing awareness of a difference led Ignatius to accept the fruitfulness of his new calling and to reject the empty and fruitless fantasy of his old ways.

Thirdly, there is the use of our natural faculties of reason and deliberation to make the best decision possible – but only in a time of inner quiet. Ignatius repeats, “I said time of quiet, when the soul is not acted on by various spirits, and uses its natural powers freely and tranquilly.”

Notice the contrast with false core beliefs and unholy agreements, with which the devil is so eager to ensnare us! In times of trauma and heartbreak, he enters in, preying upon our fear and confusion, our sadness and loneliness, our powerlesness and hopelessness. He tempts us to give our consent and enter into an unholy agreement with his lies.

May we, like Ignatius, be set free from all unholy agreements that impede us. May we discern and embrace the full truth of our calling in Christ, and say “yes” freely and wholeheartedly.