March 4, 2017
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” (Mt 4:6)
The devil does not usually show his face, put a hand on our shoulder and whisper in our ear. His thoughts mingle with our own thoughts and with the thoughts of the Holy Spirit in the continually flowing torrent of our mind. That is why we have to watch our thoughts and try to distinguish the source from which they come. We can tell them apart by where they take us. A Godly thought takes us to a wide place of clarity, conviction, freedom, generosity, peace and joy. A selfish thought leads us to a narrow place of comfort, convenience, self-interest and oblivion to everything outside ourselves. A devilish thought invites us to a glittering hall of mirrors in which good is bad, light is darkness, right is wrong and all is confusion, anxiety, panic and violence.
And so Jesus in the desert, “who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Hb 4:15), faced this torrent of thoughts within himself. In his mind he saw himself on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and something in him said, “Jump! See if God will save his Beloved Son.”
The temptation to throw oneself from a high place (or into a low place) is recapitulated in the literature of the desert. The story of Heron, as told by John Cassian in the second of his Conferences, describes a monk who relied on his own understanding of the ascetic life, rather than allowing himself to be formed by others more experienced than he. He fell prey to a presumptuous, stubborn and isolating preoccupation with extreme forms of asceticism, which culminated the temptation to throw himself into a well. He did throw himself down, expecting to be caught by angels, but instead was severely injured, was hauled to the surface by his brothers, and died three days later, unrepentant. The danger inherent in putting too much emphasis on ascetic practices is that I come to believe my own all-powerful will is the most important factor in the spiritual life. I live under the illusion that I wield total control over my body, my life, other people, the world and God.
The temptation to throw oneself down may be the result of having climbed too high. Carl Jung wrote of a patient whose dangerous ambition was expressed in a dream that he was climbing higher and higher up a mountain, and upon reaching the peak he found that he could keep on stepping upwards on thin air. I once heard it said of Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affair, that it showed how an extremely powerful man can be driven to behavior that risks the loss of everything (his wife, his reputation, his position). There is the illusion of indestructibility, or a kind of vertigo that cries out to be alleviated by throwing oneself down.
Perhaps also there is some perverse desire for self-destruction as the last, desperate expression of will power. In the final stages of the Second World War, with catastrophic defeat looming, Hitler issued what was later called the “Nero Decree.” This called for the destruction of any infrastructure in Germany that could be of use to the enemy, so that the invading Allies would encounter only hate, destruction and death. Having tried to destroy Germany, Europe and the whole world, Hitler’s last act was to take his own life, along with his closest aides and their children.
Most people do not have at their disposal the power to destroy peoples and nations. But most of us have the power to destroy ourselves, and by extension, those around us. The eating disorder anorexia nervosa is often an attempt to gain control over one’s life and emotions, especially in the light of traumatic events or a chaotic environment. As in other types of obsessive-compulsive behavior, there may be denial of the risks and consequences, since the destructive behaviors serve to reduce unbearable anxiety and allow one to grasp a moment of feeling right with oneself. Again, if I can control my body, I can control my life, other people, the world and God. But this is an illusion that camouflages vulnerability and cries out for unconditional love.
I once visited a very high waterfall in South Africa, and stood with one foot on either side of the rivulet that cascaded down the rock face to the bottom, hundreds of feet below. It was a tiny step to straddle the stream, but my legs quickly lost their capacity to move. I was petrified. The thought flashed through my mind: what if my fear forced me to relieve the tension by throwing myself down? What if I were fantasizing about release from unbearable suffering of one kind or another? What if I were so angry with people and with God (or with some god) that I would cast myself down in perverse mockery of their failure to love me?
And Jesus? The trial of the desert consists in the felt absence of God. This is training for abandonment: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2). In the anguish of silence one is driven to find out if God really cares by pushing him to reveal himself, by forcing his hand. To throw oneself down in this way is the opposite of filial trust. Pride and despair may seem like opposite motivations for such a leap, but might they not have a common root? Perhaps they are just different species of a failure of courage to face the reality of human littleness and neediness. Vulnerability seeks to clothe itself in power. Will power. Ambition. Wanton destruction. An obsessive-compulsive drive to alleviate anxiety and despair.
But God’s Son chose not to jump. In this he chose to be the Son of God, and not anyone else’s son. He chose to take the narrow way of self-emptying, rather than the easy way of self-destruction. He accepted the vulnerability and littleness and pain of the human condition, embracing it with total trust in his Father’s love. In taking on himself our temptation, he gave us the certainty that we are loved enough to choose reality over illusion. He leads us into a wide place, a land of milk and honey.
Image: J. Kirk Richards