Discerning God’s Will and taming ours – First Sunday in Lent 2011

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened.. (Gen 3:6,7)

I don’t know how ancient that text is, but it’s spot on, isn’t it? The excuses we make to justify doing something we want to do, even if we know or suspect it’s the wrong thing to do. Yes, I know it’s forbidden, but.. it’s so beautiful, and tasty, and it’ll make me wise, and … and I want to eat it, so I shall.

Here we are in Lent, and we are thinking especially this morning about self-examination and repentance and being sorry for our sins, and maybe that seems a bit negative and gloomy. Yet it’s an essential part of Christian progress, and I want to draw your attention to two little points this morning.

First of all, as I have suggested, we are adept at making excuses for our very powerful desire to do just what we want to, regardless. The toddler is stubborn; he must have his own way, or he will kick up and throw a tantrum. That doesn’t change much. We simply learn perhaps to modify what we want, or we learn to react in another way, but mostly we learn better ways of getting round our parents. Our text is a salutary reminder of how good we are at doing what we want, even when the consequences turn out to be disastrous.

It’s easy to see that when someone flagrantly breaks an obvious commandment. For example, despite the best efforts of Gaybo, there will always be boy racers who will attempt to break the land speed record on the back roads of Donegal, and end up around a lamp-post. It doesn’t make any sense,  but.. “I want to go fast”.

What’s not so obvious is that our most upright and moral decisions may also be essentially expressions of getting our own way. We can often find chapter and verse to justify what suits ourselves – as in today’s Gospel, the devil quotes scripture when it suits. So one of the functions of penitential discipline is to open our eyes to our uncanny ability to disguise from ourselves our essential wilfullness. Jeremiah writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt“. (Jer 17:9) So we need a degree of scepticism about ourselves, particularly when we feel virtuous.

As our will remains powerful, we need to train it, to tune it in to God’s will. There’s  a nice image in today’s psalm: “Be not like horse and mule which have no understanding;  whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you“. (Ps 32:10) Our will is as stubborn as a mule and as wild as an untamed colt; one of the functions of penitential discipline is to teach and train and tame us under God’s hand.

This brings me on to my second point. If we are to be trained to God’s hand, if our wills are to be aligned with his will, then we need to cultivate the grace of discernment. We read that Genesis passage as an exercise in making excuses, because we are told clearly what God’s commandment is – Do not eat the fruit of this tree. But if that commandment was not clear, then we could read the passage as an exercise in discernment – “Should I eat this fruit? it looks and tastes good, and will make me wise…” A lot of the time we are not so much concerned with right and wrong in the abstract, as with the more concrete question: “What should I do, given these choices, in this present set of circumstances?” Often we end up having to choose between two evils rather than between a clear good and a clear evil.

We see something of this in today’s Gospel, where Jesus is trying to determine God’s will for him in his particular circumstances. It’s hardly against God’s will to feed the hungry, by whatever means are available: but Jesus must not turn stones into bread, because what is at stake is priorities. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”. It’s hardly against God’s will to be ambitious for fame and power – risky, but a vocation for some – but the question is, what price will you pay for it? Even having scriptural backing is not enough – promises of angelic life-support don’t justify playing around with God’s faithfulness. In his temptation, in this inner conversation, Jesus is discerning what God wants of him in this time and place. We spend the whole of our Christian lives developing that discernment; and our Lenten penitential discipline is part of that ongoing process. We might take as our prayer those words from the Miserere, Psalm 51:

Behold, you desire truth deep within me, and shall make me understand wisdom in the depths of my heart.

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