THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL – THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT 2012

From today’s Collect: “Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil”

 

In the old Prayer Book rite of baptism the candidate is required “to renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, and the sinful desire of the flesh”. The world, the flesh, and the devil: here is a useful analysis of temptation, to assist us in our Lenten resolve to withstand and repent.

 

When we consider the world as a source of temptation, there are, I think, two related ideas. One is the idea of trying to fit in, to please our friends or our neighbours, to conform in certain ways. And related to that, the adoption of inadequate standards of value.

 

“Hello” magazine, for instance, is frankly worldly. Come inside the beautiful mansion of Lord and Lady So-and-So, and admire their wealth and possessions and beautiful clothes and privileged life-style. And that is a fine entertainment while you’re waiting in the doctor’s surgery, as long as you don’t take away the idea that somehow wealth and beauty and worldly consequence are the most important measure of a person’s worth. As long as you don’t get seduced into thinking that appearance and image are more important than personality and character and moral value.  A lot of popular culture suggests a very superficial view of human life, and if Jesus is right, that “a man’s life does not consist in his possessions”, then such a view must be unsatisfying and impoverishing.

 But there are other forms of worldliness – the desire to be popular, to be “in” with the right people, and thus to say and do things that perhaps might please those we wish to impress rather than God. Or the desire for power, or wealth. We read in 1 John 2:15 ff: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away.” What do we see as our standard of value? How ready are we to conform to popular values, or to be unpopular for the sake of God?

 

If “the world” represents an external force upon us, then “the flesh” represents what St Patrick’s Breastplate calls “the natural lusts that war within”. Just like the other animals, we have evolved with certain strong instincts, without which we could not survive – the desire for food, for territory, for reproduction, for defence, for companionship and so on. But we are also creatures of consciousness, moral creatures, who have the obligation to choose and direct and manage how we express and use these instincts.

 

Take food, for instance. Without the instinct of hunger we would perish. But if we over-eat, we become obese; if we starve ourselves, we induce anorexia. If we choose junk food, or over-indulge in alcohol, we cause other problems. And from the moral point of view, we have to relate our eating to the needs of others for adequate nutrition. The religious custom of fasting and self-denial is intended to draw our attention to how we manage this basic instinct – how we “subdue the flesh to the spirit”, in St Paul’s phrase. Unless we use our God-given power of choice to direct what we do with our basic drives in a way that honours God and respects others, then we sink into a sub-human beastliness.

 

The works of the flesh are obvious”, says St Paul: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”. (Galatians 5:21) If drink and sex get a due mention, so do those perhaps more churchly sins – quarrelling and envy and hatred – the proper love of self turned into hatred of the other. So, we need to ask ourselves, what way do I express and control and use my God-given instincts? Do I honour God and respect others?

 

“The Devil” represents that force, whether in the world or in us, that seeks to destroy: to destroy life and light and goodness. The image of the red man with horns and tail and pitchfork should not distract us from the reality of this destructive force. It works through both world and flesh, and seeks to seduce the will. The devil seeks to engage us in our own destruction. “Follow your instincts,” he says, and delights when we are enslaved to our appetites, rather than master of ourselves. “Look at all these wonderful things, and desire them, and want them”; and before long there is nothing we would not do to possess them.

 

One of the worst results of allowing the devil to seduce us, in permitting ourselves to choose and will base and empty things, is that we can become resistant to God, allergic to goodness, difficult to reclaim to righteousness. St James tells us,“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7,8). St Peter says, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8,9) Be careful about what you consent to in your mind, lest you lose your freedom to choose goodness.

 

So we exercise a little self-examination in this Lenten season. We ask ourselves, How do we sit towards the superficial ideals and values that are constantly presented for our emulation? How far are we concerned to please God rather than people? How do we order our instincts, that we may be fully human in the pattern of Christ? And are we careful about giving sinful thoughts a foothold in our hearts and minds and wills?

 

Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

 

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