A few years ago, someone in New York got the number of one of our credit cards and spent a few thousand dollars in stores I never heard of on stuff I’d never use. He also got my Social Security number, filed a false tax return, and pocketed a nice refund. I was a victim of what we call “identity theft,” though he’d really just stolen my financial persona. He left the rest of it—Appalachian roots; Georgia childhood on the south-side, blue collar side of Atlanta, Pentecostal and Baptist religious heritage, white, male, son, brother, husband, father, pastor, striver, introvert, and enneagram 9—with me. It was almost two years before the IRS believed I was who I said I was. It seemed like a long time, but, on the other hand, I’ve had far longer stretches of time when I wasn’t entirely sure about who I was either.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us that, in his baptism, Jesus saw the heavens opened, felt the feathery touch of the Holy Spirit, and heard God’s voice say: “This one is my son. I love him. I am so pleased with him.” The vision, touch, and voice clarified and confirmed his growing sense of identity; baptism told him who he most truly was: God’s beloved child.
Just after that powerful experience of affirmation, Jesus experienced “temptation”—a crucible of testing in which he faced the challenge not to forget or forfeit or let evil steal his identity. Evil wanted to confuse him about what it meant to belong to God, to live in the energy of God’s delight, and to rest in God’s love.
By the way, it’s entirely possible that, if we’d been in the wilderness with Jesus, we’d have seen or heard none of what Matthew reports, not because it didn’t happen, but because it happened where most of these things happen: in disturbing dreams, liminal visions, contemplative awareness, the charged imagination, and prayerful probing of the depths.
By the way, again, to take the imagery of Satan-devil-adversary-tempter-accuser-liar seriously you’d best not take it literally. The writers of the New Testament didn’t take it literally either. Evil is far too personal, real, and subtle for literalism. “Satan”
In one way, the temptations Jesus faced were uniquely his, tailored to his temperament, proportional to his possibilities, and aimed at his particular psyche. Like Jesus, though, we encounter forces around us and voices within us which seek to shake our confidence that we’re God’s beloved children. They sow doubts about the promise of our baptism. They’re hell-bent on confusing us about who God is, who we are, and what matters most in life; to shrink our awareness by inflating our fears; to get us to live for short-term comfort rather than for long-term character; to make life easier rather than better; and to live recklessly rather than courageously.
Temptation asks us to ignore how dependent we are, to believe that we’re not hemmed-in by limits, and to accept an illusion of autonomy. If we believe the lie that we’re self-made, that we can get by without help, then we’re able to treat people as things to manipulate, as means to our own ends, and as servants of our ego’s projects. Exaggerated autonomy makes us insist on being left alone until we fear that we’ve been left alone.
Temptation shames us for our vulnerability, scorns our wounds and weaknesses, urges us to hide our griefs even from ourselves; scoffs at our search for significance, and derides our dreams of living in a better world, and sneers at our longings to be truly known and fully loved. It mocks our dogged quest for meaning, our white-knuckled clinging to hope, and our tenacious but tenuous trust that al shall be well.
As most readers of this blog know, for the last three years, I’ve lived with the limits, dependencies, and vulnerabilities of cancer. The experience is a crucible of testing which raises questions of identity and meaning to which despair seems, in the hardest moments, like a reasonable answer.
I’ve never been good at accepting limits. In ways I have not experienced since I was a child, I’ve had to learn to accept help—and not just to accept it, but to ask for it. Illness is teaching me what I’ve been clever enough, resourceful enough, and prideful enough to ignore: Not only am I not God, I’m not even an exceptional human being, since there are no exceptions to, or exemptions from, vulnerability, dependency, and limitation, including the final limit of death.
More than anything else, I am learning how crucial it is to remember that I am who baptism says I am: a beloved child of God. All of us are. We can trust in God’s mercy, count on God’s grace, and rest in God’s love. Nothing and no one can take our identities from us: God’s daughters and sons.