The Greatest Temptation: Reflections on Matthew 4:1-11
The Temptation story sometimes seems too dramatic and too distant for me to gain a foothold in the story. It's easy to read it and keep on moving. Until, that is, I woke up in the middle of the night recently with this sentence in my mind: "The greatest Temptation is the Temptation not to pray." I don't know where that came from. It sounds like advice Screwtape might have offered to Wormwood.
A couple of years ago, I was leading a Spiritual Formation group at Perkins School of Theology where I teach. It's a required year-long, weekly course. Students explore the history and theology of various classic Christian modes of praying, practice them daily, and gather to share their experiences. The first week their assignment was to start each morning with fifteen minutes of prayer. They were to find a quiet spot, center themselves in God, read a few verses of Scripture, and then open their minds and hearts to say a few sentences of praise, confession, thanks, petition, and intercession.
"Fifteen minutes," say the Geico ads, "could save you 15 percent or more on your car insurance." Fifteen minutes of daily prayer can do a lot too. The first week I asked my students to do this simple prayer exercise, we gathered and they all admitted that in the rush and anxiety of beginning their classes, they had not been faithful to the task. So I kept the assignment the same for the second week. Again, on gathering, the group admitted they had had trouble being faithful to the call to daily prayer.
"Well," I said, "then for the second week in a row, I have no lesson plan, because we were supposed to talk about the fruits of daily prayer, about what happens in our lives when we pray daily, even for fifteen minutes. So here is the revised lesson plan. Our topic is what happens in your inner life when you don't pray." I went to the white board with my marker. They started calling things out. Restlessness. Lack of a center. Poor food choices. Negative self-talk. Insecure feelings. Comparing myself to others. Second-guessing myself. Anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed. Impulse spending. Feeling that I have no focus, and on and on.
I couldn't write fast enough. After about five minutes, they had called out seventy different states of mind and heart that characterized their week and that they connected with the lack of prayer. I wasn't suggesting that prayer solves all problems, but I was encouraging them to give it a chance. Because who wants to spend their week using their abilities for their own gratification only, or taking stupid risks with themselves and others, or gaining the world and losing their souls?
"The greatest Temptation is the Temptation not to pray." In my imaginative look into the Satan's second-guessing himself, I think it's what he wished he had remembered years before confronting Jesus in the wilderness. As I imagined his continued soliloquy, it goes something like this:
"I got to him too late. By the time I got to him with my Oscar caliber special effects, he was a lost cause. He had been praying for thirty years, give or take. Every day. All day. He had been steeping himself in Scripture. He had been seeking time alone with God. He had been experiencing the wisdom and stamina that come from the presence and power of God.
"If only I had realized years ago that the greatest temptation is the temptation not to pray. If only I had whispered in his ear, 'You're too busy this morning. You can pray later today. You're too tired tonight. You can pray in the morning.' If only I'd kept that up day in and day out, he would never have grown into such a powerful force."
Maybe the Temptation narrative, with all its drama and distance, is closer to home, both for me and my students than I ever realized before. Maybe the Temptation narrative points us toward what happens when we do pray.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.