Questioning Givens

By Thomas Kincaid

Kids are famously creative. One of the gifts of having little kids in your life is their constant reminder of another way.

It will surprise none of you who know me well to learn I like things organized. I like to have the right tool for the right job; I like people to communicate clearly; I thrive on clear goals and consequences. So . . . having kids has been great for me.

My children are blessed by a lot of folks who love them, so they seem to collect various toys. I was looking around the back yard the other day, and I was amazed. The outdoor picnic table had been inverted. I asked why and was told it’s a boat. The little plastic grill they had been given had seen its legs amputated — turned into swords — so that the grill could become an indoor stove for the fort. The dump truck was a mass stroller full of various objects filling in for babies.

To be clear, this kind of disorder is at best bizarre to me, but when I get over my initial horror at what seems to me to be total chaos, I learn something. Importantly, I learn something about the pinnacle of God’s creation — human beings — and about how we can relate to our creator. I learn something about how we relate to God.

As we do the first Sunday of Lent each year, we hear the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when he fasts for 40 days and nights and then is tempted by Satan. Matthew positions this story right after Jesus’ baptism, when God declares him his beloved son. It’s almost as if this story is the first one in which we will learn just what being God’s beloved son entails.

The temptations of the devil are fairly straightforward. Jesus has been fasting for 40 days, so the devil starts with bread. When that doesn’t work, he offers Jesus the opportunity to show off. When that doesn’t work, he offers Jesus power.

In tempting Jesus in these ways, the devil offers things Jesus has no need of. As the multitudes will see shortly, Jesus can produce as much bread as he wants, and he is God incarnate; he has no need to show off or try to add to his infinite power.

But that’s not how the devil frames the questions. He makes it seem as if there are limited options: either turn the stone into bread or stay hungry. Get caught by an angel or be shown to be weak. You, Jesus, take these worldly kingdoms or I, the devil, will. The devil makes it seem like there are only two options. Jesus rejects the devil’s set of givens and opts for the freedom and creativity found in God’s Word. Each temptation is met with a scriptural rejection demonstrating that the devil’s two choices aren’t the only options in play.

The devil, usually by co-opting the world, wants to set up our whole lives as negotiating a series of givens. We are told that when someone threatens us, then our only option is to threaten them. We are told that when we see a human being hurting, then we need to first care for ourselves and our own to make sure the other doesn’t hurt us. We are told there is only so much food, and if we are going to have plenty, then you must have less. We are told there is only so much love, and if I’m going to be loved, then someone else will have to go without.

Every parable Jesus tells, every miracle Jesus performs, and every rejection of temptation Jesus makes — in short, everything in the gospel of Jesus Christ — rejects the givens of the world.

The gospel offers that when we are threatened, we have the option to turn the other cheek. The gospel offers that when we see someone hurting, we can follow our Lord who sacrificed for us and sacrifice for them. The gospel offers that when there are only five loaves and two fish to feed the thousands, there’s a way for God to give more than enough food. The gospel offers that loving someone else and being loved by them enables us to increase our capacity to love others.

It is no accident that Jesus had been preparing for the devil’s temptations by fasting. It might seem to the casual reader that this detail is just a way for Matthew to ramp up the dramatic tension of the story. The devil is offering bread to a man who has been fasting!

But that’s not how this works: In fasting, human beings are strengthened to reject the devil’s and the world’s givens. The devil, and the world, for that matter, says that when we are hungry, we have to eat. It’s a fairly reasonable position: Hunger is the body’s way of telling us it’s time to put some more fuel in the tank.

But when we fast, we reject that supposed given. We say, with the Scriptures and with Christ himself, we say no, we do not live by bread alone. We say that there is another option when we are hungry. We say we don’t have to fill that void with food right away. We can pray, we can love, we can discipline ourselves. But we don’t have to eat just because we are hungry and the world and the devil say that’s our only option.

That’s why fasting is a useful exercise: It strengthens the muscle of our will to reject supposed givens, and in doing so, we learn to reject the lies of the Devil, who wants to limit our options so we would turn to him.

When the Devil encountered Jesus after 40 days of fasting, the Devil encountered a man who had spent weeks rejecting supposed givens — supposedly limited options — offered by the world.

What does all this mean? Our Lenten fasts are not about limited options but about freedom. When we give things up for Lent, we learn to say no when presented with a limited set of givens, and we embrace the freedom offered by a Savior who says even death is not a given.

The Devil is the one who wants to limit our options; God in Christ wants us to experience and embrace freedom.

The kids’ creativity — their constant repurposing of everything — reminds me that God always offers more choices than we see. God always offers a way out of temptation. My kids teach me over and over that the givens of the world are not the givens of God.

In fact, there is only one — only one given. The one given is the grand narrative of the Scriptures: the fall of humanity and the salvation offered to all of that fallen humanity by Jesus Christ. Our falling away from God and his limitless desire to get us back into right relationship with him is the only truly unchangeable given in the world.

So when we are tempted — when we encounter what seems like a choice between bad options — the gospel asks us to think: What would it mean if God were to show up here? What would it mean if these bad options weren’t the only ones but rather just what the devil wants us to think are the only choices? What would it take for us to see God in those moments — and to take from that vision a rejection of the givens of the world and an embrace of freedom offered by God in Christ?

The Rev. Thomas Kincaid is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.


Online Archives