Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and each year at this time we hear about Jesus’ temptation in the desert. This year we hear the story from the Gospel of Mark. It is the briefest of all the accounts. We simply hear that as Jesus was baptized, the holy spirit into Jesus and drove him into the desert, as though he was possessed. And for the next forty days, he fasts. Jesus is tempted by Satan. Among wild animals. And angels tended to him. That’s it. It is about as brief as it could be.

Yet, it is this experience in the desert which inspires the season of Lent. For the next six weeks, we are called to meditate on our spiritual state, to wrestle with our own demons. We are encouraged to give something up, something we enjoy, as a test of character. We are encouraged to fast in some way, to be like Jesus in the desert. To face our own personal Satan. 

In the Bible, Satan can be understood in two ways. One is the familiar one, the Prince of Evil, the one who inspires violence and ruin, humanity’s greatest enemy. The other meaning of Satan, which seems more appropriate here, is Satan as the personal opposer. The one who disagrees with your best inclinations, who leads you astray. We all have this kind of Satan, whether or not you believe in any supernatural evil force. Our own dis-loyal opposition, the one who wants what’s worst for us, but will present it as what’s best. 

People in 12 step programs know all about this kind of Satan, and the dangers of temptations. They know that addictions can lead one astray and cause a personal spiral that can destroy your life. When the craving for a drug, alcohol or gambling becomes the most important thing in your life, then everything else seems expendable. Families and friends can just become people to borrow or steal money from. Relationships become secondary to the only relationship that matters, the addiction and its needs. One of the key steps in AA programs is to recognize that we are all subject to a higher power outside of ourselves. To believe in something more than the addiction is key to recovery.

Fortunately, most people are not in the throes of addiction. Instead, we live in a society that has no interest in resisting temptation. Everywhere we go there are advertisements advising us to give in to every craving. Just do it. Be all that you can be. You’re worth it. Banks send us mail encouraging us to sign up for more credit cards, and bigger lines of credit. The message is pretty clear: if you want it, get it right now. You can worry about how to pay it off later. This attitude is pervasive, and it has worked. Canadians carry the largest credit card debt load in the Western world.[1]

How did we get here? How did our society become so enamoured with giving into temptation, when our Good Book clearly says that temptation can be an evil force? Part of it has to do with the decline in the importance of religion. Church attendance has steadily dropped since the 1970s. Most people don’t get their ethics from church, although they may resent church ethics. So where do people learn how to behave as moral people?

There was a time when our educational institutions, high schools, and universities, were expected to help young people develop their character.  Studying is often not fun, and certainly not as fun as partying with friends. But university is a place where the desire for instant gratification has to be set aside to learn. That’s one part of character building. The other part is that is the ability to put other people’s needs ahead of your own, to sacrifice for the common good. Getting out of your own head to see that common good was once a clear goal of a university education. People were expected to go to university to learn not just how to think, but also learn how other people think. Students went to learn about history, read literature and philosophy so they could be exposed to the ways other people see the world. In 1961 at his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” [2] That sounds quaint now, but he was speaking to people who could imagine a common good that might require sacrifice to achieve. He was speaking to people of character.

Over the last fifty years, society and university have changed. As the price of university tuition has climbed, more and more students seek degrees that can guarantee employment. Universities have willingly become training schools.  This has led to the steady decline in enrollment in English, history, and humanity courses. 

This graph shows the decline in humanities degrees in American universities since the crash of 2008.[3] In Canada, enrollment in humanities degrees has dropped by 20 percent in recent years.[4]

Instead of signing up for English or history degrees, students want degrees that will get them jobs right away. So, enrollment in coding, health science and engineering is up, as the humanities shrink. Students have lost interest in developing character, what they want now is personal economic success.

One way to measure the impact of this shift is to look at what has happened to college debating competitions. College debates have often been where future leaders have learned how to make speeches and persuade audiences to adopt their point of view. But in the 1980s*, American high school and university debating rules changed. Debaters were told that to win a debate, they needed to rebut every point the other team made. That led to a new style of debating where speed became all important, so as many points as possible could be introduced. Here are some examples of what college level debating sounds like now. [5]

This kind of high-speed speaking is called “spreading.” This barrage of sound is about winning, not persuading. And it certainly isn’t about listening to what anyone else has to say. This helps explain the shouting matches which have taken over political talk shows on broadcasters like Fox News. When everyone is in it for themselves, what other people think doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter whether you can understand them, either

Whole generations of students have graduated from university being told they should just care about themselves. They have not taken classes to encourage empathy or to understand how society works, or to delve into the views of others. Instead, they have been encouraged to go to university to win – to win a job, a career, to get ahead in life economically. But that leaves them uneducated in what life is about, and how to live with others.

Young men in particular are now confused. They didn’t learn morals and ethics at church, and they didn’t learn much about them in university, either. So how should they act in life? How should they treat co-workers? How should they behave on a date? Being given so little direction, they have become hungry for advice, and to find it, they have turned to the Internet. There they have found self-proclaimed authority figures like Canada’s Jordan Peterson and misogynists like Andrew Tate. The internet is full of very opinionated pundits who tell men that they should embrace sexist ideas, buck up, be a man, and look down on women and people of other races. These figures are popular because they provide moral direction at a time when young people been told to follow their own moral compass. The problem is that many of them were never given a moral compass to guide them.

And this is why the season of Lent still matters. It seems so out of step with modern society – and it is. It suggests self-sacrifice in a world devoted to instant gratification. The idea of willingly giving anything up seems irrational and old fashioned now. But Christ’s trial in the desert was a way of asking a question. Jesus has been infused with the Holy Spirit, and it has driven him into the desert to make as choice. Who is going to be in charge of his life now? Will he listen to all those voices in his head that are telling him to go back to Nazareth, back to the comfortable, anonymous life of being a carpenter? Will he eat the first thing he sees to stop this fasting? Will he turn away from this mission that lies ahead of him? Or will he take the harder way offered by the Holy Spirit, a way he knows from the prophets will end in his death? Which voice is he going to listen to?

In Lent, we are asked to join Christ in the desert, to wrestle with some of our own demons. We do this because this story contains a profound psychological truth. What’s easy is not always what’s best for us. If we only listen to our own desires, it becomes very hard to hear or care about the perspectives of others. If we have never suffered, we will not care or even understand the suffering of others. We won’t care if they need help because we will only want to care for ourselves. Lent asks a question: who is really in charge of your life? Your whims and impulses, or you? Can we make a decision and follow through with it, even when it requires some discomfort? That takes some personal character. So, Christians all over the world this year will be taking Lenten vows as a reminder that constant self gratification is not the road to personal fulfillment. Like Jesus, we are encouraged to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something that will benefit all of us. 

Can any of us honestly say that Jesus should have walked out of the desert on day 3? That his personal needs were the most important? We are all the heirs to the fruits of his wrestling with temptation. His decision to follow the holy spirit changed the world. Changed each of us. Made us who we are as people who take time to hear the words from scripture, and to try to live an ethical, loving life. We are all in the desert with Jesus, facing that question: who am I? Our consolation is that, like Jesus, we have the Holy spirit to be our guide in the life we have chosen in Christ. As we follow God’s way, we, too, are ministered to by angels, as we are helped to live in Christian way. We, too, know that sacrifice can be a price worth paying for a richer, more open-hearted life.



[1] Highest among the G7 nations:


[3] Graph comes from: