Better the Devil You know: A Recipe for Self Awareness

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Note: This is like a part 2 to the sermon I preached a couple of weeks ago. So often we focus on what Jesus said and did in the world, but these texts give us a tiny window into the preparation and work he did leading up to his ministry.  Finally, as you may know, our theme for this year is, “The soul grows in silence, make space to listen.”  So this sermon is also in honor of that theme and the hard work of making that time and space.

Better the Devil You know (Luke 4:1-13)

“Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.” As in, better the bad thing you know how to handle than one you don’t know, that could even be potentially worse!  But here’s the thing.  I don’t I buy it.  After all it implies that knowing the devil is half the battle.  But, truth be told, I am WAY better at dealing with crisis situations and difficult people who I don’t know very well.  The cranky cashier, the crazy driver who cuts me off, the self-centered person ordering their INCREDIBLY complicated coffee when you are already running late… who seems to think the WHOLE world revolves around her 16 modifications on a basic cup of caffeine.  Yes, all of these things ARE irritating—but none of them can hold a candle to the stress of having my in-laws visit, or some of my own family for that matter… and even those complicated relationships (though they can be truly stress-inducing) they are cake, as compared to the devil in my own head.

Today we heard the story of Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the wilderness and being tempted by the devil or Satan.  Now, because I was introduced to the devil via pop-cultural representations in cartoons—I picture this little spike-tailed red guy with horns and an evil grin.  And so the first time I read through the text, I couldn’t help it: I pictured the classic peaceful looking hippie Jesus being heckled by a red-clad man with a pitchfork.  But, while it makes for a good story, I felt like I might be missing something.

So, I did what I was taught to do in seminary, and I re-read the text using a Greek interlinear (meaning a direct word-for-word translation).  And there I saw that the Greek version uses several words for the force who challenges Jesus: Peirazōn or “the one tempting”, Dioblou or devil, and Satanas or Satan.  Tracing those words further back, I found out that in that the Greek Satan had roots in the Hebrew “al satan” which translates as adversary or accuser.  In fact, in the Hebrew Bible, al satan was not a single entity, but rather the word used to describe the character in any situation who asks the tough questions or plays, what we now call, Devil’s Advocate.  It wasn’t until the New Testament, and later Christian thought, that the singular character of Satan the fallen angel who tempts humanity into sin, emerged.  And for me this changed the story completely.  I erased the red-suited cartoon devil from the scene and instead imagined Jesus wrestling with temptation, and accusation by an adversary who was playing on the sinful parts of him—as in those parts that are most disconnected from God’s love.

Okay, so back to our story where Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. After MANY days of fasting, he faces this adversary who challenges him.  First, the adversary asks Jesus why, if he is the Son of God, he doesn’t just turn some stones into bread and eat it.  In other words, “You are feeling so connected to the Divine after 40 days in the wilderness?  But here you have this hunger that keeps reminding you of how frail and human your body actually is!”  But Jesus responds by acknowledging that humans do not live by bread alone.  That the word of God is sometimes the sustenance we need.

Next the accuser tries to rattle him by suggesting that if he REALLY is the son of God, why not test the limits a little and toss himself off a cliff.  After all, if God loves him so much, won’t God save him?  But Jesus acknowledges that being beloved does not mean TESTING God.  In other words, just because we believe in God’s love, it doesn’t mean that God is going to swoop in and change things: cure our illness, save our dying parent, protect us from harm.  Rather, God is the presence who stands beside us and love us through highs and lows, not some super-hero who will fly in and overcome the force of gravity.

Lastly, the tempter took Jesus to the pinnacle of the mountain and tried to lure him with promises of material wealth and worldly power.  (How many of us have been there, lured by the promise of the higher paying job or the nicer home—even if it comes at the expense of balance, time with family, or self-care.  But Jesus, fed up, finally says, “away from me Satan”—and then we are told that he is ministered to by angels.

And as I looked over this conversation between Jesus and his adversary or tempter, I realized that the tone was not the disdain or judgment that I fear from others, but rather the familiar persistent heckling that I do to myself.  That internal voice that second guesses me when I am feeling good about myself, pointing out ways that I might not be doing as well as I might think, that is trying to trick me into believing that happiness is just one purchase, or pay raise, or pound of weight loss, or degree, or title, or accolade, or attention from that attractive person away.  When in fact, that striving is unending and instead just keeps me from seeing the wild abundance of the life I already have.  That is the devil that I know… and that is the one who is the hardest to silence.

The story reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine who had attended a Vipasana Sit—which is a 10-day silent meditation retreat.  To be honest, nothing sounds more terrifying to me.  But the reason people do it is that as you sit there, your internal tapes have time to run.  You cycle through your worries, your future planning, your self-doubt, your fears—often you cycle through them all multiple times… until finally, the tape just runs out.  And there, at the far side of all of that mental chatter, you arrive at silence.  Genuine, non-anxious silence, in which you can finally see yourself as you actually are, a part of a much larger fabric of creation.  And there, in that humble place, is where you are met by the overwhelming love of God.  Having addressed NONE of the CONTENT of the tapes, having fixed none of the anxiety-provoking issues, or changed anything about yourself, you STILL arrive at the place of over-whelming peace, just as you are.

In her book, “Living Beautifully” American-born Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodran, talks about the challenge of uncertainty at the heart of the human experience.  The only thing that is certain is that everything is always changing.  She suggests that we forge our ego- or identities- as a way to root or ground ourselves amidst this constant state of flux.  Somehow we trick ourselves into thinking that if we can just BE a certain kind of person then life won’t feel so scary, or hurt so much.  So we strive for a stable identity: I am kind, I am no-nonsense, I am somebody you don’t want to mess with, I am generous, I am the best mother, I am a great provider, I am beautiful—or at least I could be if I just…   Each of these identities are ways that we try to assert who we are in an ever-changing world.  They give us a tether or point of security.  BUT, when that identity we are building starts to feel threatened, we have to work TWICE as hard to make it true—after all that is who we ARE.  And so the provider has to keep earning even if the job is sucking their spirit, and the person who no-one can mess with has to stay strong and not admit vulnerability no matter what, and the person who is identified with their beauty has to STAY beautiful in society’s eyes—and often feels betrayed by an aging body that doesn’t respond as it used to.  And the perfect parent has to prove to everyone how perfect he/she is, and can never admit to a mistake, even if inside they are falling apart.  These identities that once gave us a sense of stability in the world, can become burdens—keeping us from true intimacy with others AND keeping us from truly seeing ourselves as we are in this moment.

Pema Chodran also talks about the ways that our identity shapes the way that we experience sensation.  What we think of as painful or pleasurable is filtered through the ego—or sense of self—we have created.  She tells the story of being on a giant boat with her 12 year old son.  They were standing at the front of the ship, wind in their hair (think Titanic style) and her son was laughing and having a grand time and Pema, who does not like adventure, was miserable.  Finally she said to her son, “I have to go, being up hear makes my heart race and my legs feel mushy.” And her son said, “ I know, me too, that is what I love about it!”  Those same sensations for him were thrilling and played into his self-concept as a daredevil and adventurer.  And for her they supported her sense that she was a coward and needed to get outta there.

I will give you another example—a bit more personal.  As you may know, I was taunted as a child for my weight.  Even though I came from a family who valued physical activity and I participated in everything from swim-team, to century bike rides, to martial arts, I never felt great at any of it and I never had an “athletic build”.  Plus, being a chubby kid, I was picked on and called names.  My relationship with my body was one of shame and rejection.  And exercise was not something I did for pleasure, but instead something I did to try and discipline this unruly body.  Piper, on the other hand, is a natural athlete.  She played baseball, soccer, and basketball—and was a force to be reckoned with on the court and field.  As a hyperactive kid, she LOVED physical activity. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that as adults, we have very different relationships with exercise.  I do it, begrudgingly, because I know it makes me feel better in the long run.  Piper looks forward to it and hates for a day to go by in which she hasn’t broken a sweat.

Early on in our relationship, we figured out that the same hike—a hike well within both of our fitness levels—might leave us feeling very differently about ourselves.  Going up the same hill, I would get out of breath and cajole myself the entire way up for getting winded, calling myself names that other kids used to use.  Piper would joyfully tackle the hill, sometimes running back down to climb it again (furthering my own self-talk about what a lazy slacker I am).  On one such hike a couple years into our relationship, after summiting the hill I burst into tears and suggested that, perhaps, we shouldn’t work out together—I told Piper that being winded around her was embarrassing for me.  She responded with confusion, pointing out that she was also quite out of breath, and that this was a big hill.  I was so absorbed in my story about being the out-of-shape kid, that I didn’t notice that Piper, the athlete, was winded too.   That same burning sensations in each of our lungs, that same fire in our quads, was being filtered differently through our identities.  For Piper it was an awesome hike that made her feel good in her body, getting her blood flowing and making her feel strong.  For me it was those same physical indicators—sensations– were filtered through shame and self-rejection, further supporting my hypothesis that I am NOT fit or strong.  And it doesn’t matter how many times Piper tells me that I am powerful.  Or how many times others comment on my abilities as a yoga teacher or dancer, until I stop filtering reality through my pain, I can’t claim my own vitality—or see that this is what a strong Tamara looks like. And of course, at the root of it, it is not about fitness at all.  It is about the stories I have told myself about what keeps me from being lovable—true or not.  But, when I can sit with that shame and fear of rejection, and just feel them… the surprise is that the feelings pass, and on the other side, is a great well of love and tenderness.  A great reservoir of unconditional compassion, that I am tapping into, but that is much bigger than me.

And, I use my example because it is the one I know most intimately.  But each of us has our version or versions of this.  We have an identity, a story we have written about ourselves, through which we filter the normal highs and lows, the pleasure and pain, of being human.  I am smart, I am an airhead, I am a hard worker, I am a fun person who throws care to the wind, I am a perfectionist, I am likeable, I am generous, I am deep and unique, I am easy to get along with but not very interesting… Some days these identities make us feel great; they make us feel stable and rooted in an uncertain world.  But more often, these identities keep us mired in expectation and wanting, making it hard for us to see the world as it really is—and even harder to see ourselves accurately within it.  They become the voices in our head, some kind and some really mean, that keep us from being open to experiencing both the sweet stuff and the hard stuff of being human fully.

So, two weeks ago in the sermon, I suggested that Jesus needed to be baptized by John and to hear that he was a beloved child of God before he could go out into the world and do the work of change.  And I believe that to be true—we all need to see ourselves reflected by those who know us and love us.  BUT, just like Jesus, we also need to take the time to get to know ourselves fully.  Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights, not to wrestle with an external enemy, but to wrestle with his internal demons. Without doing this work, he could not have looked into the world and seen in so clearly.  And like this teacher of our tradition, we need to make time and space for the tapes in our head to unravel, so we can see the identities we are constructing that keep us from experiencing life as it really is.

So I am changing the way I hear that old saying.  Traditionally “better the devil you know” means that the bad things closest to us are preferable to those we haven’t yet experienced… but the message I need to hear is actually, “better the devil you know—cause that is the ONLY one you can change.  And if you are brave enough to do that work, you might find that it opens you up to a whole new life—not free from PAIN or uncertainty, but free from self-inflicted suffering born of trying to control that which is just the normal course of life—both the good and the bad.

A wise man… okay, it was Sr Pastor Denny Moon… once told me that the function of spiritual life, is to give you the wisdom of age, younger.  In other words, the purpose of a spiritual life is to train ourselves to see life as it really is, our strengths, our weaknesses, when we messed up and need to apologize, when we need to be a little kinder, the ways that we are all more alike than different, the reality of our mortality… things most folks don’t arrive at naturally until later in life (and that is those who are lucky).  But cultivating a spiritual life, making the time to know ourselves more fully, can speed up this process.  Pema Chodran says that the point of meditation is NOT to experience immediate peace, but rather to practice tolerating the discomfort of our emotions, and then sticking through to see them pass.  And with enough practice, if we can tolerate the discomfort of being with present with what is, then we might also be present  for the surprising gifts and lessons unfolding in our lives each and every day.

Amen

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