Water Week 3: Temptations and sustainable living

You probably have heard of the “ecological footprint” or the “carbon footprint”. Did you know there is also a “water footprint”? For example, the average water footprint of a single hamburger is 2400 litres and it takes about 4100 litres of water to produce a simple cotton t-shirt. In everything we consume, water is an essential element.

For many, Lent is traditionally a time to do with less, to give up something. In the light of the ecological crisis, more and more Christians today make a conscious decision to “tread more lightly” on our planet as they choose what to give up during Lent  – for example, in not eating meat, in avoiding the purchase of imported and unseasonal food or in resolving not to buy bottled water.

Ideally, Lenten practices transform us in a lasting way. We seek to understand who we are. Why are we doing what we are doing? How do we seek to change so as to shape our relationship with others and with Creation in a way that brings us closer to God?

Giving up something for seven weeks, by itself, doesn’t do that. But it does have the potential to help us better understand ourselves, our addictions and temptations, our perceived and actual needs. We understand better what is truly essential to us. In the end, our fast may therefore also help us to tread more lightly on the planet and others, beyond Lent.

From Temptation to Radical Acceptance* – A reflection by Mike Schut

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone,    but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 234

Matthew 4.1-4 NRSV

My work to connect faith with care and justice for all creation raises questions not just about consumption and economic growth, but increasingly, as I have discovered, on more basic questions of “self-identity”. Questions about economic growth and our “right to consume” challenge a number of our culture’s more ingrained idolatries such as the cult of efficiency and the tendency to equate self-worth with the size of our bank account. Anything that challenges such idols requires us to swim upstream. And the strength to do so often comes from a change of heart, from the freedom of conversion.

One of the great biblical texts associated with Lent is the Temptation of Jesus from the Gospel of St Matthew (Matthew 4:1-11). After fasting forty days Jesus is visited by the devil. In Jesus’ responses to the three temptations I find a profound insight into understanding liberation from idolatry, and hence, freedom to become who I am.

The first word out of the devil’s mouth is a small but powerful one: “If”: “If you are the Son of God.” The devil immediately challenges Jesus’ identity. In the passage immediately preceding this one, Matthew describes the baptism of Jesus when God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased”. The timing is fascinating. The devil challenges Jesus’ identity immediately following God’s profound affirmation of Jesus as beloved son. The devil is, in a sense, saying, “Oh yeah? If you are really God’s beloved son, prove it.” The “if” serves to raise doubt in Jesus’ mind about his self-identity.

“So, prove you’re the son of God by turning these stones into bread.” That would have been pretty impressive! We might characterize this first temptation like this: prove who you are by your abilities.

In the second temptation the devil again challenges’ Jesus identity: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple—surely God would save you.” In throwing himself down and being rescued by God, Jesus would prove his self-worth because God deemed it necessary to respond dramatically. The temptation here, then, is to prove who you are by the reactions and responses you get from others.

The third temptation is a little more straightforward: not so much a questioning of Jesus’ identity, as an appeal to greed. In offering Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, the devil is offering Christ unlimited power, prestige and wealth. The third temptation is to prove who you are by your possessions, and your positions of power.

These are precisely the temptations by which we are tempted today, temptations that not only harm ourselves, but the Earth:

  • First, prove who you are by your abilities.
  • Second, prove who you are by the reactions and responses you receive from others.
  • Third, prove who you are by your possessions and your positions of power.

Each of these proofs is essentially a temptation to justify ourselves. In this reading of Jesus’ temptations, the essence of our enslavement to sin emanates from our efforts at self-justification.

Rather than believing that we are who we are by the grace of God, that we are God’s beloved, we become people caught in the need to justify our selves. Of course once we do, we have to prove ourselves all over again. It’s the proverbial “rat race.”

Notice how our consumer society knows how well we face these temptations. Every advertisement somehow says “you are not okay as you are—buy this, look like this, and be like this.” And of course the way we can “buy this, look like this, be like this,” is through acquiring, saving, investing, and—especially—spending plenty of money. Money is a primary tool through which we meet the demands of insatiability. Much of our drive to succeed financially connects to our perceived need to prove ourselves—to our parents, our business partners, our peers, and on and on.

Caught in this race of self-justification, our lives become filled with more activities and more stuff than we could ever possibly need; the Earth groans from the weight, its water polluted, its rivers running dry, its climate changing.

In rejecting these temptations, Jesus shows another way, based not on self-justification, but on living deeply the truth that we are who we are by God’s grace: God’s beloved daughters and sons. In experiencing conversion at that depth, we can be freed to move toward a life that is both more satisfying and more compassionate, to ourselves, to others, and to the Earth.

Michael Schut is Economic and Environmental Affairs Officer for The Episcopal Church. He is the editor and partial author of three books / study guides: Money and Faith; Food and Faith; and Simpler Living, Compassionate Life.

* Based on: Schut, Mike (2008): “Radical Acceptance”, in Money and Faith: The Search for Enough, Church Publishing Group.

Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author and EWN.

The Water Footprint

Website of the Water Footprint Network: www.waterfootprint.org

The Water Footprint of Food

About 85% of humanity’s water footprint is related to the consumption of agricultural products, especially animal products. In this article, Arjen Hoekstra, professor in Water Management and “inventor” of the water footprint highlights that if people consider reducing their water footprint, they better critically look at their diet. [www.slowfood.com]

Water Footprint Calculator

Your individual water footprint is equal to the water required to produce the goods and services consumed by you. The Water Footprint Calculator is based on national averages but can give you a rough estimate of the water you use directly and indirectly. [www.waterfootprint.org]

Exposition: How much water do we eat?

A “virtual water cube” exposition can help you raise awareness of the links between consumption and water use. [www.oikoumene.org]

Sustainable Living

Sustainable Living

The Sustainable Living project of the Oregon State University provides good resources on lifestyles, consumerism, and sustainability. [www.cof.orst.edu]

Year of the Lesser-Spotted Shopper

The Year of the Lesser-Spotted Shopper is a commitment by young people from the WCC-LWF Youth for Eco-Justice group “to mend the spend trend” – by not buying anything non-essential for a whole year. Follow them on: http://lesserspottedshopper.wordpress.com/

Good Stuff? – A Consumption Manifesto: The Top Ten Principles of Good Consumption

Through buying what we need, produced the way we want, we can create the world we’d like to live in. [www.worldwatch.org] http://www.worldwatch.org/node/1470

Eight Reasons to Eat Local Foods

The top eight big, umbrella-style reasons why you might want to consider eating more local foods. [http://localfoods.about.com]

Sustainable food: Local versus organic

The issue of whether to prioritise local food or organic food is a contentious one that’s not always easy to resolve. Find out more in these two articles:

Meatless Monday

Meatless Monday promotes a meatless day per week. Read about the many benefits of cutting back on meat on their website: www.meatlessmonday.com/why-meatless

Tread Lightly for Lent 2012

As part of the reflective season of Lent, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Environmental Ministries is offering a calendar encouraging us to learn about ecojustice issues and take action on the issues of waste, energy, water, consumption and food. [http://gamc.pcusa.org]

Churches are learning, living the complexity of ‘going green’

A United Church News article on churches ‘going green’. [www.ucc.org]

What you can do:

Photo: Flickr

What about you?

  • Take a moment to consider the three temptations Mike Schut describes in his reflection and their common essence of self-justification.  In which do you most see yourself?  Are you caught, trapped, in efforts to prove yourself through your abilities, by how others respond to you, by your possessions and positions of power?
  • Do you find yourself some of the time, or most of the time, living free of the need to justify yourself?  If so, what difference does that make in your life?  If not, how would your life be different?
  • How do you connect these temptations with care for God’s creation?

Tread Lightly:

  • Demand product transparency: There are some general rules we can follow to consume more sustainably, such as buying local products. But often it can be quite difficult to actually compare the environmental footprint of different products.  In order too make informed choices about what to buy we need transparency about the use of water and other environmental concerns in the production of food and other goods. Ask product transparency from businesses and governments so that you can make a difference as a consumer!


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