From the Archdiocese of Washington
The Gospel today says that Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert. Hebrews 4:15 also affirms: For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.
How exactly a divine person, with a sinless human nature, experiences temptation is somewhat mysterious to us. And yet the text affirms that He does experience it. A Lenten antiphon from the Breviary teaches that he did this, or allowed this, for our sake: Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, who for our sake endured temptation and suffering (Invitatory Antiphon for Lent). Hence, even without pondering too deeply the mystery of how he was tempted or how he experienced it, we can still learn what Jesus teaches us about how to endure temptation and be victorious over it. (More on the question of how Christ was tempted HERE.)
Before we look at each temptation, we might learn a few general aspects of what the Lord teaches us in electing to endure temptation.
1. Temptation and Sin – The fact that the Lord is tempted, but did not sin, tells us that there is a distinction to be made between temptation and sin. Too often the very experience of temptation makes us feel sinful, makes us feel that we have already sinned. But that is not necessarily the case. For Jesus, who never sinned, experienced temptation. Therefore experiencing temptation is not simply to be equated with sin. One of the tactics of the Devil is to discourage us into thinking that the mere experience of temptation is already sin. It may be true that some of our past sins influence the amount and degree to which we feel tempted, but, in and of itself, we need not conclude that we have already sinned, or newly sinned, merely because we are tempted. Rather than to feel shame and run from God, we ought to run to him with confidence and seek his help. But do not conclude you have sinned merely because you are tempted.
2. Temptation and Scripture – Notice how, to every temptation, Jesus responds with Scripture. This is not to be equated with merely proof-texting, or pronouncing biblical slogans. Rather we ought to see it as indicative of the fact that Jesus was deeply rooted in Scripture, in the wisdom of the Biblical vision. In rebuking temptation in this way, Jesus is teaching us to do the same. It will not be enough for us to know a few biblical sayings. But, to the degree that we are deeply rooted in the wisdom of God’s truth available to us through Scripture and the teachings of the Church, we are able to strongly rebuke unholy, worldly, or fleshly thinking. Half the battle to defeating temptation is knowing instinctively its erroneous vision and stupidity. Having our minds transformed by the teachings of Scripture and the Church is an essential weapon in fighting temptation. Scripture says, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). Ephesian 6:17 also speaks of the Word of God as “the sword of the Spirit” with which we are properly armed for spiritual warfare. Thus, we are taught here by the Lord to be deeply rooted in his Word.
3. Temptation and Strength – Notice that Jesus is tempted three times, after which the devil leaves him. In a certain way the spiritual life is like the physical life, in that we grow stronger through repeated action. After lifting weights repeatedly, our physical strength increases and we are able to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. It is the same with the spiritual life. An old Gospel songs says, Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win. Scripture says, Resist the Devil and he will flee (James 4:7). We need not conclude here that Jesus needed to be strengthened (he did not) in order to understand that he is still teaching us what WE need to do. The battle against temptation is not a “one and you’re done” scenario, but an ongoing battle wherein each victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. Eventually, as we grow stronger, he stops wasting his time tempting us in certain areas. At times the battle may weary us, but in the long run it strengthens us. Jesus illustrates this with his threefold battle with Satan.
Having reviewed a few general principles, let’s look at the three temptation scenes.
Scene I: The Temptation of Passions. The text says. At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
Hunger, as a desire, is a passion. It is not evil per se, for without it we would perish. The same is true with other natural desires for things like life, drink, and propagation (sexuality). Other sorts of passion also exist in us such as anger and love, joy, aversion, hatred, hope, despair, fear, courage, and so forth. In and of themselves, these passions are neither good nor bad, but become so only in relation to their object, or insofar as we allow them to become inordinate.
Hence there is nothing wrong with Jesus as he experiences hunger. What the devil tries to do is to draw Jesus into sin by yielding to his hunger and using his power inappropriately. Remember, Jesus had been led into the desert to fast and pray by the Spirit. This is his call. His hunger is real and without sin, but now he is tempted to set aside his call, and to yield to his hunger in an inappropriate way, by rejecting his call to fast. He is tempted to serve himself. Now he has the power to do this, to turn stones into bread, and so a second aspect of the temptation is to use his power inappropriately, not to glorify His Father, but rather to gratify and serve himself.
What about us? We too have passions. And they are not wrong in and of themselves. But what can happen is that we freely allow them to become inordinate, or we gratify them in unlawful ways. Remember we, like Jesus, are called to fast. Our fast is from things like sin, injustice, unrighteousness, sexual impurity, unlawful pleasures, excessive indulgence, and so forth. And we too have it have it within our power to choose to reject our fast and to gratify our desires by rejecting our call to serve God. And the devil says: reject your call and use your power to gratify your passions: lie, cheat, steal, vent your anger, fornicate, be gluttonous, greedy… and so forth.
But notice how Jesus has recourse to God’s Word: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus says to Satan that He would rather live and be sustained by the Word; that his food is to do the will of his Father.
What about us? Can we say with Job: Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12)? Can we, like Jesus, say that God’s Word is more to me than my desires for satisfaction, sex, self-preservation, popularity, worldly joys, power, prestige, or possessions? My strongest desire is for God and things waiting for me in heaven, and I will gladly forsake all I have for it.
Scene II. The Temptation of Presumption – The text says, Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
There is a value in trusting God, but this is not an invitation to act recklessly. There will come a time when Jesus will throw himself down on the Cross in complete assurance that the Father will raise him. He has this command from his Father. But now is not that time and he must act to preserve and protect his life so as to accomplish his full mission.
For us, too, there is no sin in trusting in God’s care for us. But that is not a license to act recklessly. Presumption is a terrible problem today. Too many people think that they can go on sinning and that there will be, or should be, no consequences. This is true in worldly ways and in spiritual ways as well. Too many people engage in risky and ruinous behavior and figure, “I’ll be OK….I’ll escape….I won’t be a statistic….I won’t get caught….I won’t lose my job. Many say, “I can use drugs and not get addicted, I can have evil friends and still stay good and live morally, I can skip school and still get good grades and get into college, I can be promiscuous and won’t get an STD or AIDS….I won’t get pregnant. They think, I can drive recklessly and won’t have an accident or kill someone…I can be disrespectful and still be treated with respect.” In all this, people are simply “cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”
And regarding the moral presumptiveness of thinking that no matter what I or others do, heaven will still be the result, the Lord warns
- Sirach 5:4 Say not I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bides his time. But of forgiveness be not overconfident adding sin upon sin. …Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day for mercy and justice are alike with him.
- Gal 6:7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well‑doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
- Hosea 8:7 For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
- Psalm 81:11 “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices. “If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would follow my ways, how quickly would I subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!
God is clear to warn us that sin sets us on a path that hardens our hearts and makes our final conversion increasingly unlikely. He is pleading with us in this Lenten season to be serious about sin and its consequences. Sin renders us not only unfit for heaven, but simply incapable of entering it.
Bad idea – Simply presuming that everything will be fine is not only a poor strategy, it is a temptation and snare of the devil, who seeks to cloud our minds with false hope and unreasonable expectations. Jesus has a very clear message for the devil and for any of us who would engage in presumption (a VERY common sin today): “Don’t you dare put the Lord your God to the test in this way. Obey him out of love, but do not put Him to the test.” Presumption is a very bad and foolish idea.
Scene III. The Temptation of Possessions – The text says, Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”
There is here the obvious temptation of worldly possessions. Everything, EVERYTHING, is offered by Satan to Jesus in exchange for a little worship of the devil. Now, it may seem strange to us that having an abundance of things would be linked to worshiping the devil and forsaking God, but scripture attests to the connection elsewhere:
- Adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
- Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
- No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24)
All pretty blunt. We want to have both, but the Lord is clear in rebuking the temptation by insisting that we have to serve God alone, to adore God alone. The inordinate love of this world causes us to hate God more and more and to bow before Satan in order to get it. Don’t kid yourself. If this seems extreme, then we are calling God an extremist. The Lord is warning us that there is a major conflict here that steals our heart. For where a man’s treasure is, there is his heart (Matt 6:21). It is not wrong to desire what we really need to live, but it is our wants that get us into trouble. And the desire for riches ruins us and makes God seem as a thief, rather than a savior. This is a very severe temptation and Jesus rebukes it forcefully. Him ALONE shall you serve.
We need to beg God for a single-hearted devotion to him. The Book of Proverbs has a nice prayer in this regard: Give me neither poverty nor riches, lest in my poverty I steal or in my riches I say “Who is the Lord?” (Prov 30:8-9 gloss).
In the end, temptations are real, and we either accept God’s grace to fight them, or else “we are going down.” The Lord wants to teach us today about the reality of temptation and how to fight it, by his grace. Remember, the battle is the Lord’s, and no weapon waged against us will prosper if we cling to God’s grace. But in the end, the choice is clear: either tackle temptation (by God’s grace) or risk ruination (by Satan’s “ministrations”).