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, and yet the text affirms that He does. 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 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 is available 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.
Temptation and Sin – The fact that the Lord is tempted yet 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, as if we have already sinned, but that is not necessarily the case. Jesus, who never sinned, experienced temptation. Therefore, experiencing temptation is not to be equated with sin. One of the tactics of the devil is to discourage us into thinking that way. Some of our past sins may influence the degree to which we feel tempted, but 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.
Temptation and Scripture – Notice that Jesus responds to every temptation with Scripture. This is not to be equated with proof-texting or pronouncing biblical slogans. Rather, it indicates 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 in defeating temptation is knowing instinctively its erroneous vision. Having our minds transformed by the teachings of Scripture and the Church is essential 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 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.
Temptation and Strength – 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 song 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 from this 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 in which each victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. As we grow stronger, the devil eventually 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 three-fold battle with Satan.
Having review a few general principles, let’s look at the three temptation scenes.
Scene I: The Temptation of Passions – 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 of other natural desires for things like life, drink, and procreation (sexuality). We have other sorts of passions such as anger, love, joy, aversion, hatred, hope, despair, fear, and courage. Of themselves, these passions are neither good nor bad. Passions become bad 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 the sin of yielding to His hunger and using His power inappropriately. Remember, Jesus had been led into the desert by the Spirit in order to fast and pray. 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. Jesus is tempted to serve Himself. He obviously has the power to turn stones into bread, so a second temptation is to use His power inappropriately, to gratify and serve Himself rather than to glorify His Father.
What about us? We have passions, too. They are not wrong in themselves, but we can allow them to become inordinate or gratify them in unlawful ways. Remember that we, like Jesus, are called to fast. Our fast is from things like sin, injustice, unrighteousness, sexual impurity, unlawful pleasures, and excessive indulgence. We have it have it in our power to choose to reject our fast and to gratify our desires by rejecting our call to serve God. The devil tempts us to reject our call and to use our power to gratify our passions by lying, cheating, stealing, venting our anger, fornicating, and being gluttonous or greedy.
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 tells Satan that He would rather live and be sustained by the Word than by food; His food is doing the will of His Father.
What about us? Can we say, 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 say that God’s Word is more important to us than my desires for satisfaction, sex, self-preservation, popularity, worldly joys, power, prestige, or possessions? Can we say that our strongest desire is for God and the things awaiting us in Heaven and that we will gladly forsake everything for it?
Scene II. The Temptation of Presumption – 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.”
It is important to trust God, but this is not an invitation to act recklessly. There will come a time when Jesus will throw himself down on the cross with the complete assurance that the Father will raise Him. He has this command from His Father. But now is not that time and Jesus must act to preserve and protect His life so that he can accomplish His full mission.
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 both worldly and spiritual ways. Too many engage in risky and ruinous behavior and think, “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 think, “I can use drugs without becoming addicted. I can have evil friends and still stay good and live morally. I can skip school and still get good grades. I can be promiscuous and won’t get a disease or become pregnant. I can drive recklessly and won’t have an accident. I can be disrespectful and still command respect.” In all this people are simply “cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”
Regarding the moral presumptiveness of thinking that no matter what we do, Heaven will still be the result, the Lord warns,
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 (Sirach 5:4).
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 (Gal 6:7).
For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. (Hosea 8:7).
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! (Psalm 81:11)
God clearly warns us that sin sets us on a path that hardens our heart and makes our final conversion increasingly unlikely. In this Lenten season, He is pleading with us to be serious about sin and its consequences. Sin renders us not only unfit for Heaven, but incapable of entering it.
A bad idea – Presuming that everything will be fine is not only a poor strategy, it is a snare of the devil, who seeks to cloud our mind 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: 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. Yes, presumption is a very foolish idea.
Scene III. The Temptation of Possessions – 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.”
Here is the obvious temptation of worldly possessions. Everything, everything, is offered to Jesus in exchange for a little worship of the devil. Tt 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 this connection elsewhere:
This is all pretty blunt. We want to have both, but the Lord is clear in rebuking this temptation by insisting that we must serve God alone, 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 position seems extreme to you then you 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 our wants get us into trouble. 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 along shall you serve.
We need to beg God for 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; we either accept God’s grace to fight them or 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 His grace. In the end, the choice is clear: either tackle temptation (by God’s grace) or risk ruination (by Satan’s “ministrations”).
This song says,
“Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win. Fight valiantly onward. Evil passions subdue. Look ever to Jesus, He will carry you through. Ask the Savior to help you, comfort strengthen and keep you; He is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.”