Temptations: Opportunities for Discernment
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him,
“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
I think it is fair to say that usually we view temptation as risky if not actually bad for us. We routinely pray: ‘Lead us not into temptation. But another way to look at temptation is that it is an important part of our spiritual journey. It was the Holy Spirit that initiated Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. Here, in Luke, we read that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he is tempted. In Mark the message is even stronger. Jesus is driven into the wilderness and in Matthew; Jesus is again led by the Spirit to be tempted. In each, there is intentionality on the part of God. Temptation is part the spiritual journey.
Jesus and just been blessed and empowered in his baptism. He was God’s beloved son. Now he had to find out what that would actually mean. What does it mean to rely upon God when the going got rough? It is almost always true that when we first experience love—whether from God or each other, there is warmth, comfort and optimism. But promises made in love must be tested and challenged in real life. Who can we count on? Are we, ourselves, reliable in relationship? What is really being promised? Have we turned our loved one into something they are not? These are questions are rarely conceived much less articulated the first time we hear or say the words: ‘I love you’
Biblically, this discernment has often taken place in the wilderness. Immediately after the Israelite slaves received the good news that they were freed, they were led (driven?) into the wilderness. They were literally surrounded by wild beasts and were pursued by an armed enemy. They were lost, hungry and vulnerable. It is one thing to trust God when we are experiencing the joy of being chosen, it is quite another to rely upon God when our self-sufficiency is exhausted and our deep vulnerability is exposed.
The Israelites spent forty years in such a state. Jesus spent forty days without eating (“He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.”). So the first temptation is an obvious one. Use your special relationship with God to get your own needs met. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” If you have the power to make your life easier, why not do so? Who of us has not been hungry and would do almost anything to get fed?
The response is that ‘Man does not live by bread alone’. Notice it does not say, Man does not need bread. This is not an either/or response. In real life we live between the responsibility to be responsible and the realization that we must trust the Lord. More often than not the temptation is to believe we can and should be self sufficient— but the wilderness exposes our limits. The reciprocal temptation is to believe our needs will be delivered to us. Real life is lived between the extremes. The hard part is the middle ground. Neither extreme is authentic. Getting our needs met is important. It is very important. But there are limits to how we do so and there are limits to our ability to do so.
The second temptation is an appeal to self-aggrandizement, approval and a misunderstanding of power in order to feel important or safe. The tempter’s offer: “To you I will give their glory and all this authority…” is particularly seductive. It would certainly seem that if we held secular power, if we were in charge, we would be safer. At its most ordinary, the tempter is appealing to a different kind of hunger—the hunger for recognition and the hunger to be special. The temptation is to feed that hunger by seeking approval through applause or by position. But, ultimately there is no praise nor position that is sustainable. If that is where our sense of importance comes from, it will fail.
The third temptation is the blatant misuse of God and religion to suit our ends. The tempter even uses scripture to make his argument—proving instead that scripture can be abused as well as used. There is always the temptation to use scripture to prove our point or to justify our self-interest. More subtly perhaps, there is sneaky kind of entitlement that often goes with our faith. There is nothing about our faith that protects us from suffering. Thinking our faithfulness will give us some kind of special dispensation is sinful. Testing God by expecting outcomes to our liking has the real life parallel of saying; ‘If you really loved me, you would….” Such a statement is coercive and seeks to protect us from the uncertainties of the world. We want love as we define it and it is tempting to try to demand it.
In each of these cases, Jesus relied upon God. He trusted God’s presence even when hungry lost and vulnerable. In his baptism, he chose to turn toward God and in hardship he maintained that orientation. It is why we say he was uniquely without sin. Ordinary humans will turn from God at the drop of a hat. When threatened and vulnerable, we rationalize self serving behaviors We seek validation, agreement and approval in hundreds of ways and we act indignant and betrayed by God when we suffer. We are not condemned for these behaviors but we should be able to acknowledge them. And that is the importance of temptation in our spiritual lives.
Temptation exposes our constant proclivity toward preserving ourselves—well beyond our ability to do so. My spiritual life has taught me this—but it has not stopped me from doing it over and over. Knowing and doing are vastly different.
In my last hospitalization, my life was at risk. I was given two days to respond to treatment or I was headed to a liver transplant. My whole body was on edge. Cognitively I knew I had no control but I pressed for every piece of information I could get as if my knowledge would make a difference. I could not face that I was at the end of what I could do. So I got anxious. I even knew my anxiety was pointless but I could not let go and let God. But that night, (through music) I actually experienced the grace of letting go. I didn’t choose it. I discovered it. I have not been able to reproduce the experience by my own disciplines but I have tasted it.
Even with that experience I still tempted try to manage my own safety. I still waste huge amounts of psychic energy in the process. Each time I fail to recognize my limits, I succumb to the temptation of believing I can do it on my own. I need to see that, I need to experience it—so I can confess it. Part of the lenten season is to bring us more authentically before God as limited, broken sinful creatures. Temptations expose those truths about us. They may be embarrassing but they are true of everyone of us. Without temptations, we could far more easily deceive ourselves with each other and with our God.
A last note. This is not a one and done proposition. The devil left, but not for good. He was waiting for a more opportune time. It was true for Jesus and it is true for us. Our true nature is revealed in the way we handle our temptations—and that is a good thing. It is the beginning of confession—and confession reestablishes our relationship with God. We don’t like temptation. We hate to see who we are. Thankfully, God is not so judgmental. Jesus knows us and has lived in our skins. He redeems us from ourselves and our self judgments.
As the writer of Hebrews promises: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).
Grant that we may face our temptations. Grant that we may face ourselves. And grant that we learn to lean upon your abiding love. We can not do it alone. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.