Lent 1- Anatomy of Temptation




Our Genesis reading and our Gospel reading tell us a lot about temptation. I want to share something that I found particularly helpful.

When we think about temptation, we often think about being tempted to do something bad. Maybe we are tempted to cheat on our spouse. Or maybe we are tempted in anger to yell at someone we disagree with. … However, what our readings show us is that when someone is tempted to cheat on their spouse, they aren’t usually tempted by “adultery”. They think they are ‘following their heart’. They think they are chasing love. They aren’t tempted to do something bad; they are actually tempted to do something good. That is why we justify our sins. We will say things like, “well, the heart wants what the heart wants. You can’t help who you fall in love with”. We are tempted by something good.

Likewise, if we are tempted to yell at someone, we aren’t tempted to be angry and mean. Usually, we think we are being advocates for justice and righteousness. We are standing up to the “bad guy”. We say things like, “I’m just setting the record straight. Someone had to tell them what’s what. I guess I had to be the one to do it”. To them, it’s not wrath- It’s righteous indignation. They aren’t tempted to be mean. They are tempted to express righteousness and justice.

Usually, when we are tempted, we aren’t tempted to be bad, we are tempted by something good.

Why was Eve tempted by the forbidden fruit? She “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise”. She wasn’t tempted to disobey God. She was tempted by good food, beauty, and wisdom. … This is why temptation is so seductive. When we are giving-in to temptation, it usually feels like something good. Lust feels like love. Wrath feels like righteousness.

Jesus’ temptations are interesting when we look at them in this light as well.

Jesus has been fasting for 40 days. The devil comes to him saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” What is Jesus being tempted by? Something bad? No. There is nothing wrong with eating food when you are hungry. Jesus is tempted by eating bread. He is not tempted by badness. He is tempted by something good. In fact, later, Jesus does miraculously divide the loaves and fishes to feed the crowds. So, this is not obviously bad in itself.

Again, when we look at the next temptation, we see something similar. Jesus is tempted to let himself fall from the top of the temple so that angels will catch him and keep him from being hurt. Notice that the devil even quotes Scripture in this temptation to show how the angels will protect him (Psalm 91). … It is not obvious why this would be a temptation, but the usual way of interpreting this is that if Jesus publicly threw himself down from the temple and was miraculously rescued by angels, then those in authority, like the Chief Priest, would recognize his claim to be the messiah. If that is the correct interpretation, then Jesus is being tempted to make it known that he is the messiah. Again, this is not a temptation to do anything bad. He is tempted to do something good. … Jesus does later reveal himself as the messiah. When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, Peter responds by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). And Jesus praises him for saying this. So, it is obviously not a sin for Jesus to reveal that he is the Messiah. Jesus is not tempted by something bad, but by something good.

When we look at the third temptation Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world and told that he can have all of them. Again, this is Jesus’ rightful place anyway. The book of Revelation tells us that Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth”, and the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 1:5; 19:16). Later in Matthew Jesus says that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). That all sounds a lot like being given all the kingdoms of the world. We could also talk about Jesus as the Logos through which all things were created (John 1:2; Col 1:16) and what that means in terms of his standing over the kingdoms of the world. … So, Jesus seem to be being tempted by taking possession of something that is his rightful property anyway. He is tempted to be the king of the world, and that is both what Christ is, and what we are promised he will be at the Second Coming. … Again, Jesus is not tempted by something bad; He is tempted by something good.

If the problem is not with the ‘end’, then it must be the ‘means’. If there is not a problem with Jesus eating bread, being shown to be the messiah, and with him becoming ruler of all the nations, then the issue is how attains these things. Evil is a twisting of the good, so temptation is often attaining good things in a twisted way. Evil is a parasite. It can’t exist on its own. Good can exist on its own, but not evil.

In the first temptation Jesus is being tempted to misuse his miraculous power. Is his power given for his own comfort- for his own selfish ends? … That is not the way of the obedient Son of God who submits himself to the will of his Heavenly Father. Is his true hunger for food, or for accomplishing the will of his Father? Will he trust in his own supernatural power to care for his needs, or will he trust his Heavenly Father to care for him? Will he be the obedient Israel in the wilderness? Or, will he be the Israel that grumbles in the wilderness, yearning for slavery in Egypt, rather than freedom as God’s child? … Jesus is successful in resisting temptation by trusting himself to God- “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut 8:3).

The second temptation is a temptation to prove himself to the crowds and authorities by publicly falling from the top of the temple into the saving hands of angels, which is the devil’s application of Psalm 91. It is a shortcut to being recognized as the Messiah. It is forcing God’s hand to protect him by placing himself in unnecessary danger. It is a temptation to get God to conform to human will. If we just use the right formula, we can make God do what we want. Jesus is tempted to force God’s hand, so that Jesus can seize the minds and hearts of the temple leadership by force. … But again, Jesus submits himself as the obedient son, refusing to attempt to force his Father’s hand (Deut 6:16).

The third temptation is a temptation to become the King of kings and rule the nations of the world without submitting himself to the cross. Will he become great by serving? Will he rule by humbling himself to God’s will? Or, will he become great by bowing to the devil, becoming the new Caesar, and taking up the sword and army of the empire? Is that the power by which Jesus will establish the peace of the kingdom of God? … No, he will not break the first commandment to worship God alone (Deut 6:13). He will not take the shortcut. He will follow the long, hard road of obedience. He will gain the world through giving up his life on the cross.

Jesus is tempted by good things, but the ‘means’ are the twist that makes it a temptation to evil. The Bible tells us that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Temptation will not come to us in a cloud of black smoke, speaking in a raspy voice, wearing horns and carrying a pitchfork, asking us to sign over our soul by a bloody signature. Temptation will come to us as a beautiful good, but avoiding the ways of God, and especially avoiding any cross that God might be asking us to carry. AMEN.

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