For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. -Hebrews 4:15
In the ‘Our Father,’ Jesus teaches us to pray: lead us not into temptation. It’s a bit of an ironic instruction, since the Gospel tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert where He was tempted (Matthew 4:1-11) by the devil. There, devil laid out trap after trap for Jesus – tempting him to reject the commandment to love God with one’s whole heart, soul, and mind.
While Jesus’ experience is unique – the Creator being tempted by one of his creatures – the temptations themselves are nothing new: neither then nor now. Temptation knocks often at the door of our hearts. But a little honest self-examination on each of Jesus’ temptations might help us learn to resist, to shed some habitual sins and ultimately to draw nearer to God.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And 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, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'” -Mathew 4:1-4
This is among the most obvious statements in all of scripture: after forty days of fasting, Jesus was hungry. And it’s certainly a reality each of us can appreciate: we hunger for many things! We get physically hungry, we dream of where we might go and what we might do (tomorrow or further in the future), and we get frustrated when food we order takes to long to show up, or if a friend doesn’t reply to our text message immediately.
That Jesus was hungry was not sinful – we do need to eat, after all. And those things we hope for – from replies to our messages to those hopes we have for the future – aren’t necessarily sinful either. The trouble comes when our desire for these things – for immediate gratification – begins to wedge its way between us and God. Our desire for that next thing (a relationship, advancement in a job, the weekend) becomes the sole focus of our lives and our faith is quickly forgotten. And this temptation becomes even more dangerous when the thing we hunger for is objectively sinful (which means that to get it would separate us from God in smaller or bigger ways).
Jesus’ response to a legitimate need – He was hungry, after all – is meant to put these hungers back into perspective. The devil looks at Jesus and says you’re hungry? Well, you have the power to fix that right now. But to do so would be a rebellion against God’s divine will – and Jesus tells him as much: that this world and our best efforts will never fill every need we have. In face of these temptations, instead of rebelling… we can declare our dependence on the God who looks out for all of our needs. St. Augustine famously wrote “You have made us for Yourself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
“Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge of you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” -Matthew 4:5-7
We can recognize that it is God who fills all our hungers – and we can even bring them to Him. The question we face in this second temptation is whether we trust that God will do what is best for us. We can easily place make our love and trust in God conditional – looking at Him more like a wish-granting genie than a loving Father. But what would your faith (and mine) look like if we trusted God without condition? How would we face the blessings and the challenges that life would set in front of us? There are a hundred different ways we can choose not to trust God – but when we can trust Him in the areas that really matter (relationships, money, our future) – we discover a freedom that I’ve experienced most profoundly through the eyes of my children. The day I took a two year old for stitches was the day he showed courage beyond his ability – simply because he trusted in the love of his father. This is how we are to see and trust in God… even when our hungers go unfulfilled or we are asked to do something difficult.
If we can face the first and second temptations – temptations to fill our own hunger or to limit our trust in God, we make a good start. But there is one more insidious temptation that both we and Jesus face – a temptation to worry more about earthly things than heavenly ones.
Read on for part II: the devil’s most overt and blatant temptation of Jesus (and how none of us is really immune to it).