The church reminds us, “In Christ we suffered temptation and in him we overcame the devil.” Midway through Lent we can express with childish exhaustion, “Do I really have to give this up?” If you’re like me, when I give something up, I desire it even more. It’s more tempting.
Why do we go through temptations? The reason is simple: God allows us to experience temptation so that by resisting it we grow spiritually stronger.
As odd as it sounds, there’s a usefulness to temptation. In temptation we flex our spiritual muscles. St. Augustine noted this centuries ago. “Our pilgrimage on earth cannot be exempt from trial,” he wrote. “We progress by means of trial. No one knows himself except through trial, or receives a crown except after victory, or strives except against an enemy or temptations.”
It’s tempting to think that temptation is the same as sin, but Christ was tempted, and clearly didn’t sin.
The temptations of Christ appear in all the synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Matthew’s sequence of temptations, Christ endured three: to turn stones to bread, to throw himself from the temple, and to bow down and worship Satan.
If you are looking for some Lenten reading, pick up Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s book “Jesus of Nazareth.” In this modern classic, the retired pope masterfully illuminates the temptations of Christ. Some of the ideas presented here are drawn from that work.
The first temptation begins with Satan’s challenge: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt 4:3). Jesus had been fasting for many days. He was extremely hungry. The devil tempts him to use his power as God to feed himself. Jesus’ cleverly counters Satan by quoting Scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4).
Bread is important, but more important is obedience to God. Dorothy Day once said, “Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.” Isn’t the church most herself when she is feeding the hungry? Isn’t obedience to God secondary? Only when we are obedient to him can we develop the practice of providing bread for all.
Do we take time to pray each day? Do you go to Mass on Sundays? Do you go to confession? Do you read the Bible so as to hear the voice of God? Or do we think these things superfluous? This is at the heart of the first temptation.
The second temptation is difficult to apply to ourselves. It begins with Satan quoting a Psalm, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written… ‘On their hands they will bear you up’” (Mt 4:6). Satan challenges Jesus to prove that he is God by submitting to an experiment. If Jesus will throw himself from a high place, Scripture says the angels will catch him.
The arrogance that would make God an object of our laboratory inquiry reveals the temptation that we all face: we want to be God. But we cannot place ourselves above him. We must instead accept that we are not omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent. Rather, we are human beings who must listen to God’s voice and follow his will. There is nothing to fear in following God, precisely because he is wisdom itself, goodness itself and the source of all love.
Benedict writes, “If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the terrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know that the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on, trusting in the One who loves you.”
In the last temptation, we reach the climax. The devil takes the Lord to a high mountain, shows him the kingdoms of the world, and offers him dominion over them all. Surely, thinks the devil, the purpose of the Messiah is to have an earthly rule; his kingdom should take a political form.
This is a constant temptation, i.e., to use faith as a form of control and power over others. Religion used as an instrument for worldly power always leads to destruction. But what did Jesus bring if not a world in which we could more clearly see his power? The answer is simple. He brought God. He brought the presence of God to us. This gift is seen as too little for a heart bent on earthly rule.
Jesus has brought God especially in the Eucharist. There we encounter the living God in the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Father Christopher C. Moriconi is a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia pursuing a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.
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