Lessons From The Temptation
Detail of ‘The Temptation of Christ by the Devil’, Félix-Joseph Barrias, 1860. (public domain, Philbrook Museum of Art)
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we hear a temptation narrative from one of the three Synoptic gospels, this year from Luke (Luke 4:1-13). Why this and why now?
St. John Vianney sums it up in saying, “How fortunate we are…to have a God as a model….are we being tempted by the demon? We have our lovable Redeemer; he also was tempted by the demon…therefore, no matter what sufferings, pains or temptations we are experiencing, we always have, everywhere, our God leading the way for us and assuring us of victory as long as we genuinely desire it” (Selected Sermons, First Sunday of Lent).
We are all tempted. We all go through testing. In the desert, Jesus shows us how to overcome it. Enduring deprivation through penance exercises our spiritual muscles. During such times of hunger, weakness, and want, we find out what we’re made of—our real strength. Often the temptation to go against our promises becomes strong. It’s during that time we need the example of Jesus to guide our way.
Jesus triumphs in the desert, not as God but as a man. He could have won with a miracle, but miracles aren’t available to us. Instead, he used the tools we can also use. In this way, he gives us a model of how to deal with temptation and fight the devil in our own lives.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, in this passage Jesus deals with every kind of temptation we could experience. This must be true because only then can everything human be redeemed. All temptation flows from three root causes: the desires for comfort and pleasure, adulation, and power. Jesus’ temptations take these three forms.
The first temptation is to doubt God’s goodness and providential care. After fasting for 40 days, Jesus was hungry. He could end that easily, but that would be using his power for himself alone. The lesson here is that we shouldn’t pray only for comfort or pleasure, but for the things that lead to our holiness.
The second temptation is about pride. Satan offers Jesus all the power and glory of the world in exchange for rejecting God and worshipping him. We humans have an incessant need to be adored, loved, and admired…even if at times it means destroying those around us or rejecting God to get it. Jesus didn’t seek glory. He became little so that we might become great. He became human, pouring himself out in love and taking the form of a slave. All glory belongs to God. Everything we have comes from him. When we acknowledge God in all we do—our successes, rewards, admiration, and praise, we maintain the right balance between who we really are and who God wants us to be.
In the third temptation, the devil asks Jesus to test God for proof that he cares. It’s like when, in the book of Exodus, the Israelites asked Moses to perform a miracle as proof of God’s love despite his care since they left Egypt. Why would Jesus have to prove what he already knows…that he is the beloved Son. However, this one can be hard for us. We want assurances that things will be alright. That isn’t always there. So, we want to be in control and make sure things go the way we want. Putting God to the test is akin to saying you know God won’t come through, so you’ll have to do it yourself. We desire power, so we don’t have to rely on anyone else. Trusting God sometimes means following him into the dark knowing he’ll bring you safely into the light on the other side.
So, what can we learn from Jesus? First, spiritual preparation is key. Prayer, fasting, and reflection unlock the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Every Lent, we follow Jesus into the desert for a time of penance, prayer, and spiritual reflection. We do this to prepare ourselves for the Easter celebration with renewed hearts. We should think about similar preparation every time we make important decisions or take on challenging tasks.
Second, knowledge of Sacred Scripture is essential. Notice how Jesus uses Scripture to fight temptation. Scripture has power. We should use it as a source of strength, wisdom, encouragement, and guidance. Notice also, Jesus has the verses memorized. Scripture memorization is a powerful ancient tool we seldom use. Having the verses at your fingertips allows you to access Scripture’s power in time of need.
It’s fascinating that the devil uses Scripture too…but to subvert. A right understanding of Scripture’s true meaning is vitally important. You only get that through study. Reading Scripture within the mind of the Church is a sure way to have the correct interpretation and not be led astray by people who would use it for their own agenda.
Third, Jesus doesn’t dialogue with the devil. He immediately rejects the temptation every time. If we entertain thoughts of temptation or flirt with them, we’re likely to be caught. Temptation is like a freezing wind. Assume you are too weak to withstand prolonged exposure without harm. Turn your face from it as soon as it comes your way.
Prayer and fasting, reflection, not entertaining temptation, the words of Scripture on your lips, and trusting in God’s providence—those are the tools Jesus demonstrates for fighting temptation. This gospel teaches us how to how to have a fruitful Lent through spiritual preparation. Jesus places his trust in the Lord. He doesn’t rely on his own power, rather he relies on the power of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. By following his example, you can grow in holiness and love of God exponentially this Lent.
Marc Cardaronella is director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation.
For complete daily Scripture texts, visit the USCCB website here.