The three ways in which Jesus is tempted embrace the three fundamental types of sin from which all others come.
The first is the worship of the body. Jesus is tempted to use his freedom to heed the flesh, in this case by satisfying his hunger, rather than the spirit, in this case by obedience to the Word of God. All sins of the flesh, of whatever kind, come down to the choice of satisfying it in defiance of the Word of God.
The second is the worship of the spirit, or pride or disobedience. Jesus is tempted to use his freedom to show what he can do to impress others, in this case by defying the law of gravity in throwing himself from the parapet of the Temple. The law of gravity is, of course, part of the natural law established by God in his creation of the world. To defy it, as any other law of God, is therefore to defy God. Instead, Jesus uses his freedom to assert and obey the authority of God. He is not to be put to the test, but simply to be obeyed.
The third is worship of the world, or of possessions, or unbridled materialism you could say. The possessions in question are not just material things but anything we would want to have which effectively takes the place of God in our lives and is therefore an idol. Jesus is tempted to use his freedom to have power over all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour and so to end up adoring Satan. But Jesus uses his freedom to reject the folly of thinking that anything less than God is worthy of his adoration.
The body, the spirit, the world. These are the three things which define our existence in this life. They are given to us as the means with which to reach eternal life. Our body is given to us so that we can live out in manifold ways the truth and love of God in obedience to God’s will. Our spirit is given to us so that with our intelligence we can come to know God’s majesty in creation and his truth in the revelation of his Son; and so that with our heart we can love and embrace the beauty of that majesty and revelation. The world is given to us as the stage on which individually and collectively we hear and respond to God’s call in his Word, so that the drama of human history will conclude in longing for the return of Christ.
What temptation seeks to do is, under the pretext of satisfactions in the here and now, to subvert and destroy the meaning of the body, the spirit and the world. In other words, it is a calculated strategy to destroy the plan of God. Instead of opening outwards towards their fulfilment in God, they are turned inwards to find ultimate destruction in themselves. Our enemy has no interest in our pleasure or pride of life or possessions. If he could destroy us without giving us any sense of satisfaction he would much rather do that. His tactic is to inveigle, to deceive, seductively to talk us round. He always makes sin easy to commit, sweet even. But it is the sweetness of poison. And because we are weak, and sometimes wicked, we heed the lie, and die a little at a time.
Jesus does not let himself be drawn into dialogue with Satan, but quotes Scripture back at him. We cannot do better than Jesus. The moment temptation arrives is the moment for us to beat it back with the name of Jesus. “Jesus, mercy! Jesus, deliver me!” The second you engage with the temptation, you are beat. Only in Jesus, with Jesus, by his power and by his Word, by his Cross and by his Spirit have we any chance of destroying the Destroyer. And that is all the more true if we find ourselves already caught in sin, especially serious sin and most especially habitual sin.
The surest antidote to falling in the hour of temptation, the best way to prepare for it is to come close to God. As we seek closeness with God, God will come closer to us. St. James tells us to stand up to the Devil, strong in faith, and he will run away from us. Just say no.
How close do you think you are to God? How close do you want to come to Him? The destiny of human life is to be united with God for ever, so it’s not as if being or becoming close to him is really an option if we want that destiny. It is true that, as we draw closer to Him, He will purify us of anything which is not worthy of our dignity as his children or of his holiness. But it is a purification of love. It is a purification which will gradually bring to light the full potential of our humanity. God is not the enemy of human flourishing, but its author, its greatest fan, its expert technician. We can get so used to so little; we can get so familiar with half-measures and mediocrity; we can settle into a comfort zone that we consider wonderful, or at least not too bothersome, but we don’t see that it is only a shadow of what is actually possible for us in union with God.
When temptation comes, I challenge you as I challenge myself this Lent to use it as a little or big opportunity to come closer to God. Even if you give into the temptation, don’t give the devil the satisfaction of thinking he’s got the upper hand, but run straight to the Lord, sorrowful, trusting and expectant that He will somehow use this, despite itself, to draw you closer to himself.
But before temptation comes at all, try a little each day of Lent to come closer to God. During that 30 seconds between closing the front door and getting into the car, say to him, “Lord, draw me closer to you.” As you pass the church here, make the sign of the Cross or ask him, “Lord, show me how to come closer to you.” Even better, don’t pass by but come in and come right up to the front near the tabernacle where Jesus is really present and say, “Lord, here I am, physically close to you. Make me spiritually close to you, too.” And give him a few minutes of silent watching. Take a favourite phrase from the Gospel and write it on a bit of paper and put it in your pocket and bring it out now and again, thinking over it and asking Jesus to impress its truth deeply in your heart.
My friends, we need to realise that a real love affair with God is necessary if we are to be strong in resisting temptation, in loving as Jesus loved, in growing in his values, his priorities and his plans for our life here and in eternity. In any relationship, it is the little things, the unsuspecting moments, the surprise opportunities which give it colour and joy and depth. It is no different in our relationship with Jesus. He was tempted, not for his, but for our sakes, so that in him we might conquer. He died, not for his, but for our sakes, so that in him we might live. Don’t allow him to become a relic of childhood, or like a book we once read and is now at the bottom of a drawer, or like some great figure of history whose name we know but whom we no longer consider relevant to our so, so important lives.
As the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted, let the same Spirit drive us, make us driven people, in search of the love of Jesus. During this Lent let us ask Jesus and his Spirit to tempt us to know him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly.