Why does the Spirit lead Jesus into temptation by the Devil or test Adam and Eve by prohibiting them from eating from certain trees or test us by prohibiting behaviours and attitudes He defines as sinful?
The answer is so that we will use our freedom to choose Him above all. Why does he want that? The serpent suggests it’s because God wants to keep his divinity all to himself. He casts God as our enemy, a lie still believed even today by “intelligent” people. But Jesus gives the true answer when He says to Satan, “Man does not live on bread alone.” The reason for the prohibitions is so that we will choose to live, not to die. God wants us to live – with His own divine life. Far from keeping his divinity to Himself, the whole reason He created us was to give us a share in it! But he wants us to choose that share, by choosing His will, obeying His voice and loving Him above all things.
Perhaps we might object: “I am an adult. I will not have my freedom limited by any god!”
But this is at best a childish objection. For the reality is that our freedom is limited. We are not gods. We simply cannot be and have and do everything we like. Eve’s illusion was to think she could be a god by her own choice, on her own steam. It is precisely because of this unruly claim that God reminds us that we are limited. He is doing us a favour. His prohibitions protect us from ourselves, much in the way a parent would say no to a child for its own good.
And our own good is in fact that the Lord has always planned to give us a share in His divinity, if we will freely accept this gift. Our first parents messed it up by trying to grasp at it. And so God, in his infinite patience and compassion, started afresh by giving us a New Eve in Mary and a New Adam in Christ. These were true adults, surrendering their limited human freedom in obedience to God. True self-fulfilment can never be found in self-will. It can only be found in opening our will out to God. As Jesus puts it: who ever loses his life for my sake will find it.
In the hour of His temptation, Jesus reverses Eve’s failure. Instead of using his human freedom to ignore God’s Word and grasp at divine power by changing stones into bread, He appeals to the Word of God and refutes Satan. While Jesus is the Son of God, Satan is tempting Him to ignore his humanity and use His divine power for selfish reasons.
It will especially be later, at the Last Supper, that Jesus will use his divine power, not to change stones into bread for His own sake, but to change bread into Himself for our sake. Adam and Eve had taken and eaten to assert themselves against God, to steal His divinity and to break communion with Him. Jesus gives Himself as the bread of humble service to the Father and to us, to confer on us the gift of His divine life and to restore us to communion with the Father and with one another. The Eucharist is the true fruit of the tree of life. The Gospel is the true fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And so, when we are tempted, the evil spirit will want us to throw God’s commands to the wind, to cast God as the enemy of our happiness, to hoodwink us into thinking that the outcome of our action will give us a sense of personal autonomy from God and of being the supreme judge of what is right and wrong at least in our own lives. He will never tempt us with what is blatantly evil, but will always use something which is good in itself because he knows the human being is basically drawn by what is good. Yet he will draw us to desire it in the wrong way and to use it in the wrong way. If we give in to it, our eyes will be opened and, like Adam and Eve, we will feel guilt and shame, instead of all the wonderful things which were promised.
When the moment of temptation comes, we should not make Eve’s mistake of getting into a conversation with evil, but instead turn calmly and immediately to the Lord, call on His help, recall one of His Words, e.g. “Save me, Lord, I perish” or “Deliver us from evil” or some other phrase or prayer which pushes the suggestion of evil out of our head. And stay in prayer, kneeling or doing whatever we must to stay focused on the Lord.
And if we give in, the most important thing we can do is turn again to the Lord as soon as we can. For when we sin, the Evil One will be the first to accuse us and oppress us with thoughts of misery and failure. That is not what Christ’s Spirit does. If we call on Him, He will come with His mercy and compassion and draw us to repentance and sacramental confession, if our sin has been serious. And as soon as we have made our peace with the Lord, we should seek to receive the Bread of Life, to experience again a deep sacramental sharing in Christ’s divine life and love and to know ourselves once more to be a living part of His Body, the Church.
In temptation, let’s seek the freedom of obedience to God and shun the lying slavery of evil masquerading as good. We will come out of it freer, more joyful and peaceful and more truly human. Most importantly, our covenant of love with the Lord will be stronger and more deeply imbued with divine life.