Lent Reflection – grappling with temptation

10th March 2022

by Revd Jemima Lewis

Have a read of the traditional Lenten passage known as the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4…

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’'

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendour; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’’

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’’ Jesus answered, ‘It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’’
When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

One of the striking things is how this experience of Jesus in the wilderness, which almost takes the form of a vision or dream or even a hallucination, where Jesus, starving hungry, is transported to different places, even to the highest point of the temple, really captures the internal processes in the human mind as we are faced with temptation.

The first temptation tactic of the devil is to try and destabilise Jesus’s sense of identity: ‘If you were the son of God,’ he says, ‘you should just turn this stone into bread…’ The attempt is subtle and clever -’if you are the son of God, then prove it…’ How often do our own battles with temptation begin this way, in insecurity and doubt and having to prove we are good enough to that unsolicited voice in our head that tells us we’re not, that we need to compensate for a lack in ourselves?

People do this compensating in different ways, some are tempted to puff themselves up to cover over it, through pride and boasting and denigrating other people, others are tempted to punish themselves through acts of self-hurt, they might retreat and hide and be full of self-pity, still others are tempted to comfort themselves, to make themselves feel better through temptations which soothe temporarily – but all of it is a response to this little voice of doubt that says ‘if you were good enough…’

The devil’s strategy is also to appeal to Jesus’s sense of need – he is desperately hungry and the enemy is capitalising on this weakness, to the point that it almost comes across like an act of care. It’s the same with all temptation that often masquerades as a need – ‘you need another drink, you need that unhelpful relationship, you need to let your hair down’ – but it’s only an illusion, a mirage like water in the desert, and regret is waiting on the other side.

The devil’s second tactic in the passage is to outright lie, the approach is no longer so subtle. And indeed the Bible is constantly talking about the enemy as a liar, he is in fact called the Father of Lies, the originator of deceit. He says to Jesus that ‘all honour and authority has been given to me. I can give it to anyone I want to… if you worship me I will give it to you.. ‘

But that’s just not true: God is the only one who possesses all authority, the devil is lying about the scope of his power. But the devil’s claim might have seemed very convincing to Jesus in his state of hunger and delirium, as do the lies that the enemy tells us, the empty promises, particularly of material things which claim to hold all that we are seeking in life. It’s really important, when faced with serious temptations, to recognise that they are often lies which seem very true – recognising their deceit is the first step to overcoming them.

In the third temptation, as the devil dares Jesus to jump off the top of the temple, the enemy doubles down on his strategies, he brings out the big guns and even quotes scripture at Jesus to bolster his lie – quoting Psalm 91 and the promise that ‘the angels will lift you up in their hands’ if he jumped. The devil cannily goes to another source that Jesus will find credible – the word of God itself – misusing it and misapplying it to make Jesus relent.

Again, this is very common in our own lives – temptation often cites other sources to justify itself: ‘So-and-so behaves like that, so I can too…’, ‘the rest of the world says it’s ok so it’s all good…’ and worst of all… ‘the church condones it so it’s fine’. How often has the church, its leaders and its scriptures been used to cover over or excuse acts of human weakness.

But let’s now turn to Jesus’ response: notice how each time he is resolute, he stands firm, despite his physical and mental frailty. His short but firm answers all use the words from the bible that he would have learned and repeated over and over again from his youth:  ‘Man shall not live on bread alone’, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. These lines of scripture almost have that ring of a mantra learned by heart; there is a lesson in here for us about the value of powerful words, remembered and held in our heart, that we can call upon when we feel weak and tempted.

This passage not only shows God’s empathy and solidarity with us in his son Jesus who also suffered the psychological torment of temptation, it also reveals that the enemy’s strategies are actually pretty weak and predictable, that his claims – though they sound long-winded and credible – are just hot air and can be met with the simple truths spoken by Christ, which are also our truths: that we do not live by bread alone, because we live in him who loves us. That we serve God only, because he is the only one who is truly faithful. That we do not need to put him to the test, because he has already suffered the ultimate test of the cross – what more could he do to prove his love than lay down his life for his friends. 

This Lent, let’s be aware of the areas of temptation that we particularly as individuals struggle in and perhaps claim some of these simple truths for ourselves in the face of them, knowing that God knows when we fail and he forgives us – trusting that he is for our growth and the deepening of our love and understanding, and that despite everything we see to the contrary, love will prevail over evil.