As we continue our internal journey in Lent — our journey of penitence, of turning toward God — it is essential we wrestle with the question of sin, of the devil’s persistence in pursuing us and how we’re taught to overcome temptation.
I write this as a sinner, constantly tempted and often failing in the fight to overcome those temptations. But, this is the nature of Lent. As humans, we fail, we sin, and we are called to get back up and persist, with penitence, in our very imperfect pursuit of perfection.
That path begins for us when follow Jesus’ footsteps into the desert, where he faced temptation by the devil. It’s worth noting this comes immediately after Jesus is baptized, after the Holy Spirit descends upon him. So too may we find our greatest periods of temptation close on the heels of our greatest episodes of spiritual breakthrough. The devil loves to crash a party. But, let’s look at the three temptations Jesus faces in the desert, in Luke 4:1-13.
Jesus’ 40 days of fasting and temptation are our basis for Lent, and the three temptations the devil poses to Jesus form a broad umbrella in three parts for the temptations we face each day. Satan tempts Jesus through the desires of the flesh; then appeals to the insatiable human desires of greed and ambition; and finally appeals to the human failings of fear and doubt.
The devil appeals to the flesh by enticing Jesus to “command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” because, after 40 days of fasting, it was the weakest point in Jesus’ human form. Likewise, the devil will tempt us through our flesh wherever our weakest point may be. It may be in physical fear, when the path of Christ demands courage. It may be through lust, gluttony or sloth.
All the natural and healthy appetites of the body — for self-preservation, food, drink, rest, sex — are targets of temptation, which calls us into excess and away from God. In response to these temptations, Jesus replies, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” We need “bread.” We need to sustain our bodies and answer, in a healthy way, the appetites God has given us. But feeding our physical needs is not enough. Without the strength of faith and penitence, appetites go unchecked and we withdraw from God to pursue our bodily desires.
Likewise, the devil tempts Jesus through the human weaknesses of greed and ambition, by offering him the kingdoms of the world; and through fear and doubt on the pinnacle of the temple. As humans, we are taught to desire the power, riches and fame the devil offered Jesus in the desert. Satan offers them anew to us each day. And, in the frailty of our human form, it is natural to want assurances of God, to want tests and proof of God’s strength and presence in our lives.
As in the first temptation, Jesus falls back on Scripture, on the Holy Spirit and the Word of his own divinity to overcome the temptations that challenge his human nature, telling the devil “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,’” and “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” In his responses to the three temptations, Jesus offers us a road map to overcome the temptations we face in our daily dance with the devil.
By maintaining connection with the Spirit, through prayer, by keeping our eyes on God, above worldly riches, and by placing our faith in God’s strength, even in our darkest times, we can follow Christ’s lead, instead of the devil’s. But, we must never become complacent, because the devil is patient, and temptations will persist and morph to match the weakness of the hour.
Even for Jesus, who was both fully human and fully divine, temptation persisted. At the end of the three temptations, Scripture tells us “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him (Jesus) until an opportune time.”
We see the devil popping back up several more times during Jesus’ ministry (how many more times, unrelated in Scripture, must the devil have poked his head into Jesus’ human walk).
In Matthew 16, when Jesus foretells his own death, Peter responds in a very natural, human way. He rebukes Jesus, revolting at the idea of Jesus dying, and at the perceived threat of our own mortality. Jesus responds harshly: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
At first blush, it appears Jesus is being harsh with Peter. But, it’s Satan he’s addressing. The devil was wagging Peter’s tongue with the same temptations Jesus had faced in the desert: the temptation of the flesh, in that Jesus’ human nature desired his body not perish; that of ambition, that he might live and become a worldly king; and that of fear for the anguish to come, and doubt over what lay beyond death.
We see that latter temptation, of fear, clearly in Luke, when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane at the Mount of Olives. Anticipating his own torture and death, Jesus prayed: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” An angel appeared to Jesus “and gave him strength.” It says a great deal to us that Jesus, the Christ, needed strengthening in that moment. How much more do we need to rely on God and his angels in our time of need?
We tap into that strength, to face our greatest fears and temptations, in the same way as Jesus: we come to God in prayer. Luke gives us an idea of the intensity that is needed in our prayer at such times, again relating Jesus’ prayers in the garden: “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”
I’ve never prayed hard enough to work up a sweat like that. Have you? This Lent, I will be working on building up that level of intensity in my prayers. I invite you to join me. In that intensity, in that passionate pursuit of God, we will find the strength that Jesus tapped into to overcome temptation. In the words of Psalm 91, we will find “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”