Jesus Tempted in the Desert – Part 1: The first 39 days
Shortly before I learned to walk, my mum took me to a friend’s house that was filled with pots of brightly-coloured cyclamens. The moment I saw them, I wanted to possess them. Naturally, I crawled around snapping off their heads as fast as I could. Each time Mum caught me, she would pull me away and try to distract me with a toy. But as soon as her attention was diverted, I was back at the cyclamens. By the end of the visit, not a single bloom remained, such was the power of temptation.
The next time we visited, I was a few months older and now walking. Still entranced by the flowers, I made a bee-line for the pots. Mum watched anxiously as I examined each of the blooms, my hands clasped tightly behind my back. ‘No,’ I muttered to myself, moving onto the next plant. ‘No, no, no.’ Clearly, a fierce internal battle was raging, and my ability to resist temptation was only just holding.
As an adult, this story makes me think of the overwhelming power of temptation and the limits of willpower as a coping strategy. Could there be another way?
The first Sunday in Lent is known as Temptation Sunday; the day we retell the story of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days (Luke 4:1-13). As someone who grew up in a progressive Christian household, if you had told my teenage self that, one day, I would be blogging about Satan, I would have laughed in your face (not to mention asking you, ‘What on earth is ‘blogging’?’) At any rate, here we are, thirty years later.
It’s all in the Name
Satan has many names across the cultures: the Devil, Beelzebub, the Accuser, the Adversary, Lucifer. But by far the most interesting to me is the Spanish term, ‘Diablo’. As Richard Rohr points out, the ‘di’ in Diablo shares its root with the ‘di’ at the start of divide, division and divisive. It means ‘two’ or ‘split’ which adds another layer of understanding to Satan’s purpose. For whether you believe Satan is a creature with horns, a force of evil or an aspect of our personality known as the ego, I think we can all agree that Satan is:
Something that divides or splits us from God, from each other and from our true selves.
Jesus, on the other hand, is:
Someone who leads us back to God, union and wholeness.
The other day, as I reread the story of Jesus in the wilderness, something struck me: Jesus is tempted for the full 40 days. We so often focus on the three temptations at the end, I never really paid attention to the fact that he was tested the entire time. This made me reflect on what temptations he might he have faced during in the first 39 days.
Temptation on the Wilderness
We can only speculate on the nature of Jesus’ temptations prior day 40. What we do know is that he was fully human and, as such, he had human needs just like us. So while the content of his temptations may have differed from ours (I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have had access to any online gambling apps, for example), the substance of his temptations would have been the same as anything we currently wrestle with.
How does this help us? By examining how Jesus responded to temptation, we can model our behaviour on his and, thus, stay connected to God.
Why is temptation so darn tempting?
Temptation is often portrayed as something evil out there: horse racing, pornography, that chocolate cake in the fridge ... Because of this interpretation, we are left with two main ways of responding: resist temptation using our willpower or give in.
If we believe willpower is the only way to deal with temptation, keeping away from our triggers makes sense. We might choose to stay offline, keep away from the sweets aisle in the supermarket or distract ourselves with activity. These are certainly legitimate short-term strategies, but they aren’t a cure. Moreover, they often lead to ‘falling off the wagon’ which can prompt feelings of failure, shame and blame, and this generally leads to further unhealthy behaviours.
Not evil without but wound within
What if the root of the temptation doesn’t lie ‘out there’ at all, but dwells within? I don’t mean to suggest we should start viewing ourselves as evil. That kind of harsh judgement is, in my opinion, destructive and counter-productive. It leads people to hate themselves and then they try to dig out their ‘rotten core’ – an act of violence towards the self.
I don’t believe anything can be healed if the method of treatment involves self-hate. Instead, I prefer to view temptation as stemming from an inner wound in need of healing through love. How do we begin the process of healing? Jesus' time in the wilderness offers some clues.
These clues will be explored in Part 2 of Jesus Tempted in the Desert: temptation as wound within not not evil 'out there'.