Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Temptations

Be like God. Blame God. Satisfy your physical hungers. Show off. Grab power.

These are the great temptations. Pretty much anything that entices us can be traced to one or more of them. Even if you are not a Christian… even if scripture holds no meaning for you … even if you believe that “Satan” is a non-entity that just stands for a generic concept of evil in the world … you can see the basics of what haunts you in these great temptations.

Interestingly, these five great temptations are the subject matter of Satan’s appearances in scripture. I know there are some other places where the devil makes a brief appearance here and there, but in truth, this character gets three big scenes to strut his stuff: The Fall in Genesis 2 and 3; the Book of Job; and the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4 (and corresponding passages in Luke and, briefly, in Mark).

All five of them are branches off of one tree - selfishness. All temptation attacks at our most vulnerable point - ourselves. Some are based on our love for ourselves; others are based on our areas of self-loathing where we are tempted to try to make ourselves better. Selfishness, then, lies at the heart of what is evil within us. Ultimately, our failures relate to our attempts to promote ourselves, to strive for that next blessing, to assure ourselves our “best life now.”

Temptation #1: Be like God.
In the Genesis passage, the temptation is simple: “Don’t you want to be like God?” The essence of this story is not that we are like a four-year-old who does not know better when we are tempted to disobey. No, the forbidden fruit story is about the lie that the serpent offers: if we eat the fruit, we can be like God. We can know good and evil just like God does. This is what speaks to us – the chance to make more of ourselves than is intended, than is good for us, than we can really be.

In the end, while the fruit may have been lovely to look at, its taste would not have compelled Adam and Eve to break the rules. What made the difference was that they wanted to know what God knows, to see what God sees. The temptation was to go beyond their limited human view and to become godlike.

That is, always has been, and always will be Temptation #1. We do not like natural limitation. We chafe under the idea that there is something out there that is better, stronger, faster, smarter than we are. That is why “The Six Million Dollar Man” was a hit TV show. It is why movies like “Transformers” and “Superman” and “The Incredibles” tickle our fancy – the idea that we can transform into something more godlike holds great sway.

To let go of this temptation is to accept that we are only what we are. We can achieve, we can grow, and we can learn; still, there is only so far we can go. That acceptance – which is ultimately the key to reliance on God – is difficult for most of us. We can’t accept that there are things we do not understand, that we cannot do.

Temptation #2: Blame God.
Job has been blessed. He is rich and happy and respected. Satan offers the proposition that Job will only be righteous so long as he continues to be rich, only so long as the blessings continue to pour. This temptation comes to Job not directly from Satan but instead from Job’s companions who philosophize through the bulk of the middle of the book. If, like me, you read the Book of Job as a play, you see Satan as the background godfather of these unhelpful speakers. They may not know who is pulling their strings, but those of us who have read the first two chapters of the book – Act One if you will – understand who is feeding them their lines.

Job is told that his onslaught of problems must be God's reaction to Job's sinfulness, despite Job's protestations of piety. Ultimately, even Job’s own wife urges him to “curse God and die.”

This is Temptation #2. Blame God for what is wrong. We can dress it up in great philosophical debates surrounding the question that seems to haunt so many: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” As we debate that question, we find ourselves saying that bad things really should not happen if God is actually all-loving and all-powerful and all-knowing; therefore, our reasoning goes, God must not be one of those things. Or maybe God is none of them. We blame God. We say God really does not love, and/or God really is impotent, and/or God really has no clue.

Once we give in to Temptation #2, of course, we become an easy target of the other great temptations. If God is really not “all that,” then it is much easier for us to try to be godlike, and our self-interests are that much more at the forefront.

Temptation #3: Satisfy your physical hungers.
Jesus has wandered in the wilderness, fasting, for almost six weeks when the Tempter makes his third great entrance, stage left. It is now that the last three great temptations are scripted.

The suggestion that Jesus turn the stones into bread is not a temptation for Jesus to do a cheap magic act. If that were all it is, it would not have much application to us mere mortals who can do no better than silly card tricks. No, it is far baser than that – the temptation is for a very hungry Jesus to make Himself some bread. Forty days of fasting and wandering has left Jesus tired, hungry, and needy. “End your fast. Use your power. Eat something. Nobody is here to see. Nobody will know. You have needs. Make some bread.”

Timing is everything with Temptation #3. There would have been no point in coming to Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana and suggesting that He turn rocks into bread while He is turning water into wine. Jesus was not hungry then. He was not needy.

We can look back at things that have tempted us and recoil at our foolishness, forgetting what our perceived needs were at the time. The physical temptations that come to us are always timed to hit us the hardest. I am willing to bet that very few are tempted to sexual promiscuity on their honeymoon. But when things are hard, when we have needs that we are certain no one else can understand … then is when the temptation comes to fulfill the need, to satisfy the hunger. After all, God made us this way, right? Our hunger is natural. God will understand that the rules don’t apply to us. God would not have built this desire into us and then expect us not to do something about it, right?

Temptation #4: Show off.
Satan proposes that Jesus jump off the temple roof and let the angels gently carry Him to the ground. Satan even quotes scripture – accurately, I might add – to make the point. This misuse of Psalm 91 is the great example of why using individual verses as proof-texts for our own needs and over-literalizing scripture is dangerous, but I digress.

What is the essence of Temptation #4? At first glance, it is popularity, esteem, and self-aggrandizement. What could be in it for Jesus to jump off the temple? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the temple was very public, and surviving such an event would make Him an instant hero. His personal relationship with the angels would be the talk of the town.

The temptation is that life is all about me. What can I do? What do I have to offer? Who will notice me? When will the world stop for a moment so that I can have my fifteen minutes of fame?

Temptation #4 has another level. It is about control ... self-importance ... ego. Perhaps more subtly, but much more dangerously than a simple reach for popularity, His focus would be on all the cool things He could do rather than on fulfilling His sacrificial mission. For Jesus to use His power in such a way would bastardize the power of God. To make such a production – even if nobody saw it and popularity were not an issue – would be to take gifts God has given Him and use them as a sideshow. Showing off cheapens everything you have been given, every talent you have, as you cram them into a box for display, even if you are just displaying for yourself. Jumping off the temple to force the angels to catch Him would be, for Jesus, the ultimate demonstration of controlling the world through egotistical whim.

That is a prospect that makes all of us salivate at times. If only we could do such a thing!

Temptation #5: Grab power.
“I will give you reign over all the kingdoms of the world” is Satan’s final shot at Jesus. We can debate whether or not Satan is telling the truth – does the devil really control the world enough that he has this to give to Jesus? Would he have followed through on the promise and given this power to Jesus if the Christ had bowed down to him?

I think the answer to both of those questions is yes – if not, this is not a real temptation for Jesus. Temptation #5 is all about the chance to grab what can truly be yours. It is no temptation to suggest to me that if I do what you want, you will make me King of Sweden – you do not have that power, and so I have no temptation to follow your suggestion.

But when power is there for the taking, this temptation is real. We have to be careful, because we want good people to have power. Having power is not necessarily bad, any more than having wealth is bad or being popular is bad. When, however, grabbing power for its own sake becomes an end in and of itself – when we agree to bow down to Satan so that we can have power – then we are in the midst of this great temptation.

Machiavelli teaches us that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that clich̩ misses the point of scripture. Before you can be corrupted by power, you have to gain the power. There are those who sincerely seek power as a means of helping and leading, and more power to them Рshow me where to vote. But the person for whom power is the end instead of the means is the person targeted by Temptation #5.


I believe we overcomplicate much in life. Our analyses of what is evil and wrong in the world can take complex turns as we dissect our motivations and actions.

Perhaps it is not so complicated. Perhaps it is all about these five great temptations: Be like God. Blame God. Satisfy your hungers. Show off. Grab power.

It is worth thinking about.

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