I remember reading about the temptations of Jesus as a child. I was lost and did not understand why these temptations were such a big deal. OK… Jesus had fasted for 40 days and was at the tail-end of his fast when Satan came and asked him to turn some stones into bread. He refused. Like anyone would or should. I mean, who wants to eat stony bread? What was the big deal about that? Yes, I understood Jesus was hungry after fasting for 40 days, and he indeed had the power to turn stones into edible bread, but he did not use his power. Still, it just did not make any sense to my young mind. Jesus was in the wilderness. Why didn’t the devil ask him to turn the air to water considering he was probably parched with thirst?
For a long time, the three temptations remained that part of the bible I just did not understand. Don’t get me wrong, I understood Jesus was modeling a resistance to temptation but questions I could not stop asking myself were: “why did the devil choose those specific temptations? Why didn’t he pick something else? Why didn’t he say ‘hey, you’re the son of God right? Why don’t you turn these stones into piles of gold?” I mean, the devil could have asked anything of Jesus, but he specifically asked for three things – three things I did not understand until recently.
I had given up on understanding the three temptations. I had accepted that the lesson to be learned from these temptations was simply the fact that we would all face temptation and we had to resist. But recently, I had an epiphany. I was reading Luke 4 for the umpteenth time, not seeking any kind of understanding, just reading because I wanted to read my bible and it seemed like a good place to read when suddenly, the fog cleared.
The three temptations are not meaningless. They were not pulled out of a hat. They were specific and focused on life as we would come to live it. Don’t roll your eyes yet. Please read my musings on these temptations.
Temptation #1: “If you are the son of God, change this stone into a loaf of bread”
This temptation is one that we commonly face today without us realizing it. Very often, we are tempted to turn the stones around us into bread, and more often than not, we do! But what are these stones and how are we mere mortals turning them into bread? Well, let me ask you this: Have you ever consumed something that was not yours to consume? Taken something that was not yours to own? Used your power to take over something you knew you morally shouldn’t? If you have, you have ticked temptation #1 off the list. Think about it:
The devil, by starting his statement with “if you are the son of God”, was deliberately reminding Jesus of his power and position, and the statement “change this stone into a loaf of bread” was a reference to how Jesus could choose to abuse that power. Stones are not to be made into loaves. They are not to be consumed by humans, yet Satan was asking Jesus to turn a stone into a loaf of bread. He was asking Jesus to abuse his power to make the inedible edible. How many times have you used your power to make the inedible edible? How many times have you taken what was not yours to have and consumed it simply because you had the power?
Jesus’ response, “Man shall not live by bread alone” was not a literal reference to bread, but a reference to the fact that contentment does not come from us consuming everything we have the power to consume. There is contentment in loving others, applying restraint in our use of power, and finding other meanings in our lives that do not include how much we can take over.
Temptation #2: “I will give you the glory of all these kingdoms and authority over them, because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me”
Besides the evident lie in what Satan was saying to Jesus here, there was something else I completely missed all these years. Satan was attempting to tap into deep-seated insecurity. Think about it. What kind of person would want authority over all the kingdoms of the earth?
A person who was trying to fill a void no one else could see.
We are all insecure in some way, and we often try to cover our insecurities by acquiring more. People build 15 bedroom houses, even though they have a family of 4 simply because they want to be admired. People marry exotic partners because they want to be seen as capable. People seek power and exercise it in ways that are akin to tyranny because they feel small and want to prove to everyone that they are not. And by seeking these things, we begin to worship them. We become so consumed by the pursuit of them that they become the idols we dedicate our lives to. So it makes sense that Jesus’ response was “You must worship the Lord your God and serve only Him”. Because at the end of the day, even after we acquire these ‘kingdoms’, we do not find happiness; rather, we become consumed by the desire to pursue more. We keep searching for happiness in these kingdoms and increasingly become depressed when they don’t yield the joy we seek from them. Satan knows there is no joy in any of these quests. He knows that no matter how much we pursue and acquire, if we don’t put God at the center of our lives, we will end up depressed – depressed enough for him to sneak in and snuff our lives out (I wrote about this in my book. You can read the excerpt here). When I think about this, I remember the end of Alexander the great.
“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer” – Hans Gruber in ‘Die Hard (1988).
Temptation #3: “If you are the son of God, jump off! For the scriptures say He will order his angels to protect and guard you“
I have taken a lot of risks in my life. Sometimes, when I think back to the dangers I put myself in as a teenager, I mutter a prayer of thanksgiving to God. I did not realize at the time that I was putting myself in danger and I am grateful God looked out for me anyway. But what about now?
This temptation thrives on over-confidence. There are many people who love God, walk in his ways and trust in him, but are so over-confident that they deliberately put themselves in the line of fire to prove a point of how much God loves and adores them. This is common among the ‘Christianese‘. I remember a story I heard as a child of a pastor in a village in Nigeria who decided to go to the village stream to pray against the demons there. He walked into the stream, and before he could utter a word, realized his legs were stuck. The so-called demons in the stream had held him prisoner, and it took an army of prayer warriors to ‘set him free’. It was probably a fable, but a cautionary tale warning us not to go seeking things for the sake of proving God is on our side.
You might ask “but how do we show we have faith if we don’t jump?” Well, I don’t think faith is about proving a point to anyone. It is not even proving a point to ourselves. We don’t exercise faith to stunt on haters. We exercise faith because we trust God has beautiful and amazing plans for our lives. And that is why when what we trust for does not pan out the way we want, we don’t stop trusting God. If however, the plan is to prove a point, if the backdrop of our actions is over-confidence, then our motives are misplaced and our ego can end up hurt. Overconfidence does not serve God. It serves us. It is due to a bloated sense of self-importance, not a sense of God.
I can’t say I have gained a full understanding of the line between faith and overconfidence and I hope someone will expatiate on it in the comments, but I will always remember Jesus’ response to this temptation: “You must not test the Lord Your God.”
So, I am happy that I can finally say the three temptations make sense to me. I am elated to have found these meanings, and I am aware others out there might have insights I have not yet gained. Please share them with me in the comments. Looking forward to reading them.