Jesus’ temptation is quite the scene. The up-and-coming Messiah had no sooner finished being baptized than he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. The text (Matthew 4:1-11) indicates that Jesus ate nothing for forty days, a feat that would leave most ordinary humans emaciated or worse. feel compelled to weaken themselves, as if inviting Satan’s temptation can elevate them in some sort of twisted spiritual hierarchy.
A more common and accepted practice of deprivation involves fasting, such as during Lent, when Christians abstain from something that tastes or feels good as a way of spirit-strengthening. Many Lenten participants fast from harmful substances, or just refrain from eating too many
When Jesus was at his weakest, the Dark One (i.e., Satan) appeared and began a trilogy of tests. When Satan encouraged Jesus to turn rocks into bread, Jesus reminded his misanthropic companion that “[on]e does not live by bread alone.” Brilliant! With the trial of appetite over, Satan moved on to tempt Jesus with worldly authority. Satan said that he controlled all nations and governments and that he could give them all to anyone he pleased. (Contrast this to Paul’s writing in Romans that governments were ordained and sustained by God, to punish evildoers —Romans 13:1-7). Jesus resisted this second trial and moved on. Finally, Jesus triumphs in resisting the third temptation, which is the privilege of angelic deliverance.
Okay, so there were three very different temptations and Jesus spoke rebuking words to dispel Satan’s attacks. Jesus not only survived, but he had proven his mettle and elevated his status. What are some lessons here? Can we defeat the Prince of Darkness if we just quote the Bible verses in a profound, definitive manner? At the very least, the temptation narratives inform us that Jesus overcame perils common to the human condition: appetite, power, and privilege. Jesus overcame each temptation, but such victories aren’t as quick and easy in most circumstances.
Is the temptation story a valid guide for us today? Should we, for instance, deny ourselves food to the point of weakness? That’s precisely what many “desert fathers” tried to do in the centuries after Jesus. These peculiar Christians isolated themselves in barren regions, ate little, while others additionally cut and bruised themselves, all in hopes that they could prove their resiliency against Satan. There seems to be a very fine line between trying to gain spiritual strength and acting foolishly.
Can even a practice of deliberate physical harm become a form of spiritual therapy? Likely not, yet there’s a strange subculture of Christians who continue a practice of publicly beating themselves. These flagellants as they are known think that they are doing something good when they pierce and bloody themselves with spiked chains slammed across their backs. These peculiar showmen perceive the spirit and body as a zero-sum game, thinking that if you want to elevate the one then you have to weaken the other.
Sure, the self-harming over the centuries has attracted spectators and some of the actors in such flamboyant self-destruction have achieved folk-hero status. Yet, little came from all this nonsense other than a lingering deprivation-envy that still rears its head among some who
tasty and calorie-rich foods. At least in these cases there’s good dietary and even medical reasons for why people refrain. It is a good thing to control our desires, especially if we are addicted or if what we crave contributes to disease. There are many positive, medical and biblical precedents for the value of mastering our appetites. Yet, even here we shouldn’t ape traditional fasting practice without knowing deeply about what we’re trying to do and if this is the best way of achieving our goals.
Life is hard enough without inviting disaster through rituals of denial or, worse yet, self-harm. Moderation is often a key to a vibrant life, so we must be proactive and examine competing therapies to determine what is most likely to work. We may also consider that simply staying afloat each day is sufficient trial for us mortals. Harming ourselves or tempting fate by some twisted version of deprivation therapy is not a sustainable model for spiritual wellness. We’re not judging Jesus’ decision in this manner because he had the privilege of power and authority unique in his status as God’s Son.
Whatever you make of Jesus temptation story, be careful in trying to apply the specific circumstance to yourself. Take comfort in the way God’s strength is imparted through the steady effort of realizing God’s love and truth. You might not win the holier-than-thou award for resisting temptation, but then again the prize of eternal life is already ours and we need not feel an impulse to prove ourselves.