EDITOR’S NOTE: In this new Bible study series, we explore the words of Jesus and how they apply to our lives. Much of Jesus’ teachings are figurative parables and phrases which are subjective, defying one absolute interpretation. This study in no way represents the final authority on scripture or topics discussed. We welcome your thoughts and feedback in the comments, recognizing there is abundant room for disagreement without being disagreeable.
“The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” (Luke 4:3-4)
Why is temptation so tempting? What is the attraction here? Temptation is tempting because on some level or in some context it is good, or has “a good” attached to it. Temptation is not all “bad,” otherwise it would be a sin or “the wrong thing to do.” Temptation is not all “good,” otherwise it would not be tempting; it would be “the right thing to do.” Temptation is both good and bad, living within the grey areas of our conscience and subconscious, where morality and denial collide.
Any good counterfeit $100 bill’s effectiveness depends on how closely it imitates the original. Of course, the FBI can spot a counterfeit because they have studied and worked the original, which begs the question, can you?
To the extent we know the original words of Jesus (the letters in red), we can avoid temptation seeing through its veneer. From small to big decisions of life and society, temptation dresses up the good in bright colors and extravagant outfits to distract, diminish, and hide a more significant negative impact. Intimate knowledge of the original will empower us to separate the muddied waters around us, piercing the logic of what is good in appearance but not in substance.
Like the time Jesus confronted the Pharisees on the fifth commandment,
“For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother.” (Mark 7:10-12)
The Pharisees had come up with a great new fundraising, promotional program. Donate your parent’s retirement fund to “the cause” and call it a “gift” (tax-deductible I am sure).
“Just think of all the good this money will do, the families and poor it will support, and the renovations to the temple or the building fund for our new ‘whatever,’” they might say. It was the purchase of prestige, currying favor with the religious elites in a society which thrived on outward appearance. What once supported parents is now unavailable. Without these needed resources, this “great idea” soon becomes the reason some parents are homeless and destitute in their sunset years.
Is donating to your church good? Of course, but not at the expense of your parents’ future. It is the good which plays on our self-interest (looking good for the boss or pastor) which deceives us, hiding from view a deeper pain and heartache.
I love fly fishing the fast water of the Connecticut River in upstate New Hampshire. I will spend hours studying bugs, learning to tie a fly just so, making an exact imitation a trout will say yes to. It turns out that fish do not eat hooks, so we hide them behind a yummy snack. Long-term considerations remain in the shadows while the fly dances in front of the fish, and lesser short-term appetites take the main stage.
It turns out that the devil also loves fishing. He weaves a web of deceit from threads taken from texts of every religion’s books and holy scriptures. It is a network of seemingly good intentions, which play on self-interest, but has devastating long-term consequences.
His web is made to see what we want to see, the rose-colored glasses of dualistic thinking “right vs. wrong,” “you vs. me,” “us vs. them,” “the moral imperative,” and “the ends justify the means.” We justify atrocities such as crusades, genocide, the turning aside of refugees, terrorism, murder, and wars without number. I shudder at the horrors we have said “yes” to, the evils visited on each other in the name of “the right thing to do.”
Jesus was a master of seeing beyond “this or that” thinking. He refused to see things in the binary black or white, rich or poor, the “in” crowd and those on the “outside.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
Most would think “you are either happy or sad,” but Jesus turns that on its head with a deeper truth, the deepest happiness or blessings are found on the other side of pain and sadness. The faith that comes through trial, through fasting and wilderness walking is truly ours; we own it, no one can take it. Untested faith is another word for wishful thinking. To Jesus, there is “happiness” and “sadness” and “happy sadness.”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians also speaks to this way of seeing things. He notes that our church is one expression of God’s “manifold” wisdom. Not “either-or” but “manifold” or literally “multifarious, variated or infinitely dynamic.” God sees things through the prism of dimensions we cannot begin to fathom. He sees solutions outside our sight like bread falling from the sky. The answer may not be A or B; it may be … “to be determined.”
Our physical world requires dualistic thinking to get from here to there. But deeper truths, spiritual truths, live beyond the binary. Spiritual truth requires spiritual insight found in self-reflection and contemplative prayer. As Jesus said when referring to mountain-moving, devil casting faith, no seminar or Bible study can provide the spiritual strength and insights born of the pain and hunger of wilderness walking.
When we see only two options, more often than not, we choose the one in our own best interests and fall prey to temptation. Equally devastating are the temptations of omission. Temptation convinces, cajoles, or even threatens us into inaction. It is easy to justify a smaller good of not doing, one which has been orchestrated toward our self-interest (not upsetting the applecart), and allow a corporate evil to thrive and grow. Proverbs 3:27, 24:11-12, 28:27 speaks clearly, as does James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.”
Sins of omission generally begin with temptations of omission — temptations of the convenient, of safety, ease, comfort, avoiding the unknown, the unfamiliar, postponing righteous outrage, or just not speaking up or showing up. The devil wants us to believe that our checkbooks have more power than our voices, keeping us “manageable” through silence and inaction. But Jesus tells us to not put off actionable service. Here and now the fields are ready.
“Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (John 4:35)
Satan’s web of deceit also incorporates other strategies. He identifies and exploits a physical weakness or discomfort like hunger and wilderness fatigue. With unsolicited advice, he proposes solutions to non-existent problems. If Jesus did not want to be hungry, he would have solved that himself. Remember the loaves and fishes? Jesus was hungry because he wanted to be hungry; he was on a wilderness walk with his Father. The pain of hunger was intended and welcomed. He was learning to rely on God’s provision, which he would later teach in the “Lord’s Prayer.”
Satan creates conflict where there is none so that his solutions have a moral place to thrive. After all, the worst of molds require a minimum amount of light to live. He then offers unsolicited proposals in ways that will attract us by speaking to our self-interest. Like any good marketing campaign, he tells us what he already knows we want to hear.
Lastly, Satan capitalizes on corporate fear that he has been sowing, waiting to harvest. What corporate fear you may ask? The devil’s trump card is his first spoken word to Jesus, “if.” He plays on our fears of faith, using the specific concerns of the moment, our immediate fear or pain or discomfort to bait the hook by saying, “you might starve to death out here.” “You are all alone in this wilderness.” “If God is out there, He must be upset with you.” He puts our identity as God’s beloved into question to coax us into solving a problem we do not have.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)
When we focus on the provision of His love and commitment, knowing we are His beloved, we can see through any temptation — any good that may be in our self-interest but will inevitably cost something greater.
Questions to consider:
- Do you feel like temptation gets the better of you at times?
- Do you feel like you are familiar with the original, the letters in red? What might you do to improve on your understanding of the letters in red?
- Do you consider the impact on others before making a decision trying to see beyond self-interest?
- Have you felt in the past like you have been tricked by self-interest into making a worse decision for yourself or others?
- Do you sometimes feel like you are stuck between one of two bad choices, forced into “lesser evils”?
- Do you postpone or procrastinate Christian service?
- Do you substitute finances for physical or actionable service?
- What can you do today to harvest the fields?
- Can you name a corporate fear the devil is sowing now for future harvest?
- Do you sometimes question your identity as a beloved child of God?
- What can you do today to restore a deeper sense of God within you?