Matthew 4 

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

I have always been intrigued by the first verse of this passage.  Following God’s blessing at Jesus’ baptism, he is ‘led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.’—which is all the more remarkable when we remember the Lord’s prayer—’Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.’  Why would God lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted?

The first response in FIRL was that God was testing Jesus.  Jesus passes the test and is rewarded when the angels come and wait for him.  The problem, however, is that, in such thinking, God’s care is contingent upon our receiving a passing grade when confronted with temptation.  It sounds reasonable. School children of every age must earn a ‘passing’ grade’. The threshold may vary but certain minimums are required. But, that isn’t God’s way.  God does not keep score the way humans do. 

Such thinking falls all too easily into our desire to imagine that our goodness can save us.  Rather than facing our radical dependence upon God’s promises, we want to do something to tilt the outcome.  We want a way to earn a good grade. Unfortunately, whenever we worry if we are good enough or if we measure up, we distrust God’s grace.   We are measuring and comparing ourselves like we were in a school room. God promises to love us and promises that we are his children. We are the ones that add conditions to such promises. Though very tempting (pun intended), I reject such thinking out of hand. I simply do not believe in a God who sets up tests to see if we have done our homework.  The obstacles and hardships of life are difficult enough without them becoming hurdles we must master in order to receive God’s love. If we live long enough, we will all struggle with pain, disease, anxiety, troubled marriages, broken relationships as well as our foolish and selfish choices. Those are the times we NEED God’s presence. They should not be times we are wondering about our adequacy or God’s faithfulness. 

So we are back to the same question. “Why would God lead Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil?”  I believe that spiritual maturity requires a regular inquiry into what it means to be a child of God in real life.  Jesus was just beginning his ministry and though wonderfully blessed, he still had a lot to learn. He did not enter the world with a ‘data dump’ of insight.  A new parent or a new spouse can deeply love their child or partner. But real life will have to be the instructor as to what that love will mean. It is hard to love when we are sleep deprived, afraid or insecure.  It is always tempting to abdicate our responsibility to discern what it means to love by thinking only of ourselves—or by thinking only of the other. In real life, one size never fits all.

Jesus had  to stay focused upon loving God and loving neighbor when he was hungry, when he felt unsafe and when it would be far easier to rely upon earthly fame and power.  These are issues familiar to us all as we seek to trust and accept love. Such discernment is the task of every Christian. In real life, it is tempting to spend so much time providing for our family that we don’t actually see them.  In such cases, we ironically turn loaves into rocks. The security we seek does not nurture. And Jesus said: ‘One does not live by bread alone,  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’

Many of us use testing behaviors, ‘If you really loved me, you would….’ in order to gain reassurance. The devil’s temptation to Jesus was to suggest that because he was special no harm would come to him—even if he did something stupid.   But such tactics are coercive and make the relationship about ‘I’ instead of “I and Thou’. Just because something is important to us—or it is something we badly need— that does not mean we will receive what we seek. Such an assumption confuses our personal well being with God’s presence.  It is a dangerous and unreliable correlation. Spiritually, it leaves out God and relationally, it leaves out the other person. The relationship is reduced to what we think is best for us.   And Jesus said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

And, finally, most of us are vulnerable to measuring our value by who approves or who defers to us.  How many of us have ‘sold ourselves out’ fearing disapproval and/or puffed ourselves up seeking approval.  It is easy to measure ourselves by the applause, good poll numbers or number of attendees at church. But in so doing, it is easy to forget our primary call is to love and serve.  And Jesus said: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’

Struggling with temptations requires us to discern what really matters.   With the eye of retrospect we begin to see how unique and special Jesus was.  In this scripture we see that in each case, Jesus turned to God. In real life, turning to God is all too often our last instead of first option.  All too often we live re-actively and we live by habit and routine. When I was with the first and second graders this week, they were asked to draw something they were sorry for.  One of the children said it should be her dad’s phone because he so often said “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.’—because he was busy with his phone. Almost as if it were a prearranged skit, the children started pantomiming their parents trying to have a conversation while they were texting or reading their emails.  

Temptations serve both to help us to discern what really matters to us as well exposing our fundamental fallibility.   No matter how devout or disciplined, we will discover ways that we yield to temptation—whether we are talking about chocolate, skipping exercise or failing to create time to be mindful.  We need to know this about ourselves and we need to repent. It is the reason our Lenten season begins with the temptation story. The temptations are not tests of competence or piety, they expose where we need to reorient our lives and they expose how impossible it is to maintain such a direction without God’s help. If we think we can (or should) manage on our own, we worship the idol of self sufficiency and it will not occur to us to ask for help.  If we realize how limited are our best intentions, we can both be in a position to ask for help and in a better position to guard against the temptations that distract us from God. 

One of the spiritual disciplines of the season is ‘giving up something for Lent’.  The point of such practices is not to demonstrate piety. The point is to help us realize what we prioritize and what separates us from God and each other.  Alex (our pastor for faith formation) made a short list of practical suggestions. Can we fast from social media, screens, complaining, gossip, bias, over-committing, overextending?   

Surely at least one of these is interfering with your relationship with God or others.  And you probably know it. But we continue anyway. It is quite the human dilemma. We must know it.  We must confess it. And we must seek to move closer to God’s way. That is the beginning of our journey to Jerusalem.  Most of our unhealthy habits are much more common than alcoholism, drug addiction or workalism. We grasp all kinds of things that are appealing but not nourishing.  Or, more simply—We can live a long time on Doritos but finally we will die of malnutrition.

The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted to help him understand from the inside out how easily human needs and fears can separate us from God.  Unless one of us is secretly Jesus, we will succumb to these distractions—even when we know better.. But each time we realize such hard truths about ourselves, turn to God with confidence.  God will help you.  

May we trust God with our never ending fallibility.  May we use our temptations to redirect our lives. As hard and as embarrassing as they are,  thank God for our temptations. Let it be so. 

Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.