When the devil had finished every test, he departed from (Jesus) until an opportune time (Luke 4.13).
Before Jesus inaugurated his ministry, he prepared himself through an intentional act of retreat into the wilderness. There, he fasted, freely relinquishing his power to feed himself, and prayed, fully seeking the One Who was his sustenance. There, too, “for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”
Whether “the devil” was the literal personification of evil, all that denies or defies God, or symbolic of the inner wrestling of self-questioning, through his temptations, Jesus departed the wilderness with a clarity of vision as to who he was and to Whom he belonged. God and God alone.
However, Jesus did not step out of the wilderness alone. The devil went with him. For, as I interpret it, the “opportune time” to tempt Jesus to betray his identity and destiny wouldn’t be a one-time-future-thing. Rather the devil always tested Jesus. Yes, at that decisive moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus, the shadow of the cross looming over him, in anguished prayer, besought God: “If You are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but Yours be done” (Luke 22.42), yet also throughout Jesus’ ministry. For as Jesus was resolute in fulfilling his calling, the devil had to be tenacious in seeking to deter Jesus from his destined path.
The image of a tug-of-war comes to mind. Each side strives mightily to drag the other across the demarcating line that signals victory for one and defeat for the other. As long as one side continues to pull, so must the other side. Only if or when one side yields, tugging at the rope no more, can the other side relent, needing to pull less vigorously to assure triumph.
Jesus never stopped doing God’s will. Jesus never stopped being on God’s side. Hence, through constant temptations, the devil was compelled to continue “pulling at” Jesus to forsake his mission and ministry.
As I reflect on my experience with temptation – specifically, any enticement, whether internal or external, to choose between good, which I equate with God’s will (at least, as far as I can see it), and evil, which, again, as above, I define as anything that denies or defies God – four things I (think I) have learned…
One, temptation always sparks conflict, an inner tug-of-war asking, demanding that I discern afresh (come to see and know anew) my truth: Who am I and to whom do I belong? Am I God’s man? Or is there someone else in whom or something else in which I find my identity?
Two, once I declare again who I am and to whom I belong, then I must choose. I must act on my renewed discernment in the concrete circumstance through which the temptation presented itself.
Three, concerning the worst of my life’s choices (and plenty of them, I can count; at least, the ones I can remember!), I made a decision without having discerned again who I was and to whom I belonged. To put this another way, I, responding to a stimulus in an unreflective fashion, acted on impulse.
(Here, as a logophile, I digress. The word impulse is derived from the Latin em [on or upon] + pellere [to drive or to thrust]. Hence, to act impulsively is more to be pushed by something, say, a desire or an emotion, than it is to pull against something, say, an earnest conflict over right and wrong, good and bad.)
Four, whenever I have acted on impulse, later (always damnably later!) I have discerned that, seemingly paradoxically, I had not experienced temptation. For the curse of impulse is that it functions in an unreflective, thus, unreasoned manner. When I am impulsive, I am anesthetized to any inner conflict. And, thus, the devil doesn’t have to pull at me very hard, if at all, for I do the thing I hate, which I wouldn’t have done if only I had discerned before I decided.
There is a fifth thing I think I have learned…
As reflective and introspective as (I’d like to believe) I am, I also am deeply emotional (read: high-strung and capable of wide and swift sweeps of volatility). In other words, I am susceptible to impulsivity. Hence, though I acknowledge and accept that aspect of my personhood, I don’t trust it.
This realization, though never intending to universalize my experience, has led me to a sixth thing I think I have learned…
I tend to be skeptical about the discerning rationality of the actions and decisions of those in whom I observe the sort of impulsivity I distrust in myself.
Illustration: The Temptation of Christ (1872), Vasily Ivanovich Surikov (1848-1916)