Christ's Temptation

Temptation is here taken to be an incitement to sin whether by persuasion or by the offer of some good or pleasure. It may be merely external, as was the case of Christ's encounter in the desert after the forty days' fast; or it may be internal as well, inasmuch as there is a real assault upon a person's will power. It arises sometimes from the propensity to evil inherent in us as a result of original sin. Sometimes it is directly chargeable to the intervention of the Devil, who can furnish the imagination with its sinful subject-matter and stir up the lower powers of the soul. Not infrequently both causes are at work. Temptation is not in itself sin. No matter how vivid the unholy image may be, no matter how strong the inclination to transgress the law, no matter how vehement the sensation of unlawful satisfaction, as long as there is no consent of the will, there is no sin. The very essence of sin in any grade is that it should be a deliberate act of the human will. Attack is not synonymous with surrender. This, while obvious enough, is important especially for those who are trying to serve God sedulously and yet find themselves beset on all sides by temptations. They are apt to take the fierceness and repetition of the onset as proof that they have fallen. A wise spiritual guide will point out the error of this conclusion and thus administer comfort and courage to these harassed souls.

Temptations are to be combated by the avoidance, where possible, of the occasions that give rise to them, by recourse to prayer, and by fostering within oneself a spirit of humble distrust of one's own powers and of unbounded confidence in God. The resistance which a Christian is bound to offer need not always be direct. Sometimes, particularly when there is question of reiterated evil interior suggestions, it may be useful to employ an indirect method, that is, to simply ignore them and quietly divert the attention into another channel. Temptations as such can never be intended by God. They are permitted by Him to give us an opportunity of practising virtue and self mastery and acquiring merit. The fact of temptation, no matter how large it looms in a person's life, is not an indication that such an one is under the ban. Indeed those whom God calls to special heights of sanctity are just those who may expect to have to wrestle bravely with temptations more numerous and fearsome than fall to the lot of the average mortal.

Taken in an unfavourable sense as denoting enticement to evil, temptation cannot be referred directly to God or to Christ, so that when we read in Genesis 22:1, for instance, "God tempted Abraham", and in John 6:6, "Hoc autem dicebat tentans eum", literally: "This He [Jesus] said tempting him [Philip]", the expressions must be taken in the sense of testing, trying. According to St. James (1:12 sqq.), the natural source of man's temptations is concupiscence, or that proneness to evil which is the result of the fall of Adam, and which remains in human nature after baptismal regeneration, and even though the soul is in the state of sanctifying grace (cf. Romans 8:1). Concupiscence becomes sinful only when freely yielded to; when resisted with God's help it is an occasion of merit. Together with inward concupiscence, and outward creatures, which may be the occasion of sin (1 John 2:15 sqq.), the chief cause of temptation is Satan, "the tempter" (Matthew 4:3), bent on man's eternal ruin (Ephesians 6:10 sqq.). In the Lord's Prayer, the clause "Lead us not into temptation" is an humble and trusting petition for God's help to enable us to overcome temptation when His Fatherly Providence allows us to experience the allurements of evil. Prayer and watchfulness are the chief weapons against temptation (Mark 14:38; etc.). God does not allow man to be tempted beyond his strength (1Corinthians 10:13).

Like Adam, Christ (the second Adam) endured temptation only from without, inasmuch as His human nature was free from all concupiscence; but unlike Adam, He withstood the assaults of the Tempter on all points, thereby affording His mystical members a perfect model of resistance to their spiritual enemy, and a permanent source of victorious help (Hebrews 4:15-16). In our first three Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), the narrative of Christ's temptation is placed in immediate connexion with His baptism on the one hand, and with the beginning of His public ministry on the other. The reason of this is clear. The Synoptists naturally regard the baptism of Christ as the external designation of Jesus from above for His Messianic work to be pursued under the guidance of the Holy Spirit bestowed upon Him on this occasion; and they no less naturally regard Christ's sojourn in the desert where He was tempted, as His own immediate preparation for that great work under the guidance of the same Holy Spirit. As our first three Gospels agree concerning the time to which they assign the temptation of Christ, so they are at one in ascribing the same general place to its occurrence, viz. "the desert", whereby they no doubt mean the Wilderness of Judea, where Jesus would indeed be, as St. Mark says: "with beasts". From St. Mark (1:13) - with whom compare Luke 4:2 - we learn that Jesus Christ was tempted during the forty days which He spent in the desert (cf. St. Augustine, "Harmony of the Evangelists", II, xvi), so that the three onsets given in detail by St. Matthew and St. Luke are apparently the three final assaults of Satan against Christ. The first of these assaults is directly connected in both St. Matthew and St. Luke with the prolonged fast of Jesus in the wilderness. The Tempter suggested to Jesus that He should use His miraculous power to relieve His hunger, by changing into bread the loaf-like flints of the desert. The two other assaults are given in a different order, St. Matthew adhering probably to the order of time, and St. Luke to that of place. The spot pointed out by tradition as the summit from which Satan offered to Jesus dominion over all earthly kingdoms is the "Quarantania", a limestone peak on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. As regards the Temple's pinnacle from which the Tempter bade Jesus cast Himself down, it was not the top of the House of Yahweh, but probably the roof of Solomon's portico from which, at a later date, St. James was actually hurled to the pavement below (Eusebius, Church History IV.13).

According to St. Luke (4:13), after having subjected Christ to all kinds of temptations - the Messianic import of which is undoubted - Satan withdrew, awaiting a favourable opportunity like that which followed Christ's prolonged fast in the desert. The later conflict thus alluded to is no other than that of Christ's Passion (cf. Luke 22:53; John 14:30). The ministry of angels to Jesus, in connection with His temptation, is mentioned in Mark 1:13. Satan's exact manner of appearance to Jesus is not stated by the Evangelists. Despite the difficulties urged, chiefly by non-Catholic scholars, against the historical character of the three temptations of Jesus, as recorded by St. Matthew and St. Luke, it is plain that these sacred writers intended to describe an actual and visible approach of Satan, to chronicle an actual shifting of places, etc., and that the traditional view, which maintains the objective nature of Christ's temptations, is the only one meeting all the requirements of the Gospel narrative.

Published Date: 
Saturday, March 9, 2019