The three temptations of Jesus are familiar to all of us – the temptation for sensual satisfaction, the thirst for power, and the desire for worldly recognition – but, as the Spanish exorcist Father Jose Antonio Fortea explains, these temptations become much more subtle and dangerous when they are imposed on the devout.
If you think about it, the way the devil tempted Jesus doesn’t seem to make much sense. For example, why would he tempt Jesus to worship him when he couldn’t even get Him to break His fast? And why would he tempt Jesus with throwing Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple to gain worldly recognition after he already failed to convince Jesus to worship him in exchange for worldly power? At first glance, it would seem as if the devil was throwing everything he had at Him to see what would stick.
As Father Fortea warns in his book, An Interview with an Excorcist, the devil knew exactly what he was doing and uses these same tactics to trip up those of us who are serious about our spiritual life.
“First, the devil tempted Jesus not with sin per se, but with imperfection,” Father Fortea explains. “He was asked to stop doing a good, i.e., His fasting, and turn stones into bread.”
The devil knows he can’t tempt the devout to outright sin, but he can make great headway convincing us to shortchange the good that we do. We give alms, but only from our excess rather than from our need. We gather up bags full of clothes for the poor, but keep the finest for ourselves. We are chronically late which causes others to be inconvenienced. We complain about everything instead of silently offering it up. We pray, but only when it’s convenient rather than setting aside specific time every day to spend with God.
None of these examples are sins, but they can still weaken us and lead to sin if allowed to continue.
The second temptation of Jesus, which was the temptation to worship Satan in exchange for all the goods of the world, is yet another example of how the devil tempts the just.
“This second temptation is packed with tremendous spiritual meaning. Jesus was not asked to stop being God; He was only asked the sacrifice of humbling Himself a bit more. Could not the Just One who had made so many sacrifices for souls not do one more? It is the temptation to do a little evil as to achieve a great good,” Father Fortea explains.
In other words, Satan was tempting Jesus to let the ends justify the means. Jesus was not being asked to give up being God, but to be God in a different and evil way. This temptation is quite subtle and, therefore, very effective. It tempts us to compromise our faith and our relationship with God if it should stand in our way in life. It tricks us into thinking our good intention – such as asking for prayer for a friend – is an excuse for exchanging gossip about them. Or it seduces us into thinking that it’s okay to give in to vainglory when it comes to being noticed for doing good in our parish or giving a large some of money to a Church project. As the Catechism teaches, “the end does not justify the means” [No. 1759] nor does a good intention cancel out the bad intention with which it is mingled.
The last temptation of Jesus is that of pride. Jesus is being asked not only to be publicly recognized for Who He is, but to do in His own time rather than in the time appointed by His Father. The devil was asking: “Why remain in obscurity when so much good can be done by coming out into the light in a glorious and spectacular way?”
As Father Roger J. Landry explains: “This is the temptation to be presumptuous with God, to do things that will try to force God’s hand. We try to coerce the Father into protecting us no matter what. By this temptation, the devil tries to get us to recreate our relationship with God on our terms rather than His terms; then, when God doesn’t seem to respond to that situation because such behavior harms us, the devil uses it to divide us even further from God.”
Instead of waiting on God, we push against grace. We try to direct God rather than letting Him direct us. We want brilliant inspirations, mystical experiences, and immediate answers to our questions so that we can continue along the path we’ve paved for ourselves rather than submitting to the will of God and the path He has assigned to us.
It’s important to remember that temptations are not something to be afraid of. They have a very important purpose in the spiritual life, but we need to learn how to use them to our advantage.
For this purpose, Father Ludovic-Marie Barrielle suggests in his book, Rules for Discerning the Spirits, that we should take a lesson from the boxer who wants to be a champion.
“Some train by punching their pillow. In doing that, only meager results will be made. Others train with a punching ball. That makes for greater progress (if not, one risks getting the ball in one’s face). If one wants to become a proficient boxer, one must train with a champion. In the beginning, you will be bruised, but soon you, too, will become a master.
In other words, if we want to become a champion, we must learn how to spar with a champion. Who better to teach us than the accuser himself?
We must accept the temptations that come our way while always remembering that “God is faithful and will not let us be tried beyond our strength” (1 Corinthians 10:13). As Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen teaches in Divine Intimacy, “…[A]ccompanying every temptation there is always a special actual grace sufficient to overcome it.”
© Susan Brinkmann OCDS
We have powerful friends in heaven to help us in our battle against temptation – such as St. Joseph, who is known as the Terror of Demons. Check out our webinar with Father Donald Calloway, author of Consecration to St. Joseph: Restoring the World and the Church on Wednesday, March 4 at 8 PM EST. Click here for more information!