Three Temptations of Christ, detail, (1481-82), fresco by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Sistine Chapel, Vatican
In Luke 4:1-13 we read that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and temptation in much the same way God led the Israelites into the desert for forty years of wanderings. During Lent we lead ourselves into the wilderness of self-denial for forty days. It’s not surprising most Baptists don’t do Lent. I suspect many people in traditions that observe this somber season don’t either. Can you blame them? Who would go into the wilderness unless someone makes them go?
The wilderness is always a scary, uncomfortable place. If you find the desert beautiful and serene, that’s not your wilderness. Your wilderness may be a hospital bed, or an empty house, or a neighborhood bar—wherever pain meets temptation. We would never go there willingly. Something leads us, even compels us to go.
All three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell the story of Jesus’ temptation, though Luke’s passage is much closer to Matthew’s account. All Mark says is,
And straightway the spirit driveth him forth into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days tempted of Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. (1:12-13)
Details of the three temptations come from Matthew and Luke. Both start with the temptation to eat bread, but they disagree what comes next and how the story ends. Unlike Matthew, Luke ends with the temptation to test fate and jump off the temple, trusting his life to the angels. Both Matthew and Mark end with the angels ministering to Jesus. Luke ends his passage not with comfort but apprehension: “And when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him for a season” (13). Jesus got only a temporary reprieve from the adversary. He would be back. The next time he would use Judas to do his dirty work (22:3).
Don’t ask me whether the devil is a literal being, an amorphous evil presence, or simply a metaphor, a figure of speech. I don’t know. I’ve always thought of the devil and demons as literal beings and reading C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters reinforced that mental image. It works for me. In any case, questions like Is it true? Did it really happen that way? are not as important as What is God trying to say? So, what is God trying to say to us in this passage?
The writer of Hebrews believed the main point is that Jesus is like us (4:15). He was tempted in every way only he didn’t give in, which actually makes him very different. I’m not sure why Jesus would find it tempting to jump off a building. I’m afraid of heights, so it wouldn’t be a temptation for me. You’d have a hard time even getting me near the edge. But isn’t that the point? This was Jesus’ temptation. Not ours. He was being tested. Not us. It might not have been hard for Jesus to say no to what tempts us. Just as we all have our unique wildernesses, we have our own temptations.
The season of Lent encourages us to practice the spiritual discipline of fasting, which builds the virtue of self-control. Setting aside food, or whatever else tempts us, not only promotes self-mastery, it also allows us to see more clearly. Again, the writer of Hebrews: “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us . . . looking unto Jesus” (12:1-2). We say no to ourselves so we can more easily say yes to God.
I think many people don’t observe Lent because they’re afraid to fail. It’s like New Year’s resolutions. Why try if you know you’re not going to succeed? But I would argue that even failure has its payoff. If we try to live a little more self-controlled, a little closer to God, and fail, it reminds us that we’re weak, sinful creatures. It teaches us that we need God’s strength and forgiveness. If that’s all we learn from Lent, it’s not a bad lesson, now is it?