Is temptation seeking something good, but going about it in way that ultimately undercuts everything we want?

A 19th century painting showing a dejected and downcast Jesus, sitting alone on a rock in the desert wilderness.
Credit: Kramskoĭ, Ivan Nikolaevich, 1837-1887. Christ in the Wilderness, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
Published On: March 9, 2019

A reflection on the temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-13).

I seldom imagine Jesus as vulnerable to temptation. For me, Jesus is confident, outspoken, insightful, inspiring – even unshakable in his conviction that the world can and must be better, and that love is the way. But Jesus vulnerable to temptation? Doubting his calling, or his strategy? Second-guessing himself? That adds a whole different level of complexity to his mission for me.
We only get a couple of glimpses of that in the gospels – one is in this week’s reading, at the very beginning of his ministry, and the other is in Gethsemane, at the very end. For the most part the gospel writers don’t tell us much about Jesus’ inner insecurities, but the very fact that we see these both at the beginning and at the end of Jesus’ ministry makes me suspect that temptation wasn’t a rare occurrence. Jesus likely wrestled throughout the whole three-year odyssey… and for me that makes him and what he tried to teach us both more do-able and more inspiring. It’s one thing to be urged to action by a perfect model; it’s quite another to model myself after someone who was as vulnerable as I am, and yet somehow found the personal resources to stay focused on the message, come what may.
Movies and pop theology would have us believe that people are mostly tempted by sex, or by chocolate. Maybe. But that seems pretty cheap to me. The real pain I see in people’s lives are when they’re tempted by something even more destructive… maybe even something that feels initially helpful, but ends up wreaking havoc. Opioids, or booze, for example, are frequently valuable; but they're also killing thousands, and creating chaos in the lives of so many more. Reaching for something that gives short-term relief – even for the best of reasons – can sometimes bring consequences that no one expects.
I wonder if bullying, and racism, and power trips are also the result of giving in to temptation – the temptation to fulfill our very human longing for belonging or respect by using strategies that incite fear instead of build community?
Is temptation seeking something good, but going about it in way that ultimately undercuts everything we want?
From the story this week, Jesus wasn’t tempted by either sex or chocolate. Lucky him! He was tempted by his own overwhelming desire to make the world a better place: to provide enough bread to feed the hungry, to replace the self-serving rulers of the world’s kingdoms with someone who’d do the job with more compassion, and to risk his own life to prove God’s power.
Remarkably, those are all things he ended up doing in his public ministry anyway. We still eat together when we remember him, and share our resources to feed the hungry. We still call him Ruler, and reject the authority of tyrants. We still are inspired by his life sacrifice.
So what was he wrestling with? What did the devil offer him, in this story, that he rejected? If the ends were the same, is this really a story about how “means to the ends” are as important as anything else? Is that what people mean when they say that life is as much about the journey as it is about the destination?
What are we tempted by? What goals are we working towards? Which strategies can truly get us there, and how do we resist the “shortcuts” that would deep six everything we think we want to achieve?

 — Stephen Fetter is the minister at Forest Hill United Church, an intercultural congregation in Toronto. He’s also the coordinator of United-in-Learning, the General Council’s online continuing education program.