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The Three Temptations of Christ

The Modern Catholic Dictionarys definition of Lent includes the following: “Originally the period of fasting in preparation for Easter did not, as a rule, exceed two or three days.  But by the time of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) forty days were already customary.  And ever since, this length of time has been associated with Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert before beginning his public life.”

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Gospel reading for the Mass included a reference to the forty-day fast of Christ and then provided details of the three instances in which He was tempted by the devil.  (Luke 4:1-13)

The most effective temptations are structured in a way that appeal to a person’s pride, while at the same time taking advantage of his or her weaknesses.  That’s the way the devil structured the three temptations that were directed at Christ.

The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines “pride” as:

An inordinate esteem of oneself.  It is inordinate because it is contrary to the truth.  It is essentially an act or disposition of the will desiring to be considered better than a person really is.  Pride may be expressed in different ways: by taking personal credit for gifts or possessions, as if they had not been received from God; by glorying in achievements, as if they were not primarily the result of divine goodness and grace; by minimizing one’s defects or claiming qualities that are not actually possessed; by holding oneself superior to others or disdaining them because they lack what the proud person has; by magnifying the defects of others or dwelling on them.  When pride is carried to the extent that a person is unwilling to acknowledge dependence on God and refuses to submit his or her will to God or lawful authority, it is a grave sin.  The gravity arises from the fact that a person shows contempt for God or of those who take his place.  Otherwise, pride is said to be imperfect and venially wrong.

The opposite of pride is humility, which is defined in the Modern Catholic Dictionary as:

The moral virtue that keeps a person from reaching beyond himself.  It is the virtue that restrains the unruly desire for personal greatness and leads people to an orderly love of themselves based on a true appreciation of their position with respect to God and their neighbors.  Religious humility recognizes one’s total dependence on God; moral humility recognizes one’s creaturely equality with others.  Yet humility is not only opposed to pride; it is also opposed to immoderate self-abjection, which would fail to recognize God’s gifts and use them according to his will.

The primary difference between pride and humility is how we view the gifts, talents, skills, and traits that we were blessed with.  Do we attribute them to our own personal greatness, or do we give full credit to God for everything that is good in us?  A close look at each of the three temptations that the devil used on our Lord reveals that the promise of personal greatness was an essential part of each of the temptations.

Temptation #1: “And the devil said unto him, if thou art the Son of God, command this stone that it become bread.”  (Luke 4:3)

The devil knew from his own vast experience, dating back to the creation of man, that the use of the word “if” was an effective way to challenge a man’s pride.  In reality, he was saying, “If you think you’re God, then prove it!”  He was not certain that Christ was the Son of God.  He knew that if Christ took him up on his challenge to turn the stone into bread, then Christ would be someone who could be manipulated through pride, which would indicate that He was not the Son of God.  Instead of giving in to the temptation, our Lord responded by saying, “[It] is written that Man liveth not by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  (Luke 4:4)

Temptation #2: “And he led him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.  And the devil said to him, I will give thee all this power, and their glory; for it is given up to me, and to whomsoever I will I give it.  If therefore thou wilt do homage before me, all of it shall be thine.”  (Luke 4:5-7)

In addition to the devil promising unlimited earthly possessions – all the kingdoms of the world –he made his offer even more irresistible by promising great power and glory.  While the first temptation was directed at our Lord’s physical hunger (after forty days of fasting), the second temptation was directed at His emotions.

As a result of our fallen human nature, we all have an emotional desire for power and glory.  Any appeal to this desire is an appeal to pride; however, nobody has the ability to grant power and authority except for God.  The devil knew that if Christ gave in to such a temptation, He would reveal Himself as a mere man, rather than the Son of God.  Our Lord’s response to the temptation was simple and direct:  “It is written:  Thou shalt adore the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”  (Luke 4:8)

Temptation #3: “And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and he said to him:  If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself from hence.  For it is written, He shall give charge to his angels concerning thee to keep thee; and on their hands shall they bear thee, lest in any wise thou strike thy foot against a stone.”  (Luke 4:9-11)

Having failed at appealing to the anticipated physical and emotional weaknesses of the man he was tempting, the devil attempted to appeal to the human desire for spiritual superiority over others.  What better way to make such an appeal than to quote scripture while challenging Christ to prove his spiritual superiority.  Again, our Lord’s response to the temptation was simple and to the point:  “It is said: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”  (Luke 4:12)

St. Luke tells us what happened next:  “And all the temptation being ended, the devil departed from him for a time.”  (Luke 4:13)  The key phrase here is “for a time.”  The devil never rests.  He is always looking for the next opportunity to tempt us, especially when we are physically, emotionally, or spiritually vulnerable.  We have the ability to resist him, but only when we imitate our Lord’s humility and His example of prayer and fasting.

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