Let me tell you first why I think the Bible is treated as irrelevant today. Actually, there are probably many reasons why it is given this response, but the one dominating my mind is that which treats the Bible as something communicating all about the Divine. Carrying this perspective we interpret the Bible as some puzzle to better understand the Divine, which unfortunately steers us away from it teaching more about our humanity.
For those raised in the church it is often highlighted the importance of believing Jesus’s divinity and how all of these stories underlining him is about his divine character. However, what is missed is that these stories communicate beautifully about the path of developing and deepening our humanity, what it looks like to change, to love, to connect, to accept, to heal and so on.
But because there is such a staunch focus on “correct” theological belief, it all gets lost in the muck of having to agree on a certain theological concept.
Therefore, because there is great emphasis that these ancient texts are believed to be showcasing the divine, what relevance does that have for us today? This perspective creates something esoteric and intangible, far reaching and elusive.
However, if we move the divinity argument to the side for a moment, we might discover some incredibly rich truths being illuminated for us. Truths imbedded in theses stories that may help us understand ourselves that could move us further, change us, and impact us for the better.
Which brings me to the story of the temptation of the desert. In the book of Matthew, Jesus, who has been fasting food for forty days and nights, is lead out to the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil, which is kind of weird scenario and a bit of a head-scratcher.
It is during this meeting that Jesus encounters three specific temptations, all of which he resists and confronts with his own verbal artillery from the ancient writings.
We see in the story that Jesus successfully escapes giving into the pull of these tempting offerings and the devil flees, subsequently leading to some kind of angelic intervention.
Pretty straightforward right? Don’t we all have our Spirit-driven-wilderness-devil encounter- angelic massage moments from time to time? I hope you pick up on the sarcasm.
All of this is fascinating to me. Why does this story exist? What is the author trying to communicate to his audience? Why did he feel it was important to write this?
Well, if you realize that the book of Matthew is all about the experience of change and how to move through it, this story begins to make a lot more sense.
The way I read this story is that it is all about what we encounter in the beginning of changing and moving into our own personal authentic expression in the world.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Jesus begins living out his message in the next story after his little desert meeting with the devil.
Now, I am going to rattle some mental cages with some of these thoughts, so be prepared.
What if the story is more symbolic than it is entirely literal?
Could it be that this story articulates what happens when we encounter change in ourselves, as we move toward the other side of just “being” in the world?
Think of our own “temptations” that pull us in directions that seem satisfying at the moment, but steer us away from where change is actually taking us.
Let me be blunt and then I will explain.
This story seems to be communicating about the ego, a part of ourselves we all face; a voice inside each of us that nags incessantly to find ways to meet needs that seemingly promise fulfillment, and in the end turn up empty.
All of those temptations Jesus encounters, although specific to him, directly relate and connect to our own nagging forces.
And that devil character, and I know this will be controversial, may actually be a metaphor for our own ego.
The ego is that force within that gives the most convincing unsolicited sales pitch, getting us to buy the product we think will satisfy the hunger we feel so strongly inside ourselves, that will cure the emptiness we are terrified to let exist; an emptiness that is so richly imbued with a powerful message actually leading us somewhere the quick fix cannot cure.
First, it is important to understand that our hunger and craving we feel is very significant. It is telling us something and we all find ourselves looking to feed this incredible feeling in ways that end in disappointment and dissatisfaction.
Which is the way life works. It is a continuous search, for the hunger is a compass to something.
But Jesus’s story is significant because the writer is wanting us to know the difficult process of change and how when we are faced with the hunger deep within our soul, we will go in search of what it wants.
This is a story about a man wrestling with his own self.
Let’s explore this story a little further.
The Hunger Within
The story begins with Jesus going out into the wilderness. Wilderness is associated with wandering in the Bible.
Wandering indicates not yet knowing and feeling lost. Think about it, if you don’t know the destination you are headed you are going to aimlessly travel around, directionless.
The wilderness is symbolic for the uninhabited; but where many will externalize this believing it to be about physical land, we may miss that this is about unexplored internal terrains.
So Jesus is led into this wilderness, something within him (Spirit) nudges him to go in search, which is when he encounters the Ego, that hungry beast inside that wants those cravings to go away immediately.
First he feels the unrelenting punch of hunger, which can be taken literally; however, let’s look at it metaphorically.
We all feel hunger, but this is not a hunger that corresponds with food. This kind of hunger is much more soulful, pervasive and deep. It’s roots travel far down inside of us and is always on.
If I were to guess, this hunger is actually about embracing and living in the world, connected, present, tethered to moving in the now, free of judgment, operating by the rules of love.
We are hungry for fulfillment, to no longer feel the lack, but paradoxically we must embrace the lack, the emptiness and the longing to experience fulfillment. We shift from bending life to curb the inner rumblings and allow the inner rumblings to be a part of living.
I know it sounds odd; however, this is one of the great objectives in life, learning to embrace the pains, joys, satisfactions and losses.
Think about yourself in this scenario, feeling this intense inner craving for something. Here Jesus is confronted with his own hunger and the tension of being able to quiet it with his divine abilities.
At this moment he has the ripe opportunity to use his mystical powers to meet the potent growl of hunger within himself.
But fascinatingly, he does not. He does not give in. Which is odd, is it not? Why wouldn’t he feed himself, knowing he has every capability of doing so?
It seems the author is wanting us to know something about this specific temptation; that we all feel this intense hunger and we all have some kind of capability, some more than others, to instantly gratify it. However, this instant, quick nourishment fades away to the powerful return of that existential craving.
But Jesus’s resistance of it, I wonder, might point to a deeper, spiritual hunger that is resistant to the quick fix.
I fall into grooves of feeling empty and looking for ways to nourish it; it is the human experience. It is intrinsic, unavoidable and a beautiful, meaningful wrestling match that seems to have a purposeful direction.
Another thing to note in this story is the phrase, “If you are the Son of God...” This is really an important part, because this highlights the conflict within himself, the crisis of identity. There seems to be this tension of wanting to prove who he is, the first beginning with understanding his own self, his purpose, meaning and ability in this life.
Which is critical for us to understand how this connects to our own selves, the inner conflict, feeling lost, desperate attempts to know who we are. This story clearly illuminates the journey of becoming the self.
The Longing to Be Seen, Known, and a Part of Something Greater
Now, comes the next temptation, the whole cliff-jumping-off-the-temple-into-the-angelic-net performance. This is a very significant temptation.
Here Jesus faces another internal fight, but where the first began with a hunger experienced deep within, this now brings in the pull of the external.
Seriously, why would Jesus feel this tug to do some death-defying-miraculous stunt? And why would it be from the temple?
The temple holds significance, for in those days the temple was the place where those go to worship. So this kind of stunt would attract quite the crowd, bringing attention and spectacle upon Jesus. Such an act would send these blatant messages that Jesus was the Christ, or the messiah, which the Israelites were in anticipation of happening.
The other interesting observation worth noting is that Jesus often told those that he healed or intervened in some miraculous way to keep this a secret, to not share what happened with anyone.
In his life, he never announced who we was to anyone, via megaphone, or social media, or in any self-elevated way. Who he was poured through the way he lived, loved, and engaged with others. Those that came to know him was not by self-proclamation or advertisement, but purely through “being”.
Which brings me back to this temptation, where he is faced with the opportunity and that powerful compelling feeling to announce who he was through a grandiose gesture.
It is what we all encounter, this powerful desire to be seen and known, to experience the amazement and adoration of others, to feel the overwhelming rush of the other’s praise. It is intoxicating and often something we search for in our personal relationships and beyond.
Deeply imbedded in this is to feel satisfied with our own selves; however, the struggle is that such satisfaction is attempting to be nourished through the validation of others, an unending struggle that can only change through a journey presented before us in the story.
Often, I experience this intense desire to show the world who I am, through whatever means that will fulfill this ache. I want so badly to be known in this world, to make an impact, to cure this existential loneliness in moments. It seems that this in a way will be a comfort to the lingering emptiness and hunger I feel.
The push to be known is a powerful one and to live in a time where we have the accessibility and means to get this need met stirs only intensifies the draw.
One last note to make about this temptation is the repeated phrase, “If you are the son of God...” Where the first was about using his abilities to meet hunger, this one seems to be pointing to proving to the external, or to others, who we are.
That growl happens so loud in us, as we want others to see who we truly are, to accept us, to love us, to approve of us. We use our abilities to generate that kind of response; our beauty, sexuality, strength, intellect, creativity, etc. can be a means to feeling connected and feeling loved.
And that is what is so beautiful about this incredible need, that we want to feel a part of something and to truly experience connection with others. However, there is a fork in the path at the base of this need, the attempt to short-cut it through methods of instant nourishment or the longer path that moves towards it being fulfilled in a way that is sustaining and satisfying.
What this temptation profoundly communicates for us is that we carry something to give to the world, but instead of it being driven by the external, it is a message we have connected with deep inside that we desire to share to the world, untethered from the other’s response.
The Draw to Feel in Control
The last of the temptations is that in which the “devil” promises Jesus that he may have all the kingdoms of the world if he were to bow down and worship him.
Now Jesus is tasked with facing the muscular current to use his abilities in a powerful way, in a way that humanity has often used them, for power, rule, control, etc.
I find it interesting, if this is indeed the order of the temptations written, that this is the last of the temptations.
If you go back to the first, it starts with a deep, intrinsic, cavernous hunger for something more,
the pull to be recognized and praised by others,
the outcome of what happens once we are elevated to a powerful degree by the surrounding world. We are given prestige, respect, value, and the power to persuade and influence others to the way we want others to be influenced.
This has a powerful draw to it. And this, if we do not face our own ego, will be where we end up, looking to control, force, and bend life, specifically humanity, to meet our own internal hunger. We will always live avoidant of the emptiness and the hunger of our soul, which is screaming for a different kind of fulfillment.
Also, if you notice (once again I going to be controversial), Jesus denies and resists the fight to become king, which is what society would have done, had he listened to that part of himself that could use his abilities to gain this kind of power and fame.
He had the opportunity, but he chose a different path.
Where I am going with this, is that modern Christianity has done what humanity reflexively does historically; elevates, deifies, and worships. They made Jesus king and this is what he opposed in the temptations, the draw to become king.
Instead, he chose a path that he modeled for us to take, one that requires going into our own self, facing the hunger, the longings, the desires and the pull to feed it as the Ego directs. For the ego is a persuasive force that presents a path that seems promising in fulfilling the deep-seated hunger, but will lead back into emptiness.
Jesus, showed us the way of actual fulfillment, one that results in living honestly, compassionately, genuinely, vulnerably, inclusively, annihilating barriers that humankind constructed, mending wounds, going into societies of the outcasted, hated, and ostracized, and moving only in way where he was compelled to move, listening to the voice within.
It is why, I believe, the author was intentional in how he put these sequence of events together, first the temptation and then living out the message. This is how it begins, facing our self and our ego that we may live in the world knowing who we are, not what the “world” or society dictates what we are to be.
Outer Vs. Inner- Directed Life
There is so much to uncover in this story, but the way I interpret the author’s writing is that we come to a point where we are staring at two paths. The one path pulls us to display ourselves and our abilities for others, the motive to acquire the adoration and praise of others, which ultimately results in us control, subjugating, dehumanizing, abusing and oppressing others.
This kind of path happens when we lack personally knowing our own selves. When this is unclear we will fixate on others, shaping our life, image, personality, etc. to their desires, where ultimately, we will attempt to control their reactions to us.
Some people in power, such as rulers and dictators function in this way.
And then there’s the other path, the one that goes into the emptiness and loneliness, welcomes it, as well as the pain, allowing it to shape and mold us. It is down this path that we become attuned to everything that exists in our selves and thus impacts how we relate and connect to others.
This other path is that which leads us to a greater knowing and we discover who we are and the purpose of why we exist in the world.
May you embrace that beautiful, tumultuous, turbulent, challenging, incredible journey of the true self, that you may live touching the world in incredible, life-changing ways.