Thursday, August 10, 2006

Christ's Temptation

Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him." - Mark 1:12-13

The accounts of Christ's temptation leave me confused. Perhaps you can help me along. (I'll use the masculine, since the example that I wish to discuss is Christ.)

When we say someone was tempted, we mean one of two things. (i) A certain thing was presented to him that has the power to tempt but he felt no temptation to take it. Call this the external sense. (ii) A certain thing was presented to him that has the power to tempt and he felt the temptation to take it. Call this the internal sense.

The difference in the internal and external senses is clear. To each corresponds a sense of 'temptation'. (i) An external temptation is simply the possibility that I take for myself a certain thing that has the power to tempt others. But though this possibility exists (and I know that it exists) I feel no desire to make the thing my own. Others might well feel the temptation, but I do not. The food is in front of me, but I have no desire to eat it. The woman reclines in my bed, but I have no desire to be with her. (ii) An internal temptation, like an external one, requires the possibility that I take for myself a certain thing. But this is not all that it requires. Rather an internal temptation requires that I desire the thing. It requires the wish that I make it my own. The food is in front of me and I want to eat. The women is in my bed and I want to lie down with her.

The question that I wish to ask should come as no surprise. It is this: When Christ was tempted, was the temptation merely external or what is internal as well?

I find both unacceptable. Let us say first that the temptation was internal. If this is so, Christ desired to possess things that it was not right for him to possess. (As Christ makes clear in his responses to Satan, Satan offers him things that he ought not take.) But the desire for such a thing is a sign of moral failure. A being that desires what it ought not have is imperfect. But of course Christ suffered from no such imperfection. Thus Christ's temptation cannot have been of the internal sort.

But neither can it have been purely external. If Christ's temptation was purely external, he is profoundly unlike you and me. Indeed if it was purely external, his humanity was a sham. The temptations we feel lie at the heart of our moral lives. If Christ felt no temptation, he cannot sympathize with us. He cannot know us. He cannot be our Savior.

I need a savior who knows me in my heart of hearts. If Christ's temptations were purely external, he cannot know me.

Moreover, if Christ's temptation was purely external, his sinlessness was inevitable and thus not praiseworthy. A being that can feel no temptation is a being that cannot sin; and a being that cannot sin is one that deserves no praise when it does not sin. But surely Christ's perfection demands the highest praise; it is praiseworthy about all else.

Thus we are left with this dilemma: either Christ's temptation was internal and Christ was thus imperfect, or his temptation was purely external and thus he cannot know us and does not deserve our praise.

Do you see a way out?


C Grace said...


I can find no way to argue for a case that Christ's temptations are purely external. John's account of Christ's temptation in the garden should put to rest any doubt that he indeed suffered temptation.

Now the one suffering is truly impacted by the thing suffered. It would be hard for me to see how the temptations that Christ suffered stemmed from his own desires, it seems more reasonable to believe they were rather caused by Satan. Jesus was a second Adam. In the wilderness, and more particularly in the garden of Gethsemane, Adam's temptation in the garden of Eden was being replayed.

It is a commonly reported phenomenon in Christian history that Satan has the power to effect the the body, mind and emotions. It seems reasonable to me that this is what happened during the temptations of Christ. I wonder if the analogy of someone being tortured in order to be forced to do something would be a good analogy? Except of course Satan has the power to torture far more than simply the physical body- and the soul is more sensitive and can suffer much more pain then the body.

(Imagine resisting the food in front of you when your body is burning with the full force of starvation and your mind is full of fears of dying.)

C Grace said...

One important point I forgot to mention.

The temptations in the wilderness are not temptations of wrong desire but to wrong action. The desire to eat, the desire for glory and recognition by the world and the desire to rule the world were all right and good. The rule and recognition of the world are Christ's by right of being the Son. The temptation in all three cases was for Christ to take what he rightly desired through a means that was outside of God's will. It was not to take what was not His at all.

Franklin Mason said...

Thanks Grace.

I have a few questions, though. You seem to suggest that Satan had the power to implant a certain desire within Christ. Is this right? If Satan can do that, I fear there's no hope for us. Moreover, if Satan were to implant a desire within me, it seems that I am not responsible for that desire. This seems a strange idea to me. If I, say, wish to murder someone, I have already sinned. The wish is my own and I should be held responsible for it.

You say: "The temptation in all three cases was for Christ to take what he rightly desired through a means that was outside of God's will. It was not to take what was not His at all."

Let me press my point. You seem to say that Christ was tempted to make a thing his own but in the wrong way. I grant that the desire was not defective in respect of its object. But it still seems defective in respect of the manner that Christ wished to obtain that object. He was tempted, i.e. he desired, to obtain the thing in the wrong way. Let's say that you've stolen my favorite beer mug. I find within myself the desire to kill you to get it back. Now, the desire is not wrong in respect of its object. The beer mug is mine, and it's right for me to have it. But it is surely wrong in respect of the manner that I desire to get it back; and when I form the desire to kill you to get it back, I've sinned.

C Grace said...

Franklin you misunderstand.

"You seem to suggest that Satan had the power to implant a certain desire within Christ. Is this right?"

You are failing to differentiate between types of desires. Or maybe the better way to put it is you are failing to differentiate where the desire originates. There are desires of the body (like food and sleep) and of the mind (such as security and admiration) and of the spirit (the desire to be who and what we were originally created to be, which is the desire to be united with God in love, participate in God's being).

If you desire to kill me for taking your beer mug,(maybe either from physical rage or because in your mind your pride is brusied) why do you not do it? Isn't it because there is another, higher desire that desires the Good? Every action or stopping of action (which itself is an action) we take is the acting out of some desire.

How much of our life is governed from what the Bible calls the flesh? We were created to work from the top down- to be completely governed by the desires of our inner man, our true self, our spirit, whatever you want to call it. This inner man is created in God's likeness and is perfectly good. At the fall, though, we lost this ability to govern ourselves, and started living out a bottom up lifestyle letting our passions and pride rule us. Our mind or body govern our actions rather than our true self.

Even if you think that Satan is just a liturature element, you can still see how Christ can be tempted by his lower desires to do what is wrong, without ever compromising His real goodness.(Traditional theology teaches that nothing can corrupt that inner man, it was made by God perfectly good and is sustained in God) You can see also how every person could theoretically live a perfect life. Because of sin, though, our will has becomes trapped and bound to our lower desires. (Thomas Keating in his book Invitation to Love takes a shot at examining how this happens and I think he does a pretty good job.)

One way of putting the good news of the gospel is that Christ entered fully into the fallen human condition and having conquered the lower desires, opened a way for us to escape them. Thus we can be reunited to God through our inner man. He is now sending His Spirit to set us free from our sinful nature (our lower desires).

God leaves most of His work in freeing humanity from our fallen condition hidden so that we have as much opperntunity as possible to freely cooperate with Him.

If we ourselves are free to live life from the top down (and this inner man is the only part of us that makes truly free choices) it is because of some work God did in history or supernaturally in our lives that has freed us from the consequences of original sin.

Franklin Mason said...


Now I begin to understand your point. You wish to say that Christ had certain desires such that, had he acted on them, he would have done wrong, and yet the mere fact that he had those desires did not entail that he was less than perfect. Perfection, on this view, does not mean that I do not desire what I ought not have; it is rather that I so control my 'lower' desires that I never act on one when I ought not.

You put it eloquently, and I feel some temptation to accept what you say.

But I also feel a temptation to reject it. What I want for myself is not merely the power to control my lower desires. Rather what I want is to not desire a thing if I know that I ought not have it. To not desire what I ought not have seems to me a higher, more blessed state than the power to control the desire for a thing I ought not have. Indeed the kind of perfection you describe seems to entail a certain tension within Christ. There were forces that pulled him one way, and forces that pulled him another. Wouldn't he have been better had he been pulled in only one way, the way that was right?

But of course, if one says this about Christ, one is back in the dilemma I described in the original post. If Christ is only ever pulled in one way, the way that it was right for him to act, he never really felt temptation. His temptations were merely external in my sense and thus were sham temptations.

C Grace said...


"To not desire what I ought not have seems to me a higher, more blessed state than the power to control the desire for a thing I ought not have. Indeed the kind of perfection you describe seems to entail a certain tension within Christ. There were forces that pulled him one way, and forces that pulled him another."

You are right. I guess to overcome this problem brings us back around to the idea that Satan can manipulate the lower faculties and 'implant' desires in them. If we accept this then the forces pulling Jesus away from God are not due to his own rejection of God's plan, but to Satan's manipulation.

It is in this that I recognize that Christ was human as Adam was human, not as we are human.

Christ and Adam lived in the unfallen state as you mention here 1)To not desire what I ought not have seems to me a higher, more blessed state

Because we are fallen we are stuck trying to control the desire for the things we ought not have. The relevant question is- What causes our lower desires to be unruly? My answer is - Our separation from God.

Going back to your example of the beer mug. What causes the physical rage or pride? It is because ingrained in our body and mind are habits of relating to the world caused by trying to fufill our spiritual desires through mental or material means.

Say the applicable spiritual desire here is for peace and security, but since you are separated from God you do not experience this perfect peace. Therefore you unconsciously try to fulfill this desire by finding security in possessing things. Thus when I try to take your mug you feel threatened and get enraged. A real and essential part of yourself is feeling threatened, but the only reason it can be threatened is because it has the wrong object.

As I have grown as a Christian and come to know God more intimately, I have experienced being gradually freed from wrong lower desires. When you know God loves you, you don't feel the desire to pursue love elsewhere through wrong relationships. When you know that God protects you, it enables you to escape from the self-defense mechanisms that cause you to fight and scratch for security in the world.

The type of knowing I was talking of above is not simply an intellectual knowing, it is an immovable conviction of the soul. This is the work of the Holy Spirit as Christ's felt presence in our life. It is He who transforms us. (In Paul's letters you can see the constant theme of the new creation, the new man, being freed, being transformed, etc.)

This is the essence of Christ's work and being. He came to heal our separation from God. This is centered in the doctrine of the incarnation. Christ, in Himself, united God and man, and in Christ this unity cannot be broken. This is how the situation has changed since Adam. Adam could be separated from God, as Christians in Christ we cannot. Christ, Himself, in His own person, is our guarentee of that bond and the Holy Spirit in us, leads us into an unassailable knowledge of this guarentee. Those is our security assured both in heaven and our own soul.

C Grace said...

woops typo

'Those' should have been 'thus'

Franklin Mason said...

Well said. I'll have to chew it over. What you say is (as is often the case) profound.