Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)
Among the various terrains in which wars can be fought, the desert is one of the most severe and unforgiving. Intense heat; choking dust; parching dryness; sand in which both humans and machines get bogged down; rocks and boulders strewn everywhere; it is a harsh, unforgiving landscape that gives none of the comforts of more hospitable environments. As the Germans discovered in their North African campaign in World War II, the desert is merciless to those who are unprepared for its rigors—and even those who are prepared must fight the onslaughts of the desert itself while fighting their human enemies.
This harsh, arid desert environment is precisely where Jesus fought the first of his temptations recorded in the Gospel story. It was right after he was baptized in the cooling waters of the Jordan that the spirit led him into the desert. We read that he fasted forty days and forty nights—and the number forty, especially when it is mentioned together with fasting, corresponds to temptation. The Children of Israel wandered forty years in the desert before they could enter the Holy Land. And Moses twice fasted forty days and forty nights on Mt. Sinai when receiving the Ten Commandments and all the accompanying laws.
Jesus’ temptations in the desert
After Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was tempted by the devil, as told in Matthew 4:1–11. And in the three temptations recounted, we have a summary of all the Lord’s temptations, on all three levels: in his outward actions, in his thoughts, and in his heart:
- Turning stones into bread would be taking mere correctness in outward behavior and believing that this made him truly good, kind, loving, and spiritual. His verbal battles with the Pharisees throughout his ministry were often over this very issue.
- Throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the temple would be thinking that because he knew the teachings of the church thoroughly (symbolized by the temple and its pinnacle), he did not actually need to live by those teachings, but whatever he did, he would be rescued by God and heaven.
- Bowing down and worshiping the devil in return for the kingdoms of the world and their splendor would be allowing his heart to be ruled by a desire for power and glory among humans rather than by a love of doing the saving work that he had come to do.
Notice that each time the devil tempted him, even when the devil himself quoted Scripture, Jesus answered with a Scripture from the Law of Moses. In this way he showed us by example that it is by the power of “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4) that we can resist temptation and gain spiritual life.
The battle of the nine kings
Now let’s turn to the next chapter of the Old Testament after the one we covered in the previous article in this series. We find from Swedenborg’s interpretation of Genesis 14:1–20, which recounts the very first battle of the Bible—the battle of the nine kings, four against five, in the Valley of Siddim—that the Lord’s early temptations were fought more on his outward levels than deep within. These first temptations of the Lord took place, not when he was an adult, but when he was a young boy. In this, too, he was different from every mortal human being. Although we do have struggles as we grow up, we face genuine spiritual temptation only when we have reached adulthood and are able to make the ultimate choices for ourselves.
Yet with that adjustment, the overall process of temptation that we go through parallels what the Lord went through. We first struggle to clean up our outward thoughts and behavior. Then, as we prevail in those temptations, we move deeper and deeper within, eventually facing the darkest corners of our inner heart and mind, and struggling in agony against our own weakness, doubt, and despair. These agonies of inner temptation are shown in Christ’s life right toward the end, in his agonies in the garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified.
But here in Genesis the temptations are the earlier ones, before we face the full depth of the evil and falsity within us. These come when we are first “cleaning up our act,” so to speak. They come when we are carrying out our first commitment to live in the Lord’s way instead of our own way.
Fighting from pride and ego
When we do this, we tend to do so from a feeling that we are pretty good and pretty strong for being able to overcome the faults in our behavior and character. We have not yet learned through hard experience that if we fight from our own strength, we will go down in defeat. We have not yet learned that the moment we start facing our more deep-seated evils, we are entirely at their mercy unless we recognize that we can overcome them only from the Lord’s power, and not from our own. And so, in our story from Genesis, we find four kings from Babylonia—a foreign power—engaging in a spectacularly successful campaign of subduing various cities and nations in Canaan that the Children of Israel would later face as enemies in its own conquest of the Holy Land.
Spiritually, in our early battles the Lord allows us to think that we can conquer our wrong ways of thinking, feeling, and acting by our own strength. The Lord allows us to fight from Babylonian strength—the strength of taking credit for our own actions—because in those early stages of spiritual growth, if we didn’t have some sense of pride and self-worth in our battles and our successes, we would probably not engage in them at all. Gaining a sense of self-worth provides a powerful motivational engine that enables us to engage in a successful campaign as young adults to move beyond our youthful waywardness, get our lives on track, and begin living in a constructive and responsible way. The popular “self-esteem” movement may not be the ultimate path toward spiritual life, but it does give many people their first sense that their lives are worth something, and that they should fight the good fight and make something of themselves. Like the Babylonians, it gets the job done.
Though we have been talking about our human struggles, the same dynamic was going on in the Lord’s young life, too. Even as a young boy he did have a sense of his higher calling, but he had still not experienced the full depths of his divinity. And so, when he first began to engage in inner battle against his spiritual enemies, he believed that it was his lower, human side that was doing the fighting, not realizing that the power came from his divine soul. In Jesus, too, the Babylonians got the first victory.
Rescued from our pride
And yet, when we do get the job done from a sense of “self-esteem,” or in theological terminology, from a sense of our own “merit,” we can find our lives quickly taken captive by the Babylonians. We read that since Lot was living in Sodom, one of the conquered cities, he and his family and possessions were carried off by the four victorious kings. Lot, as we learned in the previous article, represents our outward life. And when we have cleaned up our act and started living in a more virtuous way than before, we can easily get carried away by the pride in our own accomplishments that is represented by Shinar—which was another name for Babylon.
This is when Abram comes to Lot’s rescue. Abram, in contrast to Lot, represents our inner spiritual life. When we find ourselves getting carried away by our own pride and sense of superiority over others because we are so much better and more spiritual than they are, we do need to be rescued—from ourselves! That is when Abram, our deeper and more thoughtful side, can step in and remind us that on our own, we will get carried away just when we feel we have gotten the victory. Our deeper spiritual self reminds us that it is by the Lord’s strength, not our own, that we gain the victory.
It is remarkable that Abram, with only 318 trained warriors, gained a great victory over four powerful kings who had just swept through the land conquering everyone in their path. The Lord does not conquer by strength of numbers or by pride. The Lord conquers through our trust in his power. And once we realize that on our own we are actually very weak when facing our enemies, then the Lord can come through our weakness and give us a true inner victory. This leaves us, not with a sense of pride in ourselves, but with a sense of humble thankfulness to the Lord, who has fought and won the battle for us.
The Lord’s glorification
Turning again to the Lord’s temptation battles, his first sense that he had gained the victory from his outer human side gave way to a realization that it was the Divine Being within who was doing the fighting, and who gave the victory. This, too, was part of his process of “glorification”—of uniting his human side with his divine side, and becoming fully divine and completely one on all levels.
Each time Jesus fought and overcame the evil tendencies that he had inherited from his mother, and that pressed in on him from the human society around him, he realized more fully the presence of his divine soul dwelling within him. As he overcame and destroyed all the evil and falsity that blocked the inner pathways, his soul was opened up to God, the Father, from whom he came. This opening up went deeper and deeper, until by the end of his life on earth, at the time of his resurrection, there was no longer any barrier, nor even the thinnest veil, between his human side and his divine side. He had become completely one with the Father. This is why we know him today as the Lord God Jesus Christ.
Struggles of the heart
All these teachings feed our minds with an understanding of the Lord’s temptations and our own. Now let’s turn to the heart side of things—because our battles in the desert are not merely battles of the head; they are struggles over who will own our heart.
I would venture to say that each one of us has felt the inner anguish of struggle and temptation within our souls. Some of us may be struggling with issues of destructive outward behaviors. Some of us may be struggling with faulty beliefs and attitudes that cause us to veer off course into saying and doing things that bring pain and brokenness rather than joy and deeper relationship with others. And some of us may be struggling with fundamental issues about whether we really care, whether we are really worth anything, whether we should just give up, give in, and not even bother struggling onward anymore.
All these temptations bring us into our own spiritual desert. No matter where we are on our path of spiritual rebirth, the struggles we face are struggles for our mind, our heart, our soul. And the farther along we go, the more desperate the battles become. We may feel that instead of getting better, we are getting worse. As new and more hidden parts of ourselves open up, we see new layers of ugliness, muck, and mire within our thoughts and feelings that we had never realized were there. We see more clearly than ever before our own self-centeredness, our disregard of others’ needs, our desire for our own pleasure and control, and realize that these have been driving us all along. As these painful self-revelations come to us, we find ourselves sinking into the tar pits of self-pity, hopelessness, weariness, and despair.
And we feel that we are all alone. We feel that we are abandoned; that no one understands; that even God is not there for us. We may cry out within our souls, as Jesus did on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1).
Rescued by the Lord
It is precisely when we have reached the point of despair that we are finally ready for the Lord to come into our lives in a new way. It is precisely when we realize that on our own we are lost, that the Lord is able to show us that there is a higher power, a divine power, that is more than equal to every struggle we face. It is then that we realize, like the Apostle, that “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
Jesus has fought every evil; Jesus has struggled against every wrong; Jesus has experienced the deepest and bitterest desert warfare of the soul, and has come out of it victorious. On our own, we would succumb to the blasting heat, the choking dust, the terrible drought, the harsh sand and rocks of inner conflict. But the Lord has fought the desert battle, and has won it. And Jesus will rescue each one of us if we will turn to Jesus and trust in Jesus.
(Note: This post is an edited version of a talk originally delivered on February 1, 2004. To start at the beginning of the series, please go to the article, “What Child Is This?”)
For further reading:
- Water and Spirit
- What Does it Mean that Jesus was “Glorified”?
- War, Military Service, Violence, and Self-Defense: What’s a Christian to Do?
- What about Violent Religions? Is God Really Bloodthirsty and Vengeful?
- Spiritual Growth 101 with Mike Tyson: “The Virtue of Selfishness”
- The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus
This analysis rings so true. It is such a strong temptation to think “Hey, I’m doing pretty good now!” I must remind myself that everything good and true flows from the Lord. Thank you Lee for such a great reminder!
Good to hear from you again, and thanks for your kind words. Glad this article is helpful for you.
Thank you for these articles. It has changed my life. I struggle with my past but this helps. Thanks again.
Thanks for stopping by, and for your good words. I’m glad these articles are helpful to you in your spiritual walk. May God bless you and give you strength for the journey.