Baptism by the Fires of Temptation

"The Temptation of Christ on the Mount" (detail) Duccio di Buoninsegna

“The Temptation of Christ on the Mount” (detail)
Duccio di Buoninsegna

The Exodus Prefigures the Spiritual Journey of Christians During Lent

God’s Chosen people remained in Egyptian captivity for 400 years and with hardened hearts and withering minds due to drudgery, they had forgotten God. Moses was sent to lead them out of slavery and into the Promised Land, but not before a 40 year trudge of purification through the barren wilderness. The Exodus of the Old Testament is the prefigurement and archetype of the spiritual journey that awaits all Christians who desire to throw off the yoke of bondage to sin. The trials and temptations the Jews faced in the wilderness throughout the Exodus are not unlike what we must endure in our own spiritual formation. The desert is the means of purification by which we are made ready for God, and the Lenten Season is the spiritual fulfillment of the type indicated by the Jewish Exodus.

Every breath Christ took on His earthly sojourn is worthy of imitation as we answer the call to sanctity. When Christ was baptized by John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove and beckoned Christ into the desert to “be baptized by the fire of temptation.” Christ reenacted the exodus when he went into the desert, the same desert to which we are summoned for spiritual purification during the Lenten season. We were baptized with water, but John the Baptist tells us of Christ: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Indeed, we are much more vigorously attacked and tempted after baptism.

Just as a general doesn’t attack his own army, Satan doesn’t need to tempt his own; smooth and wide is the way that leads to perdition. Those who walk in the ways of iniquity are temporarily free from the torments inflicted by the devil. Satan knows that the spiritual derelict’s self-inflicted suffering is more tortuous than his skills can accomplish, for there is no deeper wound than to be without God.

St. John Chrysostom explains in the Catena Aurea that we shouldn’t be troubled by the fact that baptism precipitates vigorous spiritual attacks, because it is for this very combat that we have received spiritual arms. God wants us to face temptation and triumph so that we may become stronger. It is also to temper us from the exaltation that can follow reception of God’s gifts, for the wounds we suffer in the battle keep us humble. Likewise, our triumph proves to the devil that we have renounced him exhaustively. And finally, we suffer dreadful temptation so that we may understand the treasure we have received from God, “for the devil would not so pursue you, to tempt you did he not see that you had now come to a higher dignity.”

Christ allowed himself to suffer the humiliation of being subjected to the temptations of the devil because He is our spiritual Father and the second Adam. Christ came into this world to triumph over sin and Satan.  He wished to be tempted, in part, to atone for the fall as well as provide us with encouragement and comfort for the many trials and tribulations we will suffer in the desert. As St. Paul said in Hebrews 4:15, “we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” As such, Christ is the perfect model from whom to learn how to triumph over the temptations of evil. For as St. Peter warns us, our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Christ exposes the nature of the three temptations used on our first parents, on Him and on us. Imitation of Christ is the best means to achieve victory over the ubiquitous evil trying to cage our souls in permanent exile from the heavenly country.

Three Categories of Temptation in the Wilderness

Christ experienced excruciating hunger after 40 days and 40 nights without food in the wilderness. In the first temptation, Satan tried to induce Him to satisfy His own hunger instead of enduring the trial. Our first parents were similarly tempted when the serpent suggested to Eve that she eat the forbidden fruit. The act defies the Father’s will because the serpent suggested to both that they take it upon themselves to satisfy hungers and appetites which ought rightfully to be fulfilled by God in His providential time. This first category of temptation is called concupiscence of the flesh and it covers all the sensual pleasures of bodily comfort and enjoyments. Satan’s first appeal is through the senses by way of lust, gluttony, intemperance and sloth. We are tempted to act on appetites and passions not yet subject to the discipline and governance of divine law.

In the second temptation, Satan tried to rouse spiritual pride and presumption by asking Jesus to jump from the heights and to expect the angels to save him. This was Satan’s attempt to compel Christ to give up the way of the Cross and an attempt to trick Christ into testing the Father by trading humble confidence in God’s mercy for arrogant presumption. In the Garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve with the same appeal to pride by telling her “your eyes will be open” and they would know good and evil. Temptation that evokes arrogance, ostentation, pride in self, presumption, and boasting falls into this second category of sin St. John called the “pride of Life.”

In the third temptation, the devil appeals to avarice and ambition by promising Jesus power and riches when he said, “if you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” Satan tried to goad Jesus into concupiscence of the eyes by promising dominion, power and wealth in exchange for betraying God. This category of temptation is characterized by insatiability, the desire to accumulate power and riches. Satan told Eve, “ye shall be as gods.” In doing so, the serpent enticed our first parents to desire to accumulate undue power and glory. This temptation is called the concupiscence of the eyes and the appeal is to greed by deceiving us into setting our aim too high for our human station and our creaturely status.

These three types of temptation, concupiscence of the flesh, pride of life and concupiscence of the eyes, inform the full measure of Christ’s triumphant response. If we heed Christ’s call to pick up our cross and follow Him, we will often encounter these temptations. In the Apostle’s catechism called the Didiche, the very first line is: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death.” Adam and Eve’s response to temptation is clearly the way of death and if we imitate them by succumbing to temptations, then all will be lost. By contrast, Christ has gifted us the perfect path to the way of life and if we imitate Him we will end victorious!

The Christian Response to Temptation

Christ did not dissolutely embrace temptation, he was beckoned by the Holy Spirit into the desert on our behalf. Our first intentional act to tread the paths of righteousness is to avoid the near occasions of sin. In Ecclesiastes we read that “he that loves danger will perish in it.” We must not expose ourselves to moral danger unless it is absolutely necessary. In the Lord’s Prayer we beseech the heavenly Father “lead us not into temptation.” We must prudently discern what temptations we are duty bound to confront and those from which we must flee.

Our first line of defense when we do encounter temptation is to guard our senses and by the graces of the Holy Spirit to gain custody over our passions and appetites, lest they obtain custody over us. Jesus used prayer and fasting to prepare for the great trials. We must do the same while practicing self-denial to mortify disordered appetites following St. Paul’s advice to “gird up your loins.” We gain needed assistance by the use of the infused virtues of temperance and moderation as gifts received from prayer, fasting, almsgiving and faithful reading of scripture. We must diligently subject our passions and appetites to suffer the violence dictated by divine law.

After our sense appetites are subordinated to the divine will, we can turn to the word of God to definitively ward off Satan’s advances. In response to the unlawful temptation to prematurely end his hunger, Christ responded “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” God’s word as spiritual food is exponentially more important than food for the body.

In response to the second temptation, we are confronted by the things of this world which can be perfectly lawful when we possess them for our spiritual benefit, but become unlawful when they possess us. Created things can become tokens of empty glory that appeal to unadulterated ego. To deflect the temptations to the pride of life, our Lord told Satan: “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” One possessed of inordinate pride is apt to tempt God; which always exposes a soul to unworthy peril.

In the third trial the Devil offers riches gained by deceit. Satan tempted Christ with riches and power by concupiscence of the eyes, Christ responded with “Be gone, Satan! for it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Christ suffered insult to himself by the first two temptations with magnanimity, but in the third temptation, the insult to the Father draws righteous anger from the Christ and he commands the devil to depart. Just so, we are to suffer insults to ourselves with humility, but not to abide in insults to God.

We are called into the desert every Lenten Season, the same desert the Jews traversed for 40 years and the same desert in which our Lord allowed Himself to be tempted. Christ triumphed magnificently over Satan in the desert, but He also persevered in bitter contention with evil throughout his public life until His crucifixion. He ended in crushing the serpent’s head by His Death and Resurrection.

Though the war is won, the spiritual combat is raging constantly in this desert composed of the sands of time. To triumph we begin with fasting, prayer and almsgiving and end with the word of God. St. James simplifies the key to victory when he tell us “submit yourselves there for to God.” Because by our own power we will fail. St. James also reminds us to “resist the devil and he will fly from you.” We must remain ever vigilant and vigorously strive to align our wills to the will of the Father to attain eternal beatitude in Heaven. Until then, we are called forth into the desert to be baptized by the fires of temptation.


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About the Author

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert, a catechist, a school teacher, a Catholic writer and speaker on matters of Faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative, a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.

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