Satan may be many things, but creative is not one of those things. The Lord creates. Satan only perverts and distorts that which has been created. It has always been this way. And because Satan is not creative, it is relatively simple to discern his deceptions and the tools of his trade. When he tried, unsuccessfully, to tempt Jesus, he gave us access to his plan of action. We can assume that Satan brought his best efforts in trying to test Jesus; therefore, looking at those three temptations helps us understand what we can expect from our deceptive enemy.
The temptations of Jesus can really be boiled down to three basic concepts. Satan tried to tempt Jesus to take shortcuts to feel good, to look good, and to have goods. That’s it. Rather than pursuing the purpose for which He was created, the tempter tried to divert Jesus to pursue pleasure for its own sake, or prestige and power for their own sake, or possessions and wealth as an endgame. Jesus understood the lie behind all of these temptations. He knew that the Enemy is a liar, and that the promises made in pursuing these things as ends in and of themselves are always false and fleeting. Further, Jesus knew that His Father desired to give Him all of these things as by-products of living a faithful life and pursuing His life’s purpose. Satan failed, of course, in his attempts to sidetrack Jesus. Sadly, although he is still using the same old tired temptations with the rest of us, he is far more successful with many today than he was with Jesus. Let’s look at how this plays out.
1. The Pleasure of Temptation
Although the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America lists the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right, that doesn’t make it something worth pursuing. Indeed, the idea that pursuing happiness is a worthy life goal constitutes one of the strongest lies of the Enemy, and it is a lie that has grown ever stronger in contemporary society.
Most people these days give very little thought to the meaning of life. If you stop random people on the streets of the United States and ask them what they believe to be the meaning of life, most will answer with a blank stare. When people do answer with anything, the response is often something such as: “I guess it is just to try to be happy.” There is nothing inherently wrong with happiness. Being happy can be a good thing, and most people welcome happiness in their lives. The problem is that no healthy person is happy all the time. The word happy derives from the word happenstance precisely because happiness is not all that predictable. It is usually the result of happenstance. Sometimes we are happy and sometimes we are not.
Additionally, while happiness is a wonderful by-product of pursuing other worthwhile things, it doesn’t work well when we pursue it as an end unto itself. Further, in our society when we try to pursue happiness, it usually means pursuing pleasure. And so much of what the Enemy tempts us with concerns shortcuts in the pursuit of pleasure.
The problem lies in the very nature of pleasure pursuits. In every case, pursuing pleasure as the aim of life fails precisely because, in pursuing pleasure, it always takes more and more to produce less and less. Ultimately, this reality creates a life that is giving everything and gaining nothing at all.
Take drug and alcohol addiction, for instance. Any honest addict, or at least an addict who is trying to get honest, will admit that every subsequent high is nothing but a vain attempt to reproduce the first high. Let’s be honest, people abuse drugs and alcohol because they bring pleasure—at first. No one would continue to abuse them if this weren’t so. The lie comes into play when people learn that in addiction it always takes more and more to produce less and less until the day comes when they are giving their whole life and getting nothing in return. And the Enemy laughs.
The same is true with illicit sexual encounters. So many lives have been ruined by the promise of a pleasurable liaison that resulted in a few fleeting moments of pleasure and a lifetime of pain and broken relationships. The growing struggles with gluttony, conspicuous consumption, and adventure-chasing behavior in our society today are all signs that this temptation to pursue pleasure for its own ends is gaining traction. And the results are always, sadly, the same.
Having fasted for forty days, Jesus must have been famished. At that point, I’m sure there was nothing that seemed more pleasurable than food. He understood, however, that to compromise His mission for the fleeting happiness of some illicitly gotten bread, though momentarily pleasurable, would not have delivered long-term happiness, nor the joy that was set before Him in His mission. He was not willing to take shortcuts to feel good.
Pleasure is a wonderful by-product of other worthy pursuits. And the Lord wants us to know the gift of His pleasure. If the Enemy is able to sidetrack us from that for which we were created by false promises of the results of pursuing pleasure, he knows that we will, in the end, receive neither the pleasure he promised nor the abundant life we could have had in Jesus Christ.
2. The Prestige of Temptation
Many years ago, a Hollywood celebrity known for his sartorial elegance and his handsome, youthful appearance, repeatedly assured the world that, “It is better to look good than to feel good.” In any era, this is an absurd proposition. Sadly, however, the sentiments expressed by this vacuous actor hit all too close to home in today’s shallow world. The idea that it is better to look good than to feel good represents another lie of the Enemy. If Satan can’t get us to give our lives away trying to feel good, he will often tempt us to something even more vapid: the temptation to pursue looking good.
It has often been said that reputation is what a person is in the daylight and character is what that same person is in the dark of night. But much of current culture is more concerned with reputation than character. We pursue personal power, prestige, or position as if life will flow from these things. We believe we will find meaning in the number of people reporting to us at work, or the number of followers we have on social media, or the number of exclusive clubs to which we have access. And even as we pursue these things, we turn a blind eye to the mounting evidence that these pursuits never produce a meaningful life.
Not only is fame fleeting, it is also lonely and lifeless. Witness the growing number of celebrities at the top of their game who take their own lives, or live a sham life as a result of debilitating addictions and dangerous pursuits. We see the old adage that power tends to corrupt being played out in the halls of power all over the world on a daily basis. And many people who have clawed their way to the top of the positional ladder only discover too late just how lonely and isolated life can be at the top.
Satan tried this temptation with Jesus as well: “Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple,” he said. “Angels will come and rescue you!” (see Luke 4:9–11). The implication was clear: You will show Your power in a dramatic way. You’ll let everyone see who is really in charge. You’ll be famous. Of course, this temptation failed with Jesus. But many of His followers have nevertheless given in to its subtle pull.
Again, none of these things are inherently problematic. As the outcome of a life of purpose and meaning they can each be quite worthwhile. A good reputation, and even a measure of fame, built through a life of devotion to meaningful pursuits is often desirable. The sacrifices of leadership can be worth the cost when someone is called on by others to give leadership to worthy endeavors. And Jesus Himself promised His followers power, though not power for its own sake. The power was not for the sake of making those who were empowered to look good, but for the sake of the mission. Thus, it is not position, power, or prestige that are problematic, but the temptation to pursue these things as ends in and of themselves in order to make ourselves look good.
3. The Possessions Temptation
Perhaps the most insidious of the three temptations of the Enemy concerns our possessions: the temptation to have goods. Although equally as empty as the first two, this temptation is the very basis of our consumer-driven world. The idea is largely captured by a bumper sticker I saw a while back: “The one who dies with the most toys . . . wins!”
Isn’t that the craziest idea you have ever heard? Here’s a news flash: the one who dies with the most toys . . . is dead! And we aren’t taking any of our possessions with us. I’ve done many funerals over the years, and have never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul. It all gets left behind. Yet we continue to pile up more and more stuff, as if somehow we are one more purchase away from meaning and fulfillment.
Howard Hughes, at the time one of the wealthiest (and unhappiest) people on the planet, was asked: “How much is enough?” He quickly replied: “Just a little bit more.” Here lies the real heart of the lie of this temptation to acquire possessions. There is never enough. There are always larger houses, more expensive cars, fancier and more costly clothes. And, in the end, all of these possessions end up controlling us. We live and work just to pay for and keep up with our stuff. One of the fastest-growing and most lucrative industries in the United States is the storage unit rental business. We have filled our lives with so much stuff that we have to buy a place outside of our homes to store the excess so that we have room for all the new stuff we have to have.
Satan tried to tempt Jesus with literally everything. If Jesus would simply bow down and worship him, Satan promised to give it all to Jesus. All the kingdoms and wealth of the world. All the stuff! Jesus, of course, was not willing to sell His soul for possessions, no matter how great the offer. Our consumer society has largely decided that Jesus made the wrong choice.
As with pleasure and prestige, there is nothing wrong with possessions. The Lord makes it clear that He knows our needs for food, shelter, clothing, and security. Recall His promise in Matthew 6:33 that if we will seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, all these other things will be given to us as well. As with the other two temptations, the problem is not the possessions themselves, but the pursuit of possessions as the aim of our lives, rather than seeking first the purposes of God.
It is no wonder that many Christ-followers are not engaged in the mission of Jesus in any meaningful way. Our lives are often so distracted in pursuing pleasure, prestige, and possessions that there is no time left over to even consider the mission. Fortunately, there is good news. God not only has a plan, He also has things to offer for those who will join Jesus in His mission. And unlike the false claims of the Enemy, God’s promises deliver!
The prophet Isaiah was allowed to see the Lord in all His glory. As we unpack this marvelous story of God’s grace in Focusing My Gaze: Beholding the Upward, Inward, Outward Mission of God, we will discover how the focus of Isaiah’s gaze truly determined the state of his being. Isaiah looked in four different ways and discovered more about the Lord, himself, and his purpose in life in the process. They are essential in the life of anyone who wants to experience the abundant life that can only be found in Jesus.
- We look up—and see the glory of God.
- We look inward—and see ourselves as we truly are.
- We look outward—and see the grace of God.
- We look around—and see the mission of God and our place in it.
Join us in this journey as we see how these four looks have played out in the lives of men and women of faith, from biblical times until today, and how they are still transforming the lives of those who choose to focus their gaze.