The attitude we take to things says much about our attitude to God. That’s why temptation is a spiritual issue. Ken Dodd used to say there were only three basic jokes. There are probably only three basic temptations, that go back to Adam and Eve.
Number One. Let your appetites lead. Hungry? Curious? Go on! Eve saw that the fruit looked good, smelt lush. So she took the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Ever since, says the story, the rest of us have had hell to pay. We know so much, but much outruns our moral capacity. We know how to destroy the world. We know how to poison ourselves and trash everything. Some knowledge defiles. The fruit of the tree was good to look at and very tasty; but it pitched our primal ancestors in way beyond their depth.
Of course we all have needs and appetites. Jesus told his followers that their heavenly father knows they need things, food, clothing, friends, homes. But when the attainment of these things becomes our prime objective, we lose the script. Make God’s Kingdom of justice and truth the prime concern, and everything else will follow.
Temptation Number two. Adam and Eve took, and ate, and hid. Cover up. Pretend. Put on a good show. ‘Hypocrite’ was the word Jesus used for people whose whole lives were no more than frontage. Adam and Eve hid in the bushes. “What on earth are you doing there?” said God. “You were made for something better!” Adam and Eve held their figleaves tight and prayed he would go away.
We are much more civilised. We have all sorts of ways of covering up our truth. The masks we wear often take other people in. The fixed Christian smile, carefully applied with theatrical gum, can be rather tiresome. But it’s the face to give the world, when we’re too afraid to be ourselves. God’s Spirit helps people be themselves and be real.
Temptation Number three. Knowledge is Power. Adam and Eve grasped knowledge that would make the whole world theirs. They thought that when their eyes were opened they would be able to control everything. In fact, like Greek tragedy, the exact opposite happened. Their knowledge didn’t give them power or set them free. It made slaves out of them both, condemned to scratch the dust on their own, banged up in their own hall of mirrors.
In the desert Jesus confronts the whole corrupting reality of temptation. “Go on! Do the obvious!” No, said Jesus, for we cannot live on bread alone. God’s word alone can truly nourish us. “Oh, Go on,” said the enemy. ‘It is written…’ God gives the word, so that we need not finally be deceived. Next stop, the Temple, and whole world of religion.
“Go on!” said the enemy. “Jump! That’ll show them. Their longing for a bit of real proof to justify their faith. They’ll love you for it!” “No,” said Jesus. Outer Show is nothing. God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, looks on the heart. Hypocrisy is never enough. We look from the outside, then try to guess what is going on inside. God looks from the inside out, and until we aim to share his priorities, his way of looking at ourselves from the inside out, we are still probably lost in our sins.
Finally, the Big One. “Go on!” said the enemy. “It’s all yours; the world and everything in it. Time for the sack of firm government.” “No,” said Jesus. “It’s not.” When we play God we corrupt and destroy everything we touch. When we play control games, or allow our relationships to become self-serving, we wound the people who love us most, and make fools of ourselves. When we receive everything as we receive the bread of the Eucharist, with thanksgiving, we are blessed by everything we have been given. It’s as simple as that.
Alan Wilson is Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.