What tempts you? When we answer that question we virtually always name something that’s outside us. It’s no real surprise that we see it this way, since even the dictionary tells us that temptation comes from something or someone outside us that entices, coaxes or lures us.
But fundamentally, temptation exists in two parts: 1. The being, action or object we desire. 2. Our own strength or weakness in confronting it. In both cases, temptation is internal, rather than external. What might surprise you is that many cultures had no concept of temptation as something primarily external until they came into contact with Christianity.
Temptation takes center stage in both the Bible’s Old and New Testaments where humans are not only tempted by people or objects, but have the additional burden of resisting the temptations offered by powerful evil forces. The ‘apocalyptic’ view is a theory that the Jewish people came up with to explain the misery they experienced even though they kept the laws they believed God had given them.
The book of Job is a symbolic explanation of the theory that tells us the misery we see on earth is the result of a cosmic war between good and evil, with humans in the middle of the struggle. Many of Jesus’ earliest followers shared this apocalyptic view and interpreted his teachings through this belief system. These ideas still permeate our culture, whether we’re believers or not, so it’s important that we see them for what they are.
Temptation began to take a starring role as early as the story of original sin found in Genesis as Eve is coaxed by a serpent to eat forbidden fruit. The story of Adam and Eve paints the picture of a fearful world where even in paradise, evil lurks. No wonder the famous “Lord’s prayer” includes the line, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
If we believe this line of thinking, the stakes have become far higher than our regret over eating an extra piece of cake or buying something we can’t afford; eternal salvation is involved. But is this true? What really is temptation, where does it come from and what can we do about it?
Most people who have some familiarity with the Bible are aware of an account that describes Jesus being tempted by an evil force, Satan the Devil, just before he begins his public teaching work (Luke 4:1-13).
Although these verses read like an historical narrative, there were no witnesses to the encounter that could have reported it. It’s far more likely that Jesus originally told the story himself as a parable filled with symbolic meaning. It’s interesting to note that a very similar story of temptation is told about Buddha that also takes place at the same stage of transition in his life.
The verses tell us that after Jesus was baptized he was “filled with Spirit” and led to the wilderness where he spent 40 days fasting. Because Jesus lived in and near desert areas, we take it for granted that the story is literal and takes place in a actual location, but the desert and wilderness were also used in the Bible to symbolize a place of revelation.
While a crowded urban area might be likened to a mind filled with preconceived notions, attachments and aversions, a vast open wilderness pictures the mind that has let go of social conditioning and is open and willing to experience the Divine. Like a “sea change” the desert experience also symbolizes a major transition or significant life change, which certainly took place in Jesus’ case.
Bible readers also take the 40 day fast that led up to the temptation literally, but there’s good reason to see this as another symbol. The number 40 is mentioned 146 times in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament: Noah’s flood lasted for 40 days and nights, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and Moses was on the mountain for 40 days.
Usually the number is associated with a difficult or trying situation and a transition. Although we’re not familiar with the symbolism Jesus used, we must remember that those who were listening to him were.
For people who believe Jesus was either a god or demi-god (half god, half man), a 40 day fast may seem possible, but most fasts of that duration, even with water, result in hallucinations, convulsions, irregular heartbeat, organ deterioration, the loss of extremities and very often death.
If Jesus was superhuman, there was really no point to the fast or any reason for a struggle between good and evil because he would be beyond temptation. If he was human, the fast would have rendered him unable to resist a bug, let alone a powerful evil force. Again, we must come to the conclusion that we are dealing with a symbolic parable meant to take us past the surface and teach a deeper truth.
In fact, Jesus later clarified the symbolic nature of this temptation story when he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts.” (Mark 7:20-23) So what can we learn from the story? Where does temptation really come from?
Jesus’ apocalyptic followers were unable to let go of their belief that the universe was locked in a cosmic struggle, so that is the slant they put on the parable. Their view took precedence and formed the foundation for the majority view of temptation down to our day. But a few of Jesus’ followers understood the universe in a very different way. They knew that the Oneness at the foundation of the universe is not a mixture of good and evil.
They also understood that our dualistic material universe is built on a very different foundation, one of polar opposites like good and evil. Our true identity remains in quantum Oneness, but as long as we continue to project duality, the positive will always be accompanied by the negative. The temptations that we feel and the evil that we see acted out in the world all originate in this dualistic mind set.
Let’s return to the parable to see what lay beneath the surface. (Keep in mind that the parable was written by early Christians who: 1. Held the apocalyptic view 2. Wrote their accounts years after Jesus’ death. 3. Did not know Jesus. So, it’s impossible to know how the parable was originally told.)
At the conclusion of Jesus’ 40 day fast, Satan showed up and tempted Jesus to turn a rock into bread. This first temptation was not really about food, but spiritual hunger. The inner temptation originating in Jesus’ own heart was to feed his spiritual hunger with something other than truth. He was tempted to return to the temple and fit in with the crowd instead of speaking the truth and making himself a target for those who feared truth.
The real question Jesus was asking himself was whether he would choose to satisfy his inner hunger with the things the world had to offer, or would he continue to choose nourishment that comes from a direct connection with the Divine?
Jesus’ second temptation is symbolized by Satan’s offer of rulership over all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus’ apocalyptic followers saw this as further proof that an evil force controlled the world, but if that were true, we would be forced to believe that God created an evil entity that had the strength to overpower God, or that good and evil were in partnership.
But let’s look at this from another direction. Since we are all pure consciousness that projects the material universe, each of us is already the master of all material existence. We have the ability to keep projecting it, or stop any time we wish. This is at the crux of Jesus’ inner struggle: would he continue to project the visible world, or would he stop?
In the last temptation, Satan again symbolizes Jesus’ own inner struggle, this time with doubt. Jesus is told to throw himself off the temple so God will save him from physical harm. Jesus had experienced the Divine, but in a moment of weakness before he commits to speaking publicly about what he knows, he wants a physical sign that will show him he’s doing the right thing.
Jesus’ three symbolic temptations were a conversation between the portion of his mind that had projected the material world of separation, and the One Mind we all share with the Divine. In the end, the True Mind prevailed, but we can all take heart that Jesus faced these struggles just as we do.
We each face the choices illustrated in Jesus’ parable. Will we listen to what the world tells us and try to fill our spiritual needs with junk food, or will we look within and discover what the Divine has to say? Will we continue to look for security in the material things the world has to offer, or will we realize we’ve traded away something far greater?
Will we be racked with doubts and look for signs, or will we acknowledge that our inner voice is telling us the truth? If we believe Jesus was superhuman, we may give up before we even start to ask these questions. When we know that Jesus was just like us, we realize that we too can stand up to our own inner temptations.
~ by Lee & Steven Hager in Why Does Suffering Exist www.thebeginningoffearlessness.com/