In my previous life I must have preached on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness a dozen times or more. I never really feel like I cracked the code. It was my own time in the wilderness that helped me to listen more deeply to what might be going on in this archetypal story.
Three temptations are issued by “the Satan”. (And let’s remember that originally Satan wasn’t God’s mortal enemy. “He” was God’s ally, employed to test the hearts of those who were being prepared for a sacred mission.)
The temptations are:
- To make bread out of stones to relieve his hunger (Jesus has been fasting).
- Jump from the pinnacle of the Temple, trusting that angels will come to break his fall (as described in the Psalms).
- Worship Satan in return for all the kingdoms of the world.
To my ears, all of these temptations have a common allurement, irresistible for most, that can be stated as:
Jesus, you don’t have to suffer like other humans. You are the “Son of God” after all, aren’t you?
In other words, Jesus, you can live in this dimension as though you are in the divine realm, an unconditioned, unlimited, timeless space that is free of all suffering, all contingency, all of the unknowingness and being out of control that is characteristic of the human experience. Jesus was being tempted to use whatever powers he possessed to live in space and time as though he never incarnated.
It is a story about how humans will do almost anything (“sell our soul”) to avoid suffering on this side of the great divide. We avoid not because we are bad. It is because the feelings associated with our first bout of suffering are so overwhelming and unbearable that we will do anything to relieve the suffering. We structure a personality, after early heartbreak (failures of love) as a fortress against ever having to feel so helpless, terrified, hateful, out of control, hopeless and abandoned again.
In my case, I entered into the unguarded condition of feeling absolutely abandoned and unloved. I was unprotected. No defences. It was unbearable. I had become these feelings. They defined me. And then I saw how I built my personality precisely so that I didn’t have to suffer. Don’t need. Don’t want. Don’t ask for anything. Always know what the other wants and give it to them. Never put yourself in a position where you might discover that you don’t belong. Be smart. Be sensitive. Be quiet. Be good. Don’t get too close.
Presto! “Bruce” is constructed. This “Bruce” was meant to get me through this period of time. It was always meant to be temporary. Then the forgetting happens whereby we come to believe that this is the true “me”. The unconscious motivation for life is also forgotten, which was simply to survive a cruel, indifferent and hostile world. With this forgetting, the goal of life continues to be to eliminate suffering. Only by now, it’s not just the suffering that occurred in the past. It’s all suffering. Because any suffering reminds me of that suffering.
If I’m successful I won’t have to feel those unbearable feelings. If I find just the right woman, she’ll take them away. If I’m a fine athlete, everybody will adore me. If I’m sensitive, everybody will like me. If I make enough money, I can retire early and live on a beach, drink rum and live the good life—that is, life without having to face who I actually am and the feelings that have not gone anywhere.
It’s interesting that Buddhism and Christianity agree at least on this one point. The Buddha left the palace, the life of servants, fine food and absolute comfort, because he heard suffering outside the walls of the palace, a man was dying, a woman was sick, etc. His father had him slated for being a player on the world stage. The Buddha went directly into the heart of suffering, and then came up with a solution for it. Namely, “let it be”, that is, go into it. Discover that you don’t need to run from it.
Jesus continually reminded his disciples, who did not want to hear it, that “the son of man must suffer and die”. No escape hatch. It’s always been a theological intuition of the wise ones that there was something about his suffering that was redemptive of the human condition. Leave aside the doctrine of the atonement. Jesus didn’t die for anybody else, in my opinion. He underwent the suffering that was his to undergo. Easter is the way Christians speak about the lived experience that this suffering, and ultimately death is, ultimately in service of life. The pattern of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is not a story to be believed. It’s an experience to be undergone, an initiation into the life of Spirit, a path that requires coming to terms with suffering as central to the human condition.
But look at the ways that humans continue to refuse to entertain the illusion that the goal is to transcend suffering of any kind, any limitations, and ultimately death: the geopolitics of empire building; the devastation of our planet and other species for our unquestioned “right” for comfort and luxury; the increasing control of wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many, along with the corruption of governments in service of this agenda. This is what Satan offered Jesus, and continues to offer us today.
The role of the Satan, as New Testament theologian, Walter Wink put it, is to tempt us to the “regressive alternative”. The regressive alternative is to remain captive to our fear of suffering that once overwhelmed us and led us to believe that it must be avoided at all costs. The voice promising a life free of suffering is everywhere: new age spirituality, meditation practices, the financial industry, the pharmaceutical industry, etc, etc. Our traumatized ego wants to believe that we can do an end run around suffering. Ironically, it is this end run that causes most suffering, that is, neurotic suffering.
To suffer means simply to undergo reality as it is, not as we wish it was. This default to fantasy is the equivalent to Jesus’ temptation to use magic to turn stone into bread. All psychological , social, and political suffering has its roots in fantasy—replacing reality with magical notions about utopian futures that transcend all suffering
There is good magic. But the magic that Jesus is tempted with is about eliminating the element of time. You can have what you want and have it NOW, Jesus. Jesus chose to fast, an act of consciously setting limits to his appetites in order to land him squarely in reality as it is, not as his ego (the part that the Satan always addresses) fantasized it could be. When Jesus overcame this temptation he surrendered to the exigencies that come with this realm of time. The point is not that desire is wrong, but that desire without patience is a recipe for violence against self and other.
In one of my own wilderness experiences I found myself on the receiving end of three related bits of wisdom:
- To live is to suffer.
- It’s not fair.
- There’s no escaping it.
The paradox is that once we’ve accepted this, (accepted reality as it is, which is to suffer reality), then our spirits are revived. We can live a spirited life, not determined by circumstance or by anything outside of our Self. We can be re-Sourced by the actual creative spirit of life, which is boundless and limitless. This is because when we are actually connected to Reality, then the flow of creative life energy is restored. (Fantasy, on the other hand, sucks immense amounts of energy, it does not replenish it). Living in the flow of this ceaseless creative energy doesn’t mean, however, that we can escape the suffering that comes with being human. Why would we want to? We showed up for a reason. But it does means that we will have the vitality and the courage to face whatever comes our way—liberated from fantasy, and willing to embrace suffering in the service of life.