“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. After He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was hungry. Then the tempter approached Him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.'” (Matthew 4:1-3, HCSB)
For years I read the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and thought, “Say what?” I couldn’t understand what in the world these temptations were about, much less how they related to human experience (i.e. my experience). Turning stones into bread wouldn’t even be a sin. I have never been tempted to throw myself off a building. You see what I mean.
All I managed to take away from this strange little interlude was that Jesus was apparently nothing like me, and Satan’s skills at tempting were a lot less impressive than they’re cracked up to be.
But then I saw it.
Three words at the base of every temptation that turned Satan’s strangely baited lures into deadly traps . . . and shed incredible light on our own lives, on what means most to us, on our deepest needs, our deadliest temptation, and what stops many of us from making any real progress in our spiritual lives.
Because many of us have already taken the bait.
See, the best traps don’t come to us declaring, “I’m a trap!” They hide their triggers. Disguise themselves. In this case the trigger is hidden in three little words.
“If you are.”
GOD LOVES YOU? PROVE IT
Satan wasn’t trying to get Jesus to do things that would be wrong in and of themselves. Presumably he knew better than to try to tempt Jesus with destructive, ugly actions that would have been repugnant to him.
Instead, he called Jesus’s identity into question.
He invited Jesus to doubt.
“If you are the Son of God . . . turn these stones into bread.”
“If you are the Son of God . . . throw yourself down from the temple.”
“If you are the one destined to rule the world, bow down and worship me and I’ll give you what you want.”
If you are.
Now, forty days later, when Jesus was physically weak and exhausted, Satan showed up to lay a trap he has lain hundreds of thousands of times throughout history. Almost certainly, he’s laid it for you.
If you are.
If God loves you.
If you are his child.
Satan has been calling God’s words into question since the garden. That was the shape of the first temptation: “Did God really say that? Does he really mean it? Test him. He’s holding out on you.”
This is why it’s so significant that in every case, Jesus quoted Scripture back to Satan. In essence, he said, “I don’t have to prove anything to you. What God says is true, and I believe it.”
For me, understanding of this story came when I asked “What if”: What if Jesus had tried to turn the stones into bread, and God hadn’t empowered him to do it?
What if, for whatever reason, the power of the Spirit hadn’t been present for that task?
Here it is, my friends, the snare:
If Jesus had hinged his identity, his belief that he was who God said he was, on an outcome in his circumstances, then NOT getting that outcome would have had the potential to destroy his identity.
And with it, the trust on which his entire relationship with the Father was built.
THE TEMPTATION TO DOUBT
How often have you heard the echoes of exactly this decision before?
- I used to believe in God, but my mother died even though I prayed that she wouldn’t. So now I’m an atheist.
- I grew up in church, but God let my parents divorce, so I don’t go anymore.
- I asked God to heal my marriage, but my husband left. If God loves me, why would he allow that to happen?
Here’s the thing: suffering is a reality in a broken world. People make choices. Things happen we can’t understand. The fact is we are finite, and we do not always pray in accordance with God’s will because we don’t have the perspective to do so.
If, in the midst of that, we choose to hold our belief in God’s love for us hostage to particular outcomes, we will end up snared.
And the worst thing is, the trap doesn’t end. It leads to a lifelong spiral of doubt.
Because once you’ve started calling God’s word into doubt, once you’ve started hinging your belief in his love on particular answers or outcomes, you will have to do it again. Your trust will become so tied to your circumstances that every time something does not go well, God’s love will be up for question again.
Jesus refused to play the game.
He just refused to step into the snare.
He didn’t even address the root temptation to question his identity. He IGNORED it. That’s how little he was willing to let Satan plant the seeds of doubt in his relationship to his Father.
Satan went after Jesus’s identity in the three key areas of provision, protection, and purpose, and every time, Jesus refused to play.
IT’S TIME TO SET YOURSELF FREE
This story, once so puzzling to me, now strikes me as profound, and profoundly personal. I hear, much more clearly, the voice in my life whispering, “If you are.” I’m able to do what Jesus did and refuse to play the game. I’m empowered to stand on the Word of God.
But I’m also challenged and offered freedom, because somewhere in the past, I’ve bought the temptation before. I HAVE hinged my belief in God’s love on outcomes, on circumstances, on certain factors in life coming to pass. And I have been thrown into doubt and even despair when things didn’t pan out.
If you’re looking down right now and finding there’s a snare wire around your ankle, today is the day to set yourself free.
Recognize that God does love you. You are his child. His Word says so. His sacrifice proves it. You can’t understand all the mysteries of life and its circumstances right now. But you can trust the Father and be free.
“Lord, from this day forward I refuse to hold my belief in your love hostage to a particular answer or outcome. You say you love me, you have already proven that you do, and I choose to trust you come what may.”