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THE NATURE AND LIMITS OF TEMPTATION.
“Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”
THIS deeply mysterious passage of our Lord’s humiliation can never be understood by us more than in part. It is full of truths only partially revealed; and, from our inability to comprehend them, we must refrain from offering too boldly to interpret the nature of His temptation.
Certain great truths, however, we may learn from what is here written. That same Spirit with Whom the Son of God was one from everlasting, and by Whom also He was anointed at His baptism, was here His guide to the place of His spiritual conflict with the Evil One. When it is said, He was led of the Spirit, it is to be understood in the same sense as when it is said, He was anointed, 77tempted, and the like—the man Jesus Christ being susceptible of all these, by reason of His true and proper humanity. That same Spirit by which He was anointed to preach the gospel to the poor,3939 Isaiah lxi. 1. was also His guide in all that it behoved the Messiah to do and to suffer for the sin of the world. St. Paul tells us that it was “through the Eternal Spirit”4040 Heb. ix. 14. that He offered Himself to God; and that He was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:”4141 Rom. i. 4. that is to say, by the Divine Nature in which the Son and the Spirit are one and indivisible. Thus, through the Spirit He was led up of His own free will to be tempted of the devil. It was the onset of the warfare which was to end in the destruction of “him that hath the power of death.”
There is an evident relation, partly of coincidence and partly of contrast, between the temptation of the first Adam in the garden, and of the second Adam in the wilderness. The first Adam was tempted through the senses, and by the allurements of self-exaltation, and covetousness of gifts which he did not possess. So with Christ: He was tempted to satisfy His hunger by a miracle; to display His divine nature, by suspending the laws which govern our state, to which He had made 78Himself subject, and to forsake His Father for the offer of earthly greatness. In the two first temptations it does not at once appear in what the sin to which He was tempted consists. It may be that Satan sought for proof that He was the very Christ, and that he hoped either to destroy or to draw Him from God. His temptations were therefore put in a tone of incredulity and provocation, like that of the rulers who derided Him upon the cross, saying, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save: let Him save Himself, if He be the Christ, the chosen of God:” and the malefactor also who “railed on Him, saying, If Thou be the Christ, save Thyself and us.”4242 St. Luke xxiii. 35, 39. These words express a great depth of contumely, mixed with incredulity and fear. It would appear that Satan half knew and half feared lest He were the Christ, and so shaped the temptations as to goad Him, as he thought, into a manifestation of Himself, and in ways that would destroy the pure integrity of His obedience to God. The temptation lay not so much in the particular form, as in the moral character and effect of the act. So it was in the first temptation of man: the act was in itself, it may be, indifferent; the spring of it was disobedience, and the end was death. In this instance it would have been a renouncing of subjection to His Father, 79and a defeat of the ends for which He had become incarnate.
Now, this temptation in the wilderness was a part of the humiliation of the Son of God. As He took our nature with all its infirmities, it was needful that He should make full trial of our state. As He prayed, wept, and hungered, so also He was tempted. It belonged to the truth of our nature, and to the realities of our state in this world of sin, that He should suffer as we suffer. And this is specially mentioned by St. Paul, who encourages us by saying that He “was in all points tempted like as we are.”4343 Heb. iv. 15. It was needful that He should learn by experience the full misery and hatefulness of sin, and the weakness and susceptibility of our nature: for this even the Omniscient, because of the perfection of His own nature, learned “by the things which He suffered.” What humiliation can be greater than that He “who cannot be tempted with evil,” should be solicited by the horrible and hateful suggestions of mistrustful, presumptuous, self-exalting thoughts, and that with the taunts and allurements of the devil? What is more afflicting to holy minds than the haunting suggestions or visions of evil? And yet surely no such trial was ever so afflicting to any other as to the Holy One of God. The absolute holiness of the Godhead 80was then brought into contact with sin, as the divine immortality was brought into the neighbourhood of death upon the cross. It is impossible for us to measure the intense humiliation and spiritual anguish of such a familiarity with the Wicked One. None but God, in whose sight the heavens are not clean, can know the hatefulness of sin as it was manifested to Christ, or the depth of sorrow and abhorrence which was excited in the soul of Him who was without sin.
Again: this temptation, it may be, was as necessary to our redemption as the Passion upon the cross. It was parallel to the temptation of Adam in Eden in this point, that as he by falling subjected us to sin and death, so Christ by overcoming has delivered us from the same. The first Adam was our head unto condemnation; the Second is our Head unto everlasting life. Now it is to be observed, that our Lord was tempted as a man, and as a man He overcame. He did not put forth divine powers of miracle, nor support Himself by divine interpositions. He might, indeed, have let loose twelve legions of angels against the tempter; but how then should He have been the example and pledge of mastery to us that are tempted? His victory over the devil was gained by the preparations of prayer and fasting, and by the power of patience and stedfast obedience to God. The 81same shield, and the same weapons of offence, we also possess. His mastery was gained, as His temptation was endured, strictly within the conditions of our humanity.
That this conflict was complete is evident from the fact, that though St. Luke says Satan “departed from Him for a season” we no where read that our blessed Lord was ever again solicited by his allurements. He was buffeted and blasphemed by the malignity of the devil; contradicted and pursued by the hatred of men; all the powers of darkness were in activity against Him; yet we no where find that He was again tempted to with draw His obedience from His Father in heaven. Even in the last night of agony in the garden, in the midst of exhaustion, fear, and anguish, when the tempter might have seemed to have found a season of peculiar weakness, he did not appear: his work lay elsewhere; he was busied in another direction. He had compassed the death of Him whom he could not overcome; he had “entered into the heart of Judas;” he was counter working, as it might seem, to destroy One whom he could not defile. Now this perfect overthrow of Satan, by a person in our nature, is a mystery out of which our masteries over temptation are derived, as our falls are derived out of the first transgression. Christ has overcome for us; and by virtue 82of our union with Him, He daily overcomes Satan in and through our regenerate nature, and therein perpetually repeats and carries out His first mastery in the wilderness. It was this great warfare and victory that St. John saw in vision. “There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.”4444 Rev. xii. 7-11. Apostles, prophets, martyrs, and saints, all the members of His mystical body, became partakers of His mastery over the kingdom of darkness, and over the devil, the prince of this world. So, through persecution, and distress, and torment, in the provinces and cities of the world, in market places and theatres, in the wilderness and in solitude, 83they overcame the strength and the subtilty of the tempter; and in weakness confounded his power whom all the world worshipped.
This temptation of our Lord Jesus Christ lays open to us the reality and nature of our own. It lifts the veil which is upon our eyes, the unconsciousness which is upon our hearts, and shews us what is really going on at all times in the spiritual world around us; by what we are beset, and what are the mysterious powers which are exerting themselves upon us. Much that we never suspect to be more than the effect of chance, or hazard, or the motion of our own minds, or the caprice of fancy, may be the agency of this same awful being who tempted both the first Adam and the Second. There is something very fearful in the thought that Satan, whom we so slight or forget, is an angel—a spiritual being of the highest order—endowed therefore with energies and gifts of a superhuman power; with intelligence as great as his malice; lofty, majestic, and terrible even in his fall. Next to the holy angels, what being can it be more fearful to have opposed to us, and that with intense and vigilant enmity, and at all times hovering invisibly about us?
From what we read, then, of the temptation of Christ we may learn:
1. First, that it is no sin to be tempted; nor 84is our being tempted any proof of our being sinful. This is a most consolatory thought; for among the afflictions of life few are so bitter and perpetual as temptation. Sorrows, pains, disappointments, crosses, oppositions, which come upon us from with out, are not to be compared in suffering to the in ward distress of being tempted to evil deeds, words, desires, and thoughts. The subtilty and insinuation of evil is so great that it gains an entrance before we are aware of it: sometimes it seems to glance off by a sort of reflection from things the most opposite in their nature; sometimes to be taken into our minds unperceived in the midst of indifferent thoughts, and then suddenly to unfold itself. Every one who is seeking for Christian perfection must have found how thoughts of resentment, pride, self-complacency, repining, and others unholier still, sometimes seem to shoot off from the holiest acts and contemplations, and again to spring up out of subjects of the greatest purity and humiliation; sometimes also in times of deep sorrow and depression, when our minds are most remote from any conscious indulgence of their own evil. This, and much more which is implied by this, will be recognised by all who are seeking after holiness; and it is this that causes the bitterest and most sickening distress of mind. Sometimes it makes us doubt of our whole religious life—85almost of our regeneration. Am I not even yet in the flesh, “in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity?” can I dare to pray? is not even prayer a mere profession? how can I approach God with a soul haunted and darkened by such a presence of evil? It is, indeed, well to be suspicious and self-accusing; for there can be no doubt but that most of our mental temptations find their opportunity in actual faults, past or present, or in that original taint of sin which is still in us: that is to say, in those parts of our nature which are the effects of the fall of man, and of our own personal disobedience. But the susceptibility of temptation belongs to us, not as fallen beings, but as men. Perfect beings may be tempted, as the angels: and sinless, as Adam in the garden, Christ in the wilderness.
So long as we are in this state of probation, and in this world of conflict between sin and holiness, it must be so. Even though we were made sinless at this very hour, still the power and subtilty of evil by which we are surrounded would not cease to approach us, and to force itself upon our perception and our hatred. Thus much we may learn for our comfort: though we should convert it into a snare, if we were to solve the fact of our daily consciousness of evil thoughts and inclinations by this truth alone. It is too true that, for the most part, we are 86tempted because we have aggravated and inflamed our original sinfulness. We by disobedience have given to it a vividness and appetite which by nature it did not possess. Old thoughts, wishes, associations, practices, are the source of most of our inward defilements. To our natural susceptibility and our original corruption we have added an immeasurable range of inclinations to things forbidden; and on these Satan fastens. However, we may take this comfort: after we have assured ourselves by strict self-examination that the temptation by which we are distressed is not the result of any act of our own will, we may rest in peace, thanking God for the pain it inflicts upon us, praying Him to make that pain, if He sees fit, sharper and deeper, that it may issue in an intense hatred of evil, in a more vivid consciousness of our own misery, in lower humiliation, and greater purity of heart. Any suffering is to be welcomed which teaches us sorrow and hatred for sin. In this way temptations are turned by the Holy Spirit against themselves. That which in its first intention would be the defilement, if not the death, of the soul, turns to chastisement, mortification, and cleansing. It wakens and quickens all the powers of the soul; fear, self-restraint, watchfulness, caution, sensitive shrinking from the least appearance of evil, strong and persevering efforts to deaden and destroy so much as the 87very liability to be affected by temptations. So it was with the Corinthians to whom St. Paul said: “Behold this selfsame thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge! In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter.”4545 2 Cor. vii. 11. The very sorrow and distress are our safeguard. We should be in danger if we did not feel them; and we are safer as we feel them more acutely, and use them for our humiliation and spiritual cleansing.
2. Another truth following on the last is, that nothing can convert a temptation into a sin but the consent of our own will. This one principle, clearly seen, is a key to nine-tenths of all questions of conscience on this subject. The worst of temptations, so long as they are without our will, are no part of us: by consent they become adopted and incorporated with our spiritual nature—thoughts become wishes, and wishes intents. Consent is the act of the whole inward man. So long as we refuse to yield, it matters little what temptations beset us; they may distress and darken, and even for a time seem to defile our hearts: but they cannot overcome us. The thought of satisfying 88His natural hunger, of vindicating His divine Sonship by miracles, the visions of this false world, the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them, were cast like shadows on the clear brightness of our Lord’s spirit; but they won no assent, left no traces, no deposit of doubt, desire, or inclination. They were simply hateful, and were cast forth with an intense rejection; and that because they encountered a holy will, which is of divine strength even in man.
In measure it is so in every saint; it may be so with us. As the will is strengthened with energy, and upheld by the presence of Christ dwelling in the heart of the pure and lowly; so the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, are expelled from us, and lose all share in our personal existence. This explains the various degrees of power that temptations have over various men. Some seem never mastered by them, some seldom, some often, and some always. Of the first we have spoken enough. The others will be found in two classes: they are either those who, without positive habits of sin, are also without positive habits of holiness; or those whose habits are positively unholy. When I say, those who, without positive habits of sin, are also without positive habits of holiness, I mean, such persons as are pure in their lives, benevolent, upright, and amiable, but not 89devout towards God. This in itself is of course, in one sense, sin, because it is a coming “short of the glory” and acceptance of God. I am using sin in its popular sense, of wilful acts of evil. Now such people are open to the full incursions of the tempter in the whole extent of that natural sinfulness which is in them. This gives them a predisposition on which he acts with daily success. They are open and unguarded, and the will that is in them is weak and undisciplined; it has no expulsive power in it, by which evil is cleared from a heart that is sanctified by a life of holiness. We see such people become inconsistent, vain, ostentatious, worldly, and then designing, farsighted for their own interests, selfish, unscrupulous, false to their friends, their principles, their professions. We are surprised by unexpected acts out of keeping with what we believe them to be, and lines of practice in direct opposition to plain and evident duty. The key of all this is, that they have secretly yielded their will to some temptation, and converted it into their own sin; and that sin is their master. We sometimes see such people deteriorating with a frightful intensity and speed; so much so as to make us remember how awfully the emptiness and preparedness of an undevout heart is described by our Lord. The unclean spirit “saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; 90and when he is come, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there.”4646 St. Matt. xii. 44, 45.
The case is, of course, much more obviously true of those who live lives of positive unholiness. Every sin that a man commits is an invitation to the tempter to tempt him thenceforward to that particular sin. So that every man of a profligate life is the subject of a manifold temptation, which is perpetually multiplying itself. First he is tempted of his own heart, then by Satan, then by consent he tempts Satan to tempt him again in the same forms, circumstances, and details; for by consent he has made that his master-sin. And thenceforward it becomes, as we say, a ruling sin, which is so seldom broken off that St. Peter says of certain, that they have “eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin.”4747 2 St. Peter ii. 14. They have an active commerce with the tempter, a mingling of will and desire with him; and the inflammation and power of evil affections become a bondage through which it becomes at last morally impossible to break. And how does this differ from a possession of the devil? Is it not a possession in all the reality of fact and truth? How did Satan enter into the heart of Judas with any fuller or more 91personal presence than this? How can we other wise explain the settled, deliberate career of sin in which some men live—the perfect impenetrableness of heart and conscience with which they hold out against all warnings, fears, and chastisements; as, for instance, in sensuality, falsehood, or pride?
This, then, is the sum of the matter: temptations are no sins so long as we keep our will pure from all consent to them; when we consent, they become sins, are infused into our spiritual nature, and are the first admissions of that which in the end may be no less than a possession.
3. And this leads to one point more—I mean, to the nature and limits of the power of temptation. First, it is plain that Satan has no power over the will of man except through itself. It must be won by self-betrayal, or not at all. This is absolutely certain, and lies at the root of the distinction between obedience and disobedience, holiness and sin. Next, it would appear that he can have no direct power over the affections. He must approach them, as they lie round the will, through the eye and the ear, the touch or the imagination. Through the senses, the avenues of temptation are ready and direct; and all the world around us ministers to danger. Therefore our Lord was so searching in His commands to pluck out the offending 92eye, and to cut off the offending hand. The first visible objects which Satan used to tempt withal were pure creatures of God, the fruit of the tree which God had blessed. So subtil is evil. But since he gained an entrance into the creation of God, he has, through the will and works of wicked men, framed for himself a world of his own, full of the visible forms and suggestions of pride, lust, impurity, covetousness. What else are idolatries, oracles, licentious ceremonies, lying books, unholy sights, pomps, and wars; or, again, false casuistry, sceptical and defiling literature, luxurious arts, worldly grandeur, and the like? And these things find their way into all eyes and ears, and are quickened by the craft and activity of men already corrupt. This world of evil hangs upon us round about, and through it he insinuates the quality of evil into the affections, and by them sways and possesses the will.
And again: we cannot doubt that he has still more concealed ways of addressing himself to us. He is a spirit, and we are of a spiritual nature. It is impossible to limit or define the action of intellect on intellect, and imagination on imagination. There are some temptations so peculiar, so sudden, so abrupt in their onset, so contrary to our natural and habitual bias, so disturbing and vehement in their first entrance on the mind, that 93we can hardly doubt that the tempter has a direct avenue to the intellectual and imaginative powers of our nature: for instance, religious delusions, in which he appears as an angel of light to the perverted mind. There is, by the common consent of man, such a thing as the direct instigation of the devil, which, though its means of working may be generally through the senses, we cannot doubt is also a work of direct and disembodied evil. Such, for instance, as the unaccountable desire to commit great and eccentric crimes; sudden impulses to do things most feared and hated, concurring with an opportunity unperceived till the impulse detected it. Now though these are extreme cases, and such as we are not commonly exposed to, they lay open a law, so to speak, of temptation which has place in our common life. I mean, the direct power and agency of Satan on the imagination. It is not necessary now to go further, or to inquire whether the images of the mind of which he serves himself are gathered from the ideas of previous experience, or suggested, new and unknown, from without. All that we are concerned with now is, to shew that he has no hold over the will, nor power over the affections, except through the images of the senses and of the mind. And this is a most consolatory and a most practical truth. It shews us our perfect safety so long as the Spirit of Christ 94dwells in our hearts: and it teaches us where to watch against the approaches of the tempter.
Let us pray, then, that our eyes, ears, and all senses be mortified; that the cross be upon them all; that no images of pomp, vanity, or lust may pass through them into the affections of our hearts; that no visions of sins past, nor remembrance of any thing that can kindle pride, anger, resentment, or any unholy passion, may haunt us; that our will may be dwelt in by the will of our sinless Lord, who for us overcame in the wilderness, and, if we be pure and true, will “bruise Satan under our feet shortly.”95
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