There is no testimony without a test. Through trials and temptations in the desert places of our lives, our faith is tested. A test proves whether our faith is genuine or spurious. Through tests our faith is either purified and strengthened or destroyed and abandoned.
Immediately following his baptism, "Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert in order to be tempted by devil" (Matthew 4:1). He fasted for forty days. The tempter approached Jesus with the first temptation - a temptation that, on the surface, seems rather benign: "The tempter came and said to him, 'If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread'" (Matthew 4:3).
What could be so wrong with a hungry man turning stones into bread? What's more right and proper than that an exhausted hungry man should eat? The suggestion does not appear self-indulgent. The temptation is not to turn stones into steak and ale but to merely provide the most meager provision for a famished man.
The temptation may initially appear relatively harmless, but upon reflection, it proves to be a radical compromise of God's will. If Jesus would have turned the stones into bread he would have (1) used his messianic powers for his own purposes, (2) failed to fully identify with the human experience, and (3) failed to trust God to provide in the desert.
Distorting Jesus' Mission
Turning stones into bread would have involved using Jesus' messianic powers for his own purposes. Jesus was annointed and empowered by the Spirit at his baptism for his messianic mission. His powers were given to him for the good of others. He was God's servant: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
If the tempter had merely suggested that it would be a good thing for Jesus to eat there would have been nothing evil in his suggestion. Instead, the tempter urges Jesus to us his messianic powers to remove his hunger. But this is not the purpose of his power.
In all four gospels, Jesus' miraculous powers - which serve as signs of God's coming kingdom - are only used during the three years of his public ministry. In one instance, you may recall, he does use his messianic powers to perform a food miracle - multiplying the loaves and fishes - but he does it, not for his own sake, but for the welfare of the famished people who have spent long hours listening to his preaching and teaching.
Jesus uses his powers for the welfare of others, but not for his own. In the final week of his life - Passion Week - Jesus refuses to use his messianic powers to eliminate or reduce his suffering. No miracles occur on the road to the cross or upon the cross. Though Jesus could have used his powers to save himself, he refused to do so. His suffering was not alleviated by miraculous powers.
Jesus refused to abuse his power by using it to his own advantage. We can learn from Jesus' example. We also have been given a measure of God's Spirit. Every member of the body of Christ possesses a spiritual gift - given not for our own selfish ends, but for the common good: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Corinthians 12:7).
This is especially important for leaders to remember. What Father Gerald Vann writes about his own church - the Catholic church - applies to all religious leaders:
Those of us who are priests, for instance, are given power, authority, and influence in order to serve souls; but we can be tempted to abuse these things and pervert God's order by turning them to our own advantage, our own desire for self-aggrandizement of one sort or another. Instead of being true priests, we can degenerate into money-grubbers or petty tyrants, careerists or snobs.
We must never forget the great temptation to abuse positions of power. People "can be led to seek for power and office in order to minister to their own pride and selfishness and self-esteem."
But we have to remember, too, how easy it is for us to deceive ourselves, to rationalize, and to find respectable or even noble reasons for making what is, in fact, a purely selfish use of the good things God has given us. We delude ourselves into thinking that ambition or the lust for power are really zeal for God's house or enthusiasm for an ideal or a loving concern to better the lot of our fellowmen.
Tragically, "we are capable of transforming even the most selfishly motivated action into an act of sacrificial altruism in our own minds." We can easily become "religious tyrants" by advancing our own agendas with zealous religious language. Only when we are willing to admit the persistent possibility of ungodly motivations are we able to combat and correct them. Sadly, "because ambition is easily disguised in Christian circles and couched in spiritual language (the need to fulfill the Great Commission and expand the church), the dysfunctions that drive Christian leaders often go undetected and unchallenged until it is too late."
Father Vann notes that this distortion can also occur in the household. In the name of service, parents can force children to serve their own selfish ends. In the name of love, possessive mothers may seek to keep their children tied to their apron strings and domineering fathers may turn power into tyranny.
This leads to the second thing wrong with the tempter's suggestion. If Jesus had changed the stones into bread, he would have failed to completely identify with humankind. We do not possess special powers to allow us to make food appear from nowhere or to alleviate suffering for ourselves. Jesus would have completely disassociated himself from the human family had he used his powers for his own purposes whenever he was inconvenienced or uncomfortable. How could he identify with us if, like a magician, he provided for his every need whenever he felt like it? A self-serving wonder worker, flexing his power for his own ends, would not be fully human.
Finally, if Jesus had changed the stones into bread he would have proved that he believed God cannot be trusted. Jesus' response to the tempter - a quotation from Deuteronomy 8 - helps us put his temptation into context. In Deuteronomy 8, the people of Israel had been hungry just like Jesus, and God sent them manna to eat. Allowing God's people to hunger in the desert was part of God's test to determine whether they trusted God to provide or not:
Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)
The hunger they experienced for the moment was part of the journey to lead them to a greater place - a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 8:7-9). Israel had to learn to trust God in times of abundance and times of want. Like Israel before him, Jesus chose to trust that, even though he was hungry, God would provide in the desert. He trusted God and passed the test of faith.
The Heart of the First Test
There is a sinister suggestion at the heart of the first temptation. Not only did the tempter seek to influence Jesus to abuse his power, he sought to do it by urging Jesus to place the satisfication of his personal needs and desires over and above his commitment to do the will of God. If Jesus had given into the adversary's temptation, he would have - like Adam and Eve in the Garden - embraced "the arrogant assumption that the satisfaction of one's own needs, desires, and ambitions is more important than doing the will of God."
This temptation is not nearly as benign as it initially seems. The tempter desires no less than that Jesus seek his own desires above God's will. He seeks to influence Jesus to place the immediate above the ultimate - to sacrifice his ultimate commitment to God for the sake of immediate gratification. The temptation is to allow immediate desires to overshadow ultimate concerns - to allow fidelity to God to fade into the background because of the pressing needs of the moment.
Jesus was challenged to raise his needs and passions above God's will. Instead, he chose to subject his desires to God's will - even if it meant suffering. Jesus believed it was better to suffer loss than to sin. He understood that in order to do the will of God, one must learn to deny self for we cannot give ourselves to one another - much less God! - if our personal desires take precedence over everything else.
Jesus demonstrates his commitment to God's will above all else when, at the cross, the tempter whispers through the people, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. Save yourself" (Matthew 27:40). By refusing to come down - even though it was in his power to do so - Jesus chooses to suffer rather than sin. Jesus chooses the will of God regardless of where it leads.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Jesus' example in a culture of immediate gratification. Sometimes the easier path is not the better path. We are called to follow the road less traveled, to walk the narrow way, the way of Christ - the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The one who would rather suffer personal loss than sin against God's will.
There are many legitimate things we naturally desire: affection, security, and sustanence among them. These are all important, but they are not ultimate. There is a reason that "Thy will be done" is prayed before "Give us this day our daily bread." Whether we have bread or not, God's will remains the priority. Our faithfulness should not be contingent upon God's provision. We need bread to live, but we do not live by bread alone.
Why Bread Alone is Not Enough
Bread is important, but it is not the most important thing in life. There is more to life than food. Just a few chapters later, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches,
"Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:31-33).
Life is hardly worth living if life is reduced to what we eat or drink. A full stomach is not a sign of spiritual fullness. We are more than material beings; we are spiritual beings. We hunger for more than bread. We hunger after meaning, purpose, and value. We hunger after God.
This is why, as tempting as it is, we dare not reduce the church's work to merely providing social services. Henri Nouwen calls this "the temptation to be relevant." "This is the temptation to be relevant, to do something that is needed and can be appreciated by people--to make productivity the basis of our ministry."
How often have we heard these words: "What is the value of talking about God to hungry people? What is the use of proclaiming the Good News to people who lack food, shelter, or clothing? What is needed are people who can offer real help and support. Doctors can heal, lawyers can defend, bankers can finance, social workers can restructure. But what can you do? What do you have to offer?"
This is the tempter speaking!
We do have something to offer that no social agency can. We offer the "bread of life," the "word of God."
The old adage, "Don't preach to a starving person" is as true as ever, but we must offer more than bread alone. "Jesus did not deny the importance of bread but rather relativized it in comparison with the nurturing power of the Word of God." It's not just "bread alone" but "bread and the Word of God" that people need. "Bread is given to us by God so that we will entrust ourselves completely to God's word."
While not undermining the need for social work, we must never allow this to overshadow the church's call to witness to what is most important - the word of God. Jesus - the Word of God made flesh - gives us "the bread of life" through his own self-sacrifice. We must not allow the things of God to fade into unreality, to become options that no one really needs, by focusing exclusively on the present. Giving bread matters, but offering the bread of life matters most. Social work without a call to fidelity to God reduces those we help to eating, breeding, and meeting machines rather than ennobling them as image bearers of the living God.
Clearly, the first temptation is not as harmless as it initially appears. Jesus responded to the tempter's subtle influence with "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). We must not forget this or we will impoverish ourselves. "It is not enough just to say that man does not live by bread alone: we need the strong faith that will convince us, in mind and in heart, that the saying is true."
Our greatest need is not bread - as important as bread is - but God. The adversary's temptation lives on. There are plenty of immediate needs to keep us from our ultimate need - the one thing necessary. Too often, our needs and desires drive our faith, rather than our faith forming our needs and desires.
Jesus' greatest desires is not merely that we would survive, but that we would thrive with the abundant life that God offers through a steady diet of feeding upon the word of God. For to Jesus, life in the truest sense is fellowship, harmony, and union with God. One may have to die to self to gain this, but the life that is found by doing so is so great, the only word for it is "eternal life."
 Gerald Vann, The Devil and How to Resist Him (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 1957), 79.
 Vann, The Devil and How to Resist Him, 82.
 Vann, The Devil and How to Resist Him, 82.
 Gary L. McIntosh and Samuel D. Rima, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The Paradox of Personal Dysfunction (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997), 43.
 Ibid., 14.
 Vann, The Devil and How to Resist Him, 76.
 Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2007).
 Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ.
 Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ.
 Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ.
 Vann, The Devil and How to Resist Him, 85.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010