A Short Treatise on Temptation

This is a guest post by my bro David Matcham on the nature of Temptation.

Temptation:

How are we to understand the biblical concept of temptation? Is there such a thing as a Biblical concept of temptation? How does temptation manifest itself in and through the Biblical text. The primary source of information in the Bible comes from Luke 4: 1-13, the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness. In one sense this might seen unfortunate since, if this is the primary way in which temptation is seen to manifest itself as a Biblical concept, might it not fall prey to the criticism that Jesus, being the Son of God, was in an inherently privileged position to resist temptation when it came his way; that, maybe, the temptation of Jesus was a kind of show-temptation, a foregone conclusion far removed from the daily experiences of temptation as it is encountered by Christians across the globe? Can the temptation of Jesus, by no less than Satan himself, be seen as normative of the concept of temptation for all Christians in general?

I would argue that in spite of these considerations, the temptation of Jesus both is and can be seen as a working model for how the Bible understands temptation. James 1: 13-15 takes a line on temptation that might seen to contradict the idea of Christ’s temptation as normative for our own experience. He writes:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death.”

‘God cannot be tempted by evil.’ A common sense reading of this passage would leave the reader thinking that, since God cannot be tempted by evil, either Jesus was not really tempted by the devil, or that he is not really God incarnate. Since the latter totally opposes orthodox teaching on the matter of who Christ is we must for the moment resist a common sense reading in this direction; but, equally, the former stretches both the meaning of those verses in Luke and any working conception of the incarnation. That is, if the temptation in the desert was a piece of pure theatre what possible reason do we have for holding fast to a definition of the incarnation which identifies Christ as a man exactly like any other man, warts, temptations and all? A clue perhaps beyond a common sense reading lies I think in the precise wording of the epistle, that is that ‘God cannot be tempted by evil [êáêþí].’

The Temptation in the Wilderness 1824 John St John Long 1798-1834 Purchased 1986 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T04169

The Temptation in the Wilderness 1824 John St John Long 1798-1834

Herein, too, lies one of the main points that I would raise about the nature of Biblical temptation as it manifests itself within the text, that the concept of temptation is not identical with the concept of temptation of, or by, evil. For example, what were the temptations of Christ? They were, in order:
1. to turn a stone into bread (he was extremely hungry). Luke 4: 3
2. worldly authority.           Luke 4: 5, 6
3. to prove to himself and others that he was the messiah through the working of miracles. Luke 4: 9-11

 

In each instance it is arguable that evil was not the intended aim of the temptation; indeed, even for the second, the “temptation” to bow the knee to Satan in exchange for worldly authority was merely a means to an end, at no point was Christ offered the opportunity, and therefore faced the temptation, of simply bowing before the devil with nothing else in view. The devil, as before in Eden, when he tempted Eve with godlike knowledge, was not positing something that in itself was evil. To be sure, the context of both the ministry of reconciliation for Christ, and the rule of obedience in Eden renders the giving in to the temptation an evil, but neither godlike knowledge nor worldly authority are in themselves evils.

Temptation, then very rarely, if at all, enters into the Biblical conception of it as a pure temptation to that which in itself is evil; rather, temptation is the tempting towards a certain good that, contextually, renders the giving in to it an evil. In this regard temptation can be seen as working within the frame of conceptions of the good in conflict with other goods. So, seen in this light, the fact that David, for example, felt a strong sexual desire towards Bathsheba and acted on it was not in itself an evil; the evil consists in the context in which such a desire and such an act occurred. Having sex with Bathsheba was a good towards which the will and desire of David had orientated themselves in contradiction to the context in which she was already another man’s wife, thus rendering the good of sexual union between the two an evil. Evil is not here conceived of as having inherent reality, but rather feeds off the good as a distortion of it.

Likewise, the turning of bread into stone, of claiming worldly authority, of performing miracles, are not to be seen as evils desired by Christ, but merely manifestations of goods that contradicted a good which had a greater claim on the orientation of desires. In order to develop a point for further reflection I turn now to Kant’s understanding of what he termed ‘diabolical evil’, that is, an evil which desires evil because it is evil, which, turning its back on any conception of the good, desires that evil above all else. In this sense, in orientating the will to desire that which is in itself evil, the will makes a “good” out of the evil. Herein lies the paradox noted by Kant, that diabolical evil was only a theoretical possibility for humans, since to desire the evil as if it were a good would be ultimately destructive of the desiring self and logically impossible.

The point to be made here is that every temptation offers the one tempted a good, the context of which renders a given temptation illicit. Of course one could dispute this, to say that the temptation to murder a small child, say, is not a good that has been perverted. In reply I would add that, yes, while the murder of small children is not in any context a conceivable good, the context of which renders it sometimes illicit and other times licit, however it is enough to say that at that time this action must be seen by the tempted would-be murderer as a good to be desired, for whatever reason. In order, therefore, for something to be tempting it must first be made manifest as a good to the one tempted, even if on the level of morality that something is in fact an outrage. Diabolical evil, in contrast, is an evil that is in no way encountered as a possible good.

This brings me to the central point that I would like to make: that temptation is a matter of the affections, to what or whom they are orientated as towards a desirable good. Insofar as something immoral is desirable then it appears during the period of temptation as a good to be desired. This means then, that temptation takes at least three forms, but follows one logic. That is, that both moral and immoral things can appear as temptations. In the case of the first form (for example, of Christ’s temptation, Eve’s, David’s) that which is considered desirable is not in itself immoral, but is made immoral by the context in which they occur. In the case of the second type (the would-be child murderer) that which is desired is immoral, but because the orientation of the affections are always pointing towards a conceivable “good” the temptation to kill an innocent child is understood as a desirable good to be acted on. For example, the sheer visceral pleasure of killing might be the desirable good to which the murderer orientates himself. In the final type, the temptation is away from any orientation of the affections towards a conceivable good, towards making that which is in itself evil desirable.

In this type no act of immorality would be conducted out of a sense of gaining the slightest interest, and indeed might in fact work the other way against the one tempted. This is a theoretical possibility, but remains a technical impossibility for humans, because it is only by appearing as a possible good that evil can be in any way tempting. In this sense diabolical evil is not in the least bit tempting because it cannot appear as a possible good. To draw once more upon heterodox writers for the moment, both Kant and John Milton followed the argument that the reason why the fallen angels would never be redeemed was because they, in full knowledge of the evil to which they had turned, tempted themselves by that which was no temptation (no possible or conceivable good) at all.

The one logic that temptation follows here is of course that temptation is always a temptation towards a conceivable good, never an evil as an evil. It follows from this that the battle of desire in the Christian is in fact a battle for his affections, for the positing of an orientation towards a good that trumps all other conceivable goods. The idea that temptation can be fought by unveiling the evil hiding behind the presumed “good” while mildly helpful does not do justice to the power of the affections to immediately cover it over again with a real or imagined good.

The pleasures of drunkenness cannot be fought by pointing out the damage that alcohol does to either the liver or the lives of alcoholics, but by positing an even greater and consequently more desirable good in its place. So, rather than pointing out the damaging effects of alcohol on the life of an alcoholic one would instead in their place encourage an appreciation of sobriety as a good, to make it more attractive than the pleasures of drunkenness. In so far as the alcoholic is motivated to stop drinking because of a fear for his health rather than because he desires something else as a greater good than being drunk the battle of temptation for his affections has not yet begun.

Likewise, the same holds true for any other possible desire for any other possible real or imagined good; merely bolstering the will without changing the affections does nothing to affect the heart of the one so tempted if the temptation still appears as more desirable than Christ, and may in fact mitigate against Christ in the long run. The point, therefore, is not to expose the evil lurking behind the imagined good (for which you would need a considerable amount of time to work your way through each temptation), but rather to engage in orientating the affections in a single direction to the exclusion of all others. This is not to denigrate the impact of genuine temptation. Clearly if Christ experiences temptation (and to think his incarnation rightly this must have been so) then having one’s affections rightly orientated does not mitigate against temptations that must come as possible goods in a struggle for our affections. Insofar as something, anything, can appear as a possible good it has the potential to become a temptation to an evil.
In the case of Christ, his battle with genuine temptations took the form of clinging to that which he desired more, i.e. obedience to the will of the Father. Indeed, in this instance the “goods” that the devil was tempting Christ with were in many ways legitimate goods for the Son of God, and that is precisely what makes them so tempting for him. The temptation would have been a rather quick business had the devil tempted Christ with things that would never have appeared to Christ as possible goods, which shows that the temptation took the form of a battle for possible goods in the heart of Jesus. The battle was not at the level of the intellect, or even a pernickety adherence to the minutia of scripture, but rather at the level of the affections – what did Jesus desire as his greatest good, to what was his affection orientated in the face of other possible objects of affection? In order to beat the temptation Christ must necessarily have desired a prime good over all other possible contenders.

In so far as Christ’s temptation offers us a model for thinking and experiencing temptations for ourselves it offers two conclusions. The first is that when temptation comes our way it fixes itself onto our desires, and our desires are always fixed on that which appears as a possible good to which we necessarily orientate ourselves. This is why no two people experience temptation in exactly the same way, because that which for one is a possible good, for another may appear as being still a good, but considerably less so. The difference then between a man who gambles all his money away and a man who saves for the future is not a difference of will power or intellect, but a difference of orientation towards and an affection for differing goods: for the gambler the “good” of the pleasure of gambling takes precedence over the “good” of saving, and thus motivates his actions.

There is little room here for self-righteousness, which there might be if temptation were merely a matter of steeling the will against what you knew to be an evil when it first arose. The second conclusion is that the battle over temptation is a battle for the affections, the battle over that which seems to us a greater or lesser good at any given moment. The temptation will never appear as evil in itself, since even if a temptation is self-consciously aware of itself as being evil by the one tempted the core of the temptation will be a possible good such as, at the very least, immediate physical pleasure. In order for such temptation to overcome the good to which the temptation is pointing as desirable (which in itself is still a genuine good) this good must be seen by the affections as a lesser good than the prime good, which is Christ himself.

 

By David Matcham.

He blogs at ‘swivelchair theology‘ when he can be bothered (or rather, not tempted to do anything else)!

temptations

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