The Temptations in the Desert


            Jesus, “full of the Holy Spirit”, is led by the Spirit out into the desert to fast and pray for forty days. We expect the Paraclete’s touch to bring us peace, joy, and consolation. Sometimes He blesses us instead with trials and aridity, the spiritual desolation symbolised by the stony wilderness of the desert. This is for our purification, lest we desire the gifts of God more than God Himself.

It is when we are alone that the demons come out to tempt us, and depression can descend upon us. Whoever lives alone - widowed or unmarried, celibate or divorced - needs all the more to be part of that mighty communion of the saints, that spiritual network of prayer and goodness which tides us up. Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ hinted at his own struggles in the poem Carrion Comfort:


            “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there…………

I wake and feel the fall of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! What sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

            With witness I speak this. But where I say

Hours I mean years, mean life. . . “


In St Luke’s account ((4:1-13) the devil’s attacks come after forty days of fasting, when Jesus is hungriest. The devil waits for our weakest moments too. He baits his traps and launches his seductive manoeuvres. He knows each one’s Achilles heel.

            Jesus’ three temptations concern the lust of the flesh, the desire for glory, and eagerness for power. Will He be the obedient Son of the Father, prepared to perform His mission even as a failure in the world’s eyes? Or will He use His divine powers and prerogatives to court popularity, short-circuiting His messianic mission? Satan offers the immediate glamour of success. Jesus “experiences the excitement of evil not at the superficial level of sensual satisfaction but at the much deeper level of a temptation to disobey his divine mission” (Von Balthasar)

            In the Old Testament, satan “the accuser” is a shadowy character. As modern exorcists describe, demons like to remain hidden and do not want their names or actions exposed. In the New Testament, Revelation takes a stride forward. Once the Supremely Holy One walks upon earth, the diabolical forces of darkness are flushed out into the light. Open battle is joined.

Some will object that in the 21st century we cannot be expected to accept 1st century Jewish cosmology with its angels and demons. How can Satan be real? He is just a metaphor, a figure of speech for the evil lurking in the human heart?

            For Catholics, the Fourth Lateran Council defined the existence of angels and demons as a dogma of the faith in 1215. That will hardly be decisive for our secular compatriots.  In the materialist west, we know less about the spiritual realms than our ancestors did. Intoxicated by technological advances, we arrogantly neglect the wisdom of more ancient and humane cultures.


Men don’t believe in a devil now as their fathers used to do

They force the door of the broadest creed to let His Majesty through.

There isn’t a print of his cloven foot or a fiery dart from his bow

To be found in earth or air today, for the world has voted so.


But who is mixing the fatal draught that palsies heart and brain?

And loads the earth of each passing year with ten hundred thousand slain?

Who blights the bloom of the land today with the fiery breath of hell,

If the devil isn’t and never was – won’t somebody rise and tell?


Who dogs the steps of the toiling saint and digs the pit for his feet?

Who sows the tares in the field of time, wherever God sows His wheat?

The devil is voted not to be, and of course, the thing is true,

But who is doing the kind of work the devil alone should do?


We are told he does not go about as a roaring lion now,

But whom shall we hold responsible for the everlasting row

To be heard in home, in church, in state, to the earth’s remotest bound,

If the devil by a unanimous vote is nowhere to be found?


Won’t somebody step to the front forthwith, and make his bow and show

How the frauds and the crimes of the day spring up, for surely we want to know.

The devil was fairly voted out, and of course, the devil is gone.

But simple people would like to know, who carries his business on?

Herbert Trench, Irish-born playwright (1865-1923)


            Firstly Satan tempts the starving Jesus to use his “magic” to turn stones into bread - the temptation of the easy fix to slake one’s physical desires.

Secondly from a high mountain, the diabolos shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the earth (or Empire) in a moment of time.  “All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will, I give it. If thou therefore shalt worship me, all shall be thine.”

Alarming words. Is this world under Satan’s dominion? He is an inveterate liar and boaster, but this time there is a little truth in his claim. Scripture calls him the “prince of this world.”

Many strike the Faustian bargain with Mephistopheles, trading their immortal souls in exchange for power, fame or riches. Rock musicians and film stars can tell about the sex, drugs and occult involvement necessary if one wishes to rise to glory.

Our medical establishment too has bought its shares in Faust plc. It manipulates the well-springs of life. It destroys fertility and creates human beings in the laboratory. The embryo experimenters and cloners have done their deal with Satan, to defy God’s power and accept the infernal promises of prestige and national prosperity. Have some of those who hold high office in politics and the media also struck this bargain?

Why does the devil want to be worshipped? Because, as the beautiful angel Lucifer, he coveted equality with God and in his pride rebelled: “Non serviam”. “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”(Milton). To have the Son of God fall down and worship him would be triumph indeed for his bitter hatred of the Almighty.

In the third demonic vision, Jesus stands on a pinnacle of the Temple. Satan invites him to presume upon the Father’s providence, by casting himself down, so that the angels may bear him up. “The devil can cite Scripture to suit his purpose.” (Shakespeare)

This is diabolically clever. Is not every believer called to walk out in faith and trust God to support him? Peter, for example, walked briefly upon the Sea of Galilee. However, it is at God’s prompting we may do this, neither upon our own initiative nor upon the devil’s.

Defeated, the tempter departs “for a season.” He will return at the hour of darkness to enter into the heart of Judas the betrayer. Jesus is delivered up to the high priests, who by nurturing religious jealousy and resentment in their hearts, have become instruments of the Evil One. But that will lead to the tempter’s final defeat, not the victorious revenge he craved.

            Countless Christian confessors, apostles and saints have trained in desert solitude and experienced some of what Our Lord went through. The father of monasticism, St Anthony of Egypt, was plagued by demonic temptations. After 20 years of prayer, fasting and solitude his faith was tempered like steel.

It is as a man that Jesus was tempted, and taught us how to resist temptation – by prayer, fasting and watchfulness, with the word of God in our hearts. So He is with us amidst all out temptations. O Jesus, hope and strength of all the tempted, have mercy upon us!