Last Sunday, we read the passage from the Gospel of Luke about the testing of Christ in the desert by Satan. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas makes some interesting observations. He treats the temptations as having occurred in an escalating manner; he also connects Christ’s experience to that of Adam in the Garden of Eden.
St. Thomas writes,
Thus, too, did the devil set about the temptation of the first man. For at first he enticed his mind to consent to the eating of the forbidden fruit, saying (Genesis 3:1), “Why hath God commanded you that you should not eat of every tree of paradise?” Secondly [he tempted him] to vainglory by saying, “Your eyes shall be opened.” Thirdly, he led the temptation to the extreme height of pride, saying, “You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
This same order did he observe in tempting Christ. For at first he tempted Him to that which men desire, however spiritual they may be—namely, the support of the corporeal nature by food. Secondly, he advanced to that matter in which spiritual men are sometimes found wanting, inasmuch as they do certain things for show, which pertains to vainglory. Thirdly, he led the temptation on to that in which no spiritual men, but only carnal men, have a part—namely, to desire worldly riches and fame, to the extent of holding God in contempt (Summa Theologica III, 41.4).
Notice the escalating quality of the temptations. There is the baser temptation of the body. Then there is the temptation of the psyche with its interest in interpersonal relationships. Finally, there is the highest temptation, which attacks our relationship with God.
Let’s look at each in more detail.
The first (and most base) temptation is one of the body. It seeks to destroy the proper relationship of a person with his or her own soul and body. Jesus is tempted to consider eating bread, which was forbidden because the Holy Spirit had led Him to fast. Adam is bodily tempted by the offer of fruit, forbidden to him by God. But the fruit seems to Adam and Eve as: good for food, and [that it was] a delight to the eyes (Gen 3:6).
To us, too, come temptations to gratify the faculties of the body and our baser passions. These sorts of temptations seek to destroy the right relationship we need to have with our bodies and with the physical world of creation.
The second temptation attacks the intellect through an appeal to vainglory. Satan says that if Jesus will worship him, it will be granted to Him that all nations will glorify Him and He will have authority over them (Lk 4:6). Similarly, Adam is told, Your eyes shall be opened (Gen 3:5).
These sorts of temptations appeal to our excessive pride, encouraging us to seek things that are beyond us and to esteem ourselves more than we ought. We also have a tendency to seek fame and the praise of other men. This distorts the proper and well-ordered sense of ourselves as well as our relationships with others; we inordinately seek their praise and, even more darkly, desire to have power over them.
The third and highest temptation is one that attacks our soul and its proper relationship with God. It seeks to have us hold God in contempt. Satan tells Jesus to cast Himself recklessly from the highest pinnacle and thereby sinfully presume that God will rescue Him no matter what He does. Similarly, Adam and Eve are told, You will be as gods (Gen 3:5). Adam is tempted to hold God in contempt by sinfully presuming that he is God’s equal or rival.
We, too, are tempted to trivialize God and to hold Him in contempt by disregarding His warnings about the inevitable consequences of serious and unrepented sin, and by substituting our own notions over and against His truth. We think we have a better understanding of justice than He does and that His warnings about sin can be lightly set aside, that He will save us no matter how blatant our rejection of His plan.
Thus we see how the temptations of Adam and Jesus (and us) are not simply three categories of temptation, but a sequence that escalates in seriousness.
For us, the lesson is clear: as we allow baser temptations to take hold, more serious temptations aimed at our higher faculties also set in. As we give way to these lower sinful desires, our intellect becomes darkened and our will weakened. And as the intellect and will are attacked, so also is our relationship with God. With the mind and will wounded by baser bodily desires, the higher things of God seem more difficult and we can become contemptuously dismissive of His teachings and of our need for His grace and mercy.
It is a threefold, escalating attack of which we must be aware. Heed the wisdom of Scripture, as explained by St. Thomas!