The Three Temptations - Part 1

The bible has a recurring theme from start to end, that we are tempted by only three things: money, sex and power. That's the modern phrase; more specifically we are tempted to own too much stuff (avarice; greed), to want to exert our will over those of others (power), and to enjoy physical pleasures to excess (lust). These three temptations also go by the more traditional name, the world, the flesh and the devil; or my favorite: the unholy three.

We first hear of these unholy three in the Garden of Eden.

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. (Gen 3:6)

It was "good for food;" that is, it was delicious, which is a temptation to pleasure. It was "a delight to the eyes;" that is, they wanted it, which is what always triggers our greed. Finally, it was "desired to make one wise;" the serpent had just explained that should they eat the fruit, they will "be like God, knowing good and evil." To be like God would be the greatest power of all. Here we see the unholy three at the dawn of time, applied in unison and successfully tempting Adam & Eve to the first sin.

This trinitarian temptation occurs again and again in Scripture. Another important example in salvation history occurs at the foot of Mount Sinai, while Moses is on the mount conversing with God.

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 And Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play (Ex 32:1-6)

First the people exert their will over God's will; they make a new god who has no will to exert, no demands to make, who can be made and, therefore, be made subject to the peoples' will. Power. Second, such a god is made of their own gold, their wealth which they had despoiled of the Egyptians. Avarice. Finally, they eat and drink and play. Lust. It might be noted that at this point the Israelites have not yet been taught by God how to offer animal sacrifice, therefore we may assume they do so the Egyptian way, which includes orgy. More lust.

In Deuteronomy, there is a law for future kings of Israel:

"14 When you come to the land which the LORD your God gives you, and you possess it and dwell in it, and then say, `I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me'; 15 you may indeed set as king over you him whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16 Only he must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since the LORD has said to you, `You shall never return that way again.' 17 And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold. (Dt 17:14-17)

The kings of that time relied on military might to maintain their power, the chariot and horse being their chief weapon. As God wanted Israel to depend on Him for security and not on any king, he denied them such a weapon. Likewise, kings of that time established treaties with other nations via royal marriages with foreign princesses. The two nations would cement their pact through the royal children born to such unions. Hence the harem. But many wives with expectations for children also meant an excess of lust. Finally, God denies the future kings great wealth - the gold. It seems that the unholy three had become institutionalized in political power; they were the three things a king needed to be kingly. Faith-based Israel was to be different; it was to be ruled by God and the kings were to be, more than anything else, the devoted children of Yahweh.

Let's move to the New Testament and see how Christ taught the unholy three. In His Sermon on the Mount (Mat 6), Jesus refers first to almsgiving (Mt 6:1-4), then to prayer (Mt 6:5-15), then to fasting (Mt 6:16-18). These are the standard weapons against the three temptations. Against greed: give away your wealth. Against power: put yourself in the presence of the great God through prayer, before Whom even the mighty tremble. Against lust: deny yourself pleasure via fasting. These three pious practices - almsgiving, prayer & fasting - are the standard Christian weapons against the three temptations. (For those who want to go even further, there are the Evangelical Counsels of the consecrated life: poverty, chastity and obedience.)

Jesus' temptation in the wilderness again points to the unholy three. However, that narrative is so rich in meaning that it requires its own commentary, which I will explain in the next post.

Next we can look at 1 Jn 2:16

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world (1 Jn 2:15-16)

Lust of the flesh: pleasure. Lust of the eyes: greed. Pride of life: power. Finally we can point to the number 666 in Revelation, which is explained elsewhere in The Anti-Christ; it is a numeric symbol for the unholy three.

Scripture teaches us again and again to avoid these temptations, because they lead to unhappiness in ourselves as well as in others who are victims of our greed, our power-grabs and our objectifying lust. The practical solution is to simply live in the opposite direction. There is, however, another solution that Jesus taught and is the subject of the next post.