The temptations Jesus faced in the desert may seem a little obscure to us, but, in fact, they lie at the heart of all human temptation. They are three classic substitutes for the good that is God’s will.
The first great temptation is to focus our lives on material things and the satisfaction of sensual desire: “The tempter approached him and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.’” Jesus is starving after 40 days of fasting, and he feels the temptation to use his divine power to satisfy his bodily desires.
This means that he feels the pull to make the satisfaction of bodily desire the center and ground of his life. This is the pull toward hedonism—the philosophy that the good life is the physically-satisfying life. Food, drink, sex, material things, money, comfort, or a secure sense of the future have become the supreme values for many in our culture.
Many, many people throughout history, and to this day, are waylaid by this powerful temptation. It is powerful because the desires are so basic. Thomas Merton said that the sensual desires—for food, comfort, pleasure, and sex—are like little children in that they are so immediate and so insistent.
But our lives will never open to greater depth as long as we are dominated by our physical desires. This is why in so many of the initiation rituals of primal peoples, something like fasting or sensible deprivation is essential. It is also why initiation into a demanding form of life, like the military, often involves the deprivation of sensual pleasures.
When we give way to this temptation, it shuts down the soul, for the soul has been wired for God. It was created for journey into the divine, for the beatific vision. When sensual desire dominates, those deeper and richer desires are never felt or followed. They are, as Merton said, like little children, constantly clamoring for attention.
This is why Jesus responds: “Scripture has it, ‘Not on bread alone shall man live” (Matthew 4:4). Life means so much more than sensual pleasure. Love, loyalty, relationship, family, moral excellence, aesthetic pleasure, and the aspiration after God are all so much more important.