Modernity and the Temptations of Christ

If I have done modernity a disservice, it might be in giving the impression that its temptations might be something new. In truth, there is nothing particularly new in the philosophy of modernity other than its peculiar assembly of old ideas and the capture of the general culture as its servant. It is worth considering how certain major temptations have been forged into cultural virtues in our modern world. Examples can be seen particularly in the three temptations which Christ endured in the wilderness.

The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Christ had fasted for forty days and “was hungry” according to the Scriptures. The devil suggests to Him that He turn stones into bread. Christ was neither the first nor the last to experience human hunger. It was also not the last time in the gospel story that the temptation of bread would arise. Following the miracle of the Five Loaves, Jesus saw that the crowd had followed him to Capernaum. He said:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” John 6:26-27

In the 19th century, Dostoevsky took up the “bread” problem. In the famous “parable” of the “Grand Inquisitor,” Jesus has returned to earth during the Spanish Inquisition. He is arrested (having raised a man from the dead). The Inquisitor (who has decided to burn Christ at the stake) taunts him with the problem of bread. He reminds Christ of the conversation with the devil in the wilderness:

“But do You see these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after You like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest You withdraw Your hand and deny them Your bread.” But You would not deprive man of freedom and rejected the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread? You replied that man lives not by bread alone. But do You know that for the sake of that earthly bread the spirit of the earth will rise up against You and will strive with You and overcome Thee, and all will follow him [Satan], crying, “Who can compare with this beast? He has given us fire from heaven!” Do You know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!” that’s what they’ll write on the banner, which they will raise against You, and with which they will destroy Your temple.

In the Second temptation, Jesus is urged to throw Himself from the Temple and let the angels save Him – thus demonstrating His divinity. It is the temptation which we all face from time-to-time, when we ask, “Why doesn’t God intervene [now!] and give us justice or prevent suffering, etc.” We despise the “weakness” of God and mock Him, at the same time despising our own weakness and making us vulnerable to every successful huckster who promises us a share in his secrets.

The Last Temptation is perhaps the greatest, and the one that most torments our modern thoughts. Christ is offered the “kingdoms of this world” if only He will worship the tempter. It is the temptation of power. What if you had all power? What wonderfully good things could you do?

One place where such an inner dialog takes place is in the purchase of a lottery ticket. Powerball approaches half-a-billion dollars and the ticket is only a couple of bucks. The purchase is made (why not? there’s no commandment against it) and sits quietly in our pocket. The thoughts begin. You know that the odds are ridiculously against you, but you can’t help imagining what life might be like if you won. “If I were a rich man…” I have been told any number of times, “If I win the lottery, I’ll give the money for a new church building.” Of course. We keep only a small portion, say some tens of millions for ourselves. With the rest, we will build a better world, maybe create a charitable foundation (like a Bill Gates). On and on we muse.

Modernity’s mantra, “make the world a better place,” is invoked repeatedly in one guise or another. Every invocation promises that with money and power, we could really make a difference. The myth (or lie) that this perpetuates is that the only thing standing between us and a better world is lack of resources. The truth is that, at the present time in our modern age, there is no lack of resources, no lack of wealth. The abundance of the world is overflowing. People are hungry and starve, etc., for lack of goodness. It has been observed by some that every famine in our modern time has had politics as its primary cause. We are not the victims of nature – but of one another.

It is, of course, ironic that Satan should offer Christ “all the kingdoms of this world.” How do you offer the Lord of All anything that is not already His? He refuses them (at least when offered on the devil’s terms). The way of Christ is the way of God – it is the way revealed in the Cross. The world will be saved in the mystery of the Cross, the self-emptying love of God. Not only is the world saved in that manner, but, those who are being saved are invited to join in that salvation – to empty themselves in self-sacrificing love. That is the proper description of the Church, though it is frequently refused and replaced with an effort to be a “helping” organization, a religious adjunct to the build-a-better-world project of modernity.

The modern world, through its acquisition of technology and its accompanying wealth, through its development of democratic institutions and attendant freedoms, has won the lottery (or so we imagine). We have wealth and power at our fingertips – indeed, we now have all the kingdoms of this world. At present, we throw trillions of dollars at problems with very little thought. The world is no better as a result. Our culture has recently engaged in an orgy of spending and we hate each other. More of the same medicine will only yield the same result.

While Rome postured and threatened Jesus, telling him that it had the power to kill Him or release Him, He patiently waited for the crucifixion He knew would come. “You could do nothing had it not been given to you from above,” He tells Pilate. God is in charge of the outcome of history, plain and simple. He has, however, entered into history itself, not as its Master and Builder, but as its Savior. That salvation is a way of life, to walk the way of the Cross.

When I write on the issues of modernity, I continually point us back to the Cross. Jesus had a famous conversation with a Rich Young Ruler, at the end of which He said, “If you would be perfect, sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me.” I have imagined the Rich Young Ruler as a modern man. He says in return, “Well, can I keep my money if I promise to only use it for good?” The power of modernity (its wealth, its technology, its politics, its philosophy of individual freedom, etc.) is the stuff that dreams are made of. Strangely, we discover that all of that power keeps us awake at night, anxious and sick. The Rich Young Ruler turned down the offer to become a god (a Christ-like saint) in order to become a manager. That is the sickness of our age.

We are awash in the temptations of our age (which are not new temptations, other than in the imagined scope of their possibility). It remains for us, as followers of Christ, to do the “next good thing” in the smallness of our lives, emptying ourselves in the face of these temptations with confidence that Christ has walked this way before. The Cross feels empty, weak and foolish. To take it up as a way of life invites the taunts of others who will accuse us of not wanting to make the world a better place. They do not understand that for the world to be saved it must pass through the eye of a needle. That journey requires that we become small indeed.

37 comments:

  1. I think this quote is one of the most helpful I’ve seen in a long time here regarding the ideas of modernity: “The myth (or lie) that this perpetuates is that the only thing standing between us and a better world is lack of resources.”. It’s really easy to get stuck on the word “better”, because for many who are practicing the Christian faith seriously the word “better” can only be understood in terms of Jesus Christ—a better life is precisely one which is lived through the Holy Spirit according to the will of God in Jesus Christ crucified. Modernity’s trick is thus not so much its promise of “better”, but redefining what “better” is. Since secularism is inherently anti-theistic but people are most definitely theistic by nature, it is no surprise that some sort of mythology must fill the void. With the pagan Greeks it was anything from the “ideal” to “well-being” (eudaimonia), for us it is less a final state than simply a measured improvement from before (likely itself a perverse form of Christian repentance)—but with this “better” being devoid of traditional theistic content, it becomes anything and everything from greed (“resources”) to pleasure (the F word: f-u-n).

  2. Lots of good one liners in this post Fr Stephen. Thanks for your insight to modern man– well, man in general. The line.. “Our culture has recently engaged in an orgy of spending and we hate each other. More of the same medicine will only yield the same result.” great words for a hungry world.

  3. Stones – feed them – social programs
    Jump – entertain them – honkey tonk bands in church as worship
    All these – make them do it – Christians control the government
    Three temptations for Christ to “accomplish” His mission without the Cross (according to the devil).
    Have you ever heard an explanation like this?

  4. I am unable to live up to what is asked of me, Father. I understand so well what Saint Paul meant when said, “Oh miserable wretch that I am, who will save me”

  5. No one can live up to what is expected of them. Coming to that realization has been the most important thing in my life.

    Because once you come to that pass, you understand there is really only one thing left to you, or anyone, and that is the Cross.

    Lord have mercy on us all!

  6. Father,
    I have 40-50 people working for me in an Amazon facility. These folks, as you once described all of humanity, are broken, flawed and misdirected. Then I catch myself, because I am describing myself. These are people who may have as many as 5 or 6 children, sometimes more, from multiple partners, some are married monogamously, many are unmarried but living with same-sex or opposite-sex partners, people with marital and relationship troubles, financial troubles, emotional troubles and substance-abuse troubles, people like, myself, who are broken, misdirected and burdened by various flaws.
    How do I live my life and do my work in front on them as an Orthodox Christian? Often, I don’t feel authentic or worthy in trying to reflect the life in Christ I strive to live by His grace. The temptation, to no avail, is to say it’s inappropriate for me to bring my faith into the workplace. In our daily meetings at work, I try not to preach, rather, I attempt to encourage and give hope. However, I regularly end up telling my people to rely on God and trust Him in all situations. I find myself making the sign of the Cross frequently but naturally. There is signage at the facility that expresses the “Modern” belief that all things are good including all religions. I wonder how much longer Orthodoxy will be tolerated. As another priest once said, “Christ tells us to follow him.” He then asked, “Where does Christ go? To the Cross.”
    Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.

  7. George,
    I strongly recommend printing out a copy of Fr. Hopko’s 55 Maxim’s. Post them somewhere that you can see them. They are the most simple, well-stated description of the authentic Christian life. The point, I think, is that in such small things (as described by Fr. Hopko) we unite ourselves with the Crucified Christ. Note that Christ on the Cross is surrounded by a world that did not know Him or believe in Him, yet at the same time all of them were being saved by Him. The goal of the Orthodox life is not to make the world “Orthodox.” That kind of thing is in the hands of God. Our part is to be Orthodox (thus Fr. Hopko’s description). Some in the world will become Orthodox and join us in this. Some in the world will live “Orthodox” though never formally being part of the Church (God knows them). It is for us to keep our eyes on Christ – Christ in heaven and all things; Christ within us above all things; Christ in everyone around us inviting us into union with Him inasmuch as we unite ourselves to those around us.

    Fr. Hopko’s 55 Maxims (text)
    Fr. Hopko’s 55 maxims (audio)

  8. Thank you for posting the 55 Maxims again. There is so much wisdom contained in each one. So simple yet so profound. It would be nice to have a discussion thread on each one where we could dive deeper on how to apply each one more specifically and encourage each other in doing so. The application of a single one might look a bit differently as it is lived out for each of us and have many implications in different circumstances and situations yet remains simple and grounding at the same time. Altogether they can seem overwhelming but one at a time, they seem more doable. May the Lord bring to mind the one we need at any given time and grant us the grace to apply it in our lives.

  9. Fr. Stephen,
    thank you for mentioning to Michelle Fr. Hopko’s podcast. Having searched for it on Ancient Faith radio I found that there are quite a number of podcasts by him; excellent.

  10. Andrew,
    I once told John Maddex, the founder of Ancient Faith, that had he only ever just recorded Fr. Hopko, all of his work and effort would be justified by that alone. Fr. Tom was not much of a book writer – it’s his spoken teaching that was most important. Ancient Faith managed to capture that in an amazing way.

  11. Arresting paragraph beginning&ending, “Modernity’s mantra, “make the world a better place,” is invoked repeatedly… We are not the victims of nature – but of one another,”… point of course to Modern delusions about just what “a better place/world” is — to be had by wealth and power.
    Being called and devoted to help Orthodox Christians become faithful stewards of their own “wealth & power” per Legacy & Income Stewardship…the educational path is a delicate one to tread. Thanks Father for you willing to expose and challenge all of Modernism’s Idols for destruction.

  12. Fr. Stephen,
    what you have said speaks volumes. I am looking forward to going through Fr. Hopko’s podcasts.

    Ancient Faith Ministries is truly a Godsend.

    Thank you.

  13. Father, you say “do the next good thing”.
    Is there a difference between what is good and what is correct?
    Something along the lines of “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

  14. Michael,
    It would probably be a worthwhile thing if I did an article on the “good” thing. I tend to thing of “good” things as the things Christ’s commandments tell us to do. Thus, kindness, generosity, giving of self, forgiving, honoring, feeding, clothing, visiting, (just thinking out loud through the commandments, here) are the sorts of things that I have in mind. I do not think of the next good thing as “what thing can I do to change somebody else?” That’s what “do-gooder’s” do that makes them so annoying to everyone else.

    That’s a start.

  15. Thank you for your comments Father! I’ve recently re-read the 55 Maxims (and plan to work them in at least once a week) and so appreciate your recommendation very much. Also “the next good thing “ seemed so much easier with young children at home; however, I see the household duties and care for family remain, even with adult children and an empty nest. Thank you for your encouragement to go forward in our Christian faith.

  16. Greetings Father Stephen,
    I wanted to share a link with you to a recorded talk Tasmanian Philosopher, Jeff Malpas gave in 2017 at the University of New Mexico. It is a very profound critique of the assumptions of Modernity. As soon as I heard him begin the talk I thought of your ongoing reflections on this issue. Here is the link:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mFqX6AA19T4
    I found out about Jeff through a review that Father John Manoussakis had written about a book Jeff Malpas had written.

  17. Adding just a bit regarding “making the world a better place” you have written before, Father, on the kingdom of God. Our Lord says, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s already here, present among us. I used to want to “make the world a better place.” And that completely distracted me from the kingdom of God which is present among us. God is working in the world. When Christians were faithful to Him and desired His kingdom, the world was completely transformed. It says something to me that this was incidental to their goals. They didn’t set out to transform the Roman Empire – but God did it anyway, through the blood of the martyrs. A “better world” probably doesn’t look to us like the persecution of so many Christians. But the Kingdom is at hand, and those Christians lived it amid a time of persecution, slavery, social injustices, infanticide, pagan worship, rampant sexual immorality, etc. Any number of people at that time in history were trying to “make the world a better place” and none of them succeeded. What looks to us like the “success” of Christians was really a whole bunch of people doing the next good thing.

    Allowing God to work and trying to get out of His way is one of the most difficult things for us to do, though. But if the Kingdom is at hand, it seems to me that that’s precisely what we have to do. Hence, the first part of the Lord’s message: “Repent.”

  18. “Making the World A Better Place”, per Modernist Enlightenment/Secularism’s projects, is a fools errand. So “Build Back Better” per “The Great Reset” is but the latest Progress-Project of our Wealthy Ruling Elites that will fail…and perhaps, yea likely to do more damage than good. Father Stephen has repeated pointed to the fact that The Kingdom of God’s definition of “Better” is far different than is the Modern Secularist Globalists’. Nt only is the definition of “Better” defined far differently…so the the How or Methods — where the Church take up the Cross suffers & dies for the Life of the World, much like her Savior.
    So where does one “invest” their excess wealth and Legacy? Symphonies and other entertainment, Libraries, Art Museums, University Alumni organizations? It seems spiritual reorientation will largely re-focused on the Kinddon of God, or more specifically the The Church and her supporting accoutrements Moasteries, Orthodox Schools, Clinics per Food and Medical care for the poor. Is a town “better” or worse off with such an Orthodox Church/Monastery/Medical Clinic/Orthodoxy School — or without? What about a City — “Better” to have 2-3 Church/Monastery/Clinic/Schools — or 5 or 10, depending on size? What about a Country? Is Russia “Better-Off” now after restoring hundreds if not several thousand previous Churches lost to the Soviets — and dozens of Monasteries? Seems here we closer to a Kingdom definition of “Better” and “Progress”…as well as the proper purpose/use of excess wealth and Legacy planning, no? Shall we move on from what is Wrong to what is Right — from what it Bad to what is Good?

  19. David,
    To be fair, “Make America Great Again,” is just another version of “Make the world better,” or “Build back better.” This language is modernity’s voice – and modernity has two political parties in America, make no mistake. Essentially, what I am suggesting to people is to quit doing the math. “Better” is only ever known to God. His purposes in these things is secret and known only to Him. We need to learn true humility and knock of the arrogance of measuring ourselves. It is a good thing to build a Church. I’m glad Russia has rebuilt over 30,000 since 1991. And, we should leave it at that. Is Russia better off? This is not a question we can answer. It will only be known in the fullness of the Kingdom.

    We need to learn to be small and quit trying to be so wise. We simply do not know these things and it is essentially blasphemous for us to speak in such a manner. St. James has a good word in this matter:

    “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:13-17)

    This, I think, is a clear directive against the language of “progress.” (“I will make a profit”) St. James says this boasting is evil. And “I made the world a better place” is boasting in its most extravagant form.

    Of course, if I were writing a mere 200-250 years ago, I would not have to have the arguments that occur. We only like the language of “better world” because it has been drilled into our heads since the late 19th century – relentlessly. It is lying propaganda. We can see that when Stalin is espousing it – but we ignore it on our own lips.

    Just do good. Simple good. The next good thing. More than that is likely to be evil.

  20. Fr. Stephen, it is a crucial topic (pun intended). In my own battle in the COVID Wars for instance I have found the Icon of the Crucifixion to be most helpful to my improving attitude toward others who take a different or more aggressive view of what we face. My heart began to soften the moment I put on my Covid mask with the icon on it. Amazes me still.
    Is not the Christian life beset with temptation, sin and repentance at all times?
    I, for one, deeply appreciate your insistence. I have a hard head. In fact I have a medically certified thick skull.
    I need the insistence.
    Thank you.

  21. RE: “The Better World”. Fr Stephen, please don’t apologize. Several months ago, I tried to explain to an acquaintance that the nature of my job required helping one hurting person at a time— that the person in front of me at any given moment became the most important person. “You’re making the world a better place “, the acquaintance said. I let the matter drop. Yet I wanted to argue that I was— at best— making a moment easier for a person in need, and that it probably wouldn’t help them in the long run. Not only that, they’ll forget me, too. Doesn’t matter.

  22. P. Stephen, personally I would simply say that what you are developing in relation to this “better world” is a cleansing of my mind weighed down by vain considerations and vain desires which are only constructions to reassure my pitiful ego and it is a real blessing and also a balm for my soul who feels lighter and lighter and smiling. I can only thank you for these beneficial actions…

  23. “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not in your name make the world a better place?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you workers of unintended consequences!’
    Mt 7:22-3

  24. Father,

    Thank you for posting this. To riff off of Dr Timothy Patitsas; the world seems split between Communion and anti-Communion. Any utopian ideal parades as inclusive and concretizing. Yet it’s heart is always Anti-Communion.

    Humility is contra to this. Humility is Communion. We let go of the things we can’t control (which is pretty much everything) and live quietly aiming towards God in sacrament.

    Having discussions with non-Orthodox becomes harder for me to communicate these thoughts….I feel myself and my Protestant friends are speaking from different planets at each other. It’s frustrating and hurts.

    For instance. It was said to me that ‘so you think if my church was ‘prettier’we’d be following God better?’

    I was shocked at this ‘understanding’ from a challenging discussion of Beauty and life in sacrament. I politely asked for the conversation to conclude as I don’t possess the wisdom to navigate this gulf.

    The resources you share are always helpful and we all appreciate it. God bless you and your family. God bless your Church and your mission

  25. Kevin,
    A friend once told me, “Don’t bother answering questions people aren’t asking.” I’ve carried that thought with me for years (ignored it from time to time). I’ve also come to see that it is wisdom. Orthodoxy, for example, “works” when someone is asking the questions to which it is the answer. I think it is, essentially, the question of God. The hardest thing in the spiritual life is to come to the place that God is the question (nothing less than). The second hardest thing would be to squander that question. The tragedy in life is never to have the question at all.

    Lots of people (probably most) don’t “get” Orthodoxy (it’s not the question that they are asking). But, over the years, I’ve found lots of people are asking that question, or, are fumbling around trying to find the words for the question in their heart. God gives them to us as gifts of grace – and those conversations are the best.

    One of the reasons I began writing this blog, I think, was in order to be able to have just those kinds of conversations. Of course, there’s lots of failures, and lots of sideways non-questions (arguments). But the real conversations keep me writing (and responding).

    God give you grace in the beauty of your soul!

  26. Father, would you agree with the Rev Wurmbrand that unless one wants the full, complete Orthodoxy in which everything is surrendered to God in Thanksgiving, there is no point in switching from some other form of Christianity?

    Isn’t “doing the next good thing” also giving thanks for all?

  27. dear Father

    ” Xwpis ἐμοῦ οὐ δύνασθε ποιεῖν οὐδέν” – John 15:5

    I heard you speak of this quote once , being asked to meditate on it. You spoke of at first tending to hear the words to mean ” with out You I can’t do anything” and that this misses the intended effect.
    There is a difference between “anything” and “nothing”, I remember you saying . I do not remember the nuance of your statement and would love to hear more on it. Being moved I have been chewing on it;
    the difference between “anything” and “nothing” .

    Can John 15;5 be expressed ” apart from Me you can not do nothing” ? Nothing being a consequence of futility revealed and as such embraced as stillness to know God , With faith hope and love, enduing with patience?

    Relating to the ascetic ; hope for things unseen.
    Relating to futility: nothing is what seems
    Stillness be to know of He

  28. Dear Father

    Thank you for your Pastoral care and this format

    “Nothing” is not created by futility. Rather, creation is subjected to futility in hope by Him who subjected it,
    But, perhaps, futility has an important role in our salvation in Christ.
    Firstly , futility leads to experience suffering , suffering which knowing Christ can lead us to hope to suffer well with him.
    Secondly futility leads us to encounter “created nothing”. When all is vanity and the spirit in dispassion no longer clings to what is not alive, With the words of Christ through the Holy Spirit , may we abide in Him and Him in us, being still we may know Him as God and waiting patiently for His will. And to do it for His Glory,

    With love and gratitude in christ

  29. Dear All,
    I apologize to Manfred (who recently commented) for saying that he made a mistake in logic. He disagrees with that characterization. Perhaps I could have made my point in a different manner. Glory to God for all things.

  30. I found the earlier exchange of comments helpful and instructive, and am sorry if they weren’t received that way. To the point of the article, I have reflected further on the temptations of Christ and it is remarkable how closely they correspond to the temptations of modernity. (I also have wondered if there is any significance in Luke putting the temptations in a different sequence.) It seems that the response to these temptations also involves the practice of hesychasm. Is hesychasm closely related to living “smaller”?

  31. I found this quote from the Inquisitor most insightful:

    “Do You know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger?”

    More and more the issue of right and wrong seems to be dwindling and rapidly replaced by something more along the lines of getting and giving. Either people are chasing everything around, hungry for bread (life), or they have found Life Himself and are trying to feed the masses and perhaps even help them to become human again one person at a time.

    I am reminded of Fr. Stephen’s wonderful saying: “Jesus didn’t come to make bad men good, but to make dead men alive.”

    I don’t believe we’re living in the end times, but sometimes I wonder if we can’t see them from here.

  32. Just another note on ‘progress’: My wife and I were watching an episode of the old British mystery series Miss Marple the other night. Set shortly after WWII. One of the characters is having a hard time readjusting to peace time. He says dejectedly. “We fought thinking we were making the world a better place but we came home and nothing has changed.”

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