All mythological heroes, from Sumerian tales through modern movies, face what Joseph Campbell has termed the "Road of Trials." In the prototypical ordering of hero myths, this time of testing begins after the hero has crossed the threshold of normal life and experienced a "rebirth" into a heroic identity. In the Jesus story, baptism by John the Baptist serves as this crossing of the threshold. Jesus' heroic identity is announced, and he immediately goes into the wilderness to be tested.
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest written Jesus myth that made it into the canon of the Bible. In just a couple of verses, we learn that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, where he was tested by an adversary, and that angels tended him during this time when he lived with wild animals. Mark indicates that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, which in terms of Jewish storytelling was a shorthand for "a very long time." It is also thought that the number 40 referred to a period of testing or punishment, which makes it perfect in the context of the Jesus story.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the story becomes fleshed out a bit, with three specific temptations indicated, and the author of the Gospel of Luke borrowed heavily from the Gospel of Matthew for his version. (Incidentally, the writers of the Gospel of John had little use for the temptation story.) Many people have extracted lessons from this story about Jesus' character and how to follow his example. For instance, some people observe that Jesus used scriptural references to resist the temptations, and thus assume that knowing the Bible inside and out will lead to a more "holy," temptation-free life. In the Gospel of Matthew, however, there is a constant effort to prove the identity of Jesus by referring back to Jewish scripture, often taking the original scripture completely out of context in order to legitimize Jesus as the Jewish "messiah" of legend. Perhaps more significant is the implication that Jesus understood the temptations of wealth (bread is frequently symbolic of money in Jewish literature), fame, and power, and realized that these things frequently distract people from true wisdom and happiness. More on these things in a moment.
Some people are fond of the idea of being tested. After all, overcoming challenges makes us stronger and more capable people. When we prove ourselves to other people, we might get a promotion or a closer relationship or some other desirable privilege. Some of these challenges are very clear, with distinct rewards for success, and we choose to take them on because we want the reward. Of course, some individuals focus on how to get the rewards with a minimum of effort, overlooking that the designated trials are often intended to reflect inward character. We can go through our lives as if our only goal is to pass the next test in a long series of trials, neglecting our responsibility to infuse our lives with meaning. It might be said that part of the test is knowing how unimportant some tests are.
Of course, if we interpret tests as being spiritually significant, we can perceive a great deal of importance -- even eternal importance. There are those who believe that if they pass the trials of this life, they will be rewarded with greater joy and pleasure in an afterlife. Obviously, failing the trials of this life will yield a different result, but most folks believe that Hell is reserved for other people. Reward or punishment in an eternal afterlife certainly seems to be more motivating than anything that could happen in our temporally restricted physical life on Earth. Here's the thing though: there is a lot of good that can be done in this life, and there is a lot of joy and gratitude and satisfaction to be felt in this life. We don't really need to use belief in an afterlife as motivation. If we are doing the things that align with our deepest selves and honor our connection to the people around us, we will be creating what the gospel writers called the "kingdom of God." Since this term was often put in Jesus' mouth, we'll have more time to explore it in later entries. For now, the appropriate point is that there is no great trial-giver in the sky sending tests into our lives and scoring us on our successes to determine any sort of eternal destination.
We can absolutely test ourselves, setting goals and action plans that challenge us. There may be a great deal of personal satisfaction in overcoming challenges, even when the tangible rewards are slight. Sometimes building our sense of our own capability is an effective reward. When we start looking at our lives as a series of tests from something beyond ourselves, however, we risk losing that sense of our own capability. Not everything in life is a test. Illness is not a test, for instance. We cannot overcome most actual illnesses simply by our own efforts -- we rely on doctors to prescribe medicines and treatments so our bodies can heal. Illnesses may occur for any number of reasons, but there is no intentionality behind an illness -- no one decided to give us an illness to test us.
Likewise, things that happen because of someone's irresponsibility are not necessarily tests either. Being injured in a traffic collision because someone ran a red light is a result of human carelessness, and while we may face challenges as a result, our circumstances are not designed by anyone just to test us. We may find it challenging to pay our bills on time, and we may justifiably consider it an accomplishment when we pay off our last credit card and become debt free. However, there is no one orchestrating those financial challenges as some sort of Herculean trial. There are many things in life that are simply facets of living. We exist in a complex society with a lot of other people, and there are very real challenges that emerge in that system. That in no way implies an intelligence on the other end of these challenges waiting to reward or punish us. We ultimately decide which challenges in life we will tackle, and what our success will mean to us.
Which is why the story of Jesus' trials in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are potentially more spiritually valuable for us than the earlier version in the Gospel of Mark. The spiritual truth in the tale has nothing to do with an intelligent spiritual adversary who is out to trick us -- we do well enough at tying our own spiritual shoelaces together in knots. The spiritual truth in the tale has nothing to do with how well we must memorize the scriptures of a particular religion. There are plenty of spiritual leaders who know their scriptures very well and still wind up in scandalous or violent headlines. Being able to recite words does not necessarily guarantee that we understand their meaning. The interesting spiritual piece in the temptation story is about the temptations themselves.
We are still living in a society that glorifies wealth, fame, and power over other people. It has apparently been a reality of human community for a very long time if these three things were considered the primary distractions from spirituality two thousand years ago. As many people have said, none of these three can provide happiness or satisfaction in life. Money is only as valuable as what one does with it, and the same goes for fame and power. The more time we spend worrying about our popularity or our bank accounts or our titles, the less time we have for the things that are truly meaningful. Money and popularity and power are not bad things, though, despite what one may infer from the gospel writers. These three temptations simply have incredible distraction potential. When we give them too much importance in our lives, we run the risk of missing the things that have true value: our integrity, our relationships, our connection to the world around us.
In the hero-myth of the gospels, Jesus knew what was important to him. He had a level of self-awareness that comes from intentional, honest introspection. While wealth, fame, and power hold some allure, there are more important things in life. At a very deep level, we know that, but we often forget it. We might try to fool ourselves with the justification that we can do more good in the world if we have more resources, but the truth is that we already have enough. The challenge of knowing what has value in life is not a test from on high, nor is it trial we can bluff our way past. It is a challenge issued from deep within ourselves, and if we answer that challenge with a life that focuses on what matters most, our rewards will be immeasurable, not in some distant afterlife, but here and now.