Jesus denied pleasure in the desert and embraced pain at the cross for our sake. In each synoptic Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry after his baptism by his temptation in the wilderness. And in each Gospel, Jesus ends his sufferings at the cross. Jesus denies the pleasures of temptation in the wilderness and embraces the pain of death at the cross. He did both for our sake.
Maximos the Confessor (580–662) observed this twofold overcoming of temptation in his twenty-first reply to a bishop named Thalassios. And I think he is on to something (if not in whole, in part).
Here’s how I think it works. Jesus overcame the temptations of pleasure in the desert and pain at the cross in order to defeat demonic powers, disarming them, and providing us
Pleasure in the desert
When Jesus began his public ministry (see Matt 3), the Spirit brought him to the wilderness to battle Satan (Matt 4:1–11). Jesus repeats the experience of Israel who sojourned for 40 years in the wilderness. But unlike Israel, the first thing Jesus did was fast. The next thing the narrative
Satan tempts Jesus in three ways. First, he tempts with the pleasures of food (Matt 4:3). Second, he tempts Jesus with the pleasure of presumption (Matt 4:6). Third, he tempts Jesus with the pleasure of power (Matt 4:8–9).
In each temptation, Jesus overcomes the devil. Unlike Adam who succumbed the serpent, Jesus overcame it. He denied himself sinful pleasure. And interestingly, he did it to himself first of all. He fasted for forty days (Matt 4:2).
By fasting, Jesus denied himself the regular pleasures of food. He trained himself to live on God’s word and not bread alone. He entered the wilderness, prepared for battle (by fasting), and won by denying sinful pleasure and embracing faithfulness to God.
Pain at the cross
Paul writes of Jesus: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). It was through the cross that Christ disarmed—more literally disrobed—the powers and authorities.
These powers enslaved humanity by the fear of the death (Heb 2:14–15). The form of slavery here is fear, specifically fear of death. Hence, we all feared death and attempted to avoid it by any means necessary (i.e, sin), leading humanity to being enslaved to this very fear!
Another way to speak of this is that we desire to avoid pain. Like the desire to gain pleasure, we also have a desire to avoid pain. These desires apart from Christ lead us to sin through pleasure (gluttony, lust, etc.) or pain-avoidance (cowardice, etc.)
Yet not only did Christ deny the pleasures in the desert, but he embraced the pain (and death!) at the cross. He perfected our desires in his humanity. He rightly embraced God and denied himself the pleasures of food, presumption, and power. And at the cross, he embraced God’s will by denying his desire to avoid pain and death.
In the garden, Jesus said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt 26:38). Yet instead of handing over his will to the desire to avoid pain and death, he gave it to his father: “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39; cf. v. 42). In this handing over, he gave his will to the Father for us.
Soon, he would die on the cross of pain and death. There, he would crush the power of Satan by destroying death (Heb 2:14–15). There, he would nail the record of transgressions to the cross (Col 2:14). There, he would disrobe the powers and authorities (Col 2:15).
Passions transformed into virtues
Having won where we historically had failed (Adam in the garden, Israel in the wilderness), Jesus overcame the pleasures of sin. And having done what no one else could do by dying on the cross and rising from
These passions (pleasure, pain, etc.) became misaligned through sin. And while the devil and his minions use them to tempt us to sin as they tempted Jesus, we have the victory in Jesus.
For us, the passion of pleasure transforms into the virtue of resting in God—living by every word that comes from his mouth. Jesus showed us the way by fasting for 40 days and denying every demonic temptation. In Christ’s example, we have our marching orders.
The passion of pain or death no longer has any hold over us. God swallowed up death in Christ Jesus by the death-killing cross and the life-giving resurrection. Fearing death no longer should make us choose evil. “Not my will to avoid pain,” we say, “but God’s will be done.”
As Peter says, “do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (1 Pet 1:14). We are no longer ignorant. We know how to live. And we deny sinful pleasure and accept pain since “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet 2:21).
By this, we make the
Now, we can enjoy all things as good gifts of God without making our bellies our god or our health our object of worship. Now the Spirit uses these desires to guide us unto a path of virtue and into a home of godliness. Christ, our forerunner and victor, carved out the way forward. Now, we can walk in victory after him.