The Temptation to Escape Pain: Three Stumbling Blocks to Spiritual Transformation

“I can’t take any more heartbreak.” Zach[1] was a man that struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep fear of being alone. Over the course of many years he had learned to deal with these feelings through serial monogamy. Bad feelings were triggered by a break-up, after which he would quickly go on the hunt. Eventually, he would meet someone new, whose attention and affection would sooth his discomfort. However, the bad feelings always came back after the newness of the relationship wore off, which compel Zach to act in possessive and controlling ways. Predictably, within several months the relationship would unravel, throwing him back into the anxiety and loneliness he was trying to escape. After several years of this vicious cycle, he was sitting in my office at the end of his rope.

I suggested that Zach devote himself to a season of singleness. Instead of focusing all his attention on finding the perfect partner to banish his loneliness, perhaps he should go inward to discover the wounds that were driving his pain. “Zach, as long as you are self-medicating with women, you will never see the roots of the problem, and they will continue to control you behind your back.”

What Zach needed was to find a way to abide with his pain long enough to understand it and to develop some tools to work through it. Instead of compulsively trying to get out of discomfort, he needed to feel it, reflect on it, pray about it, and talk about it. Unfortunately, Zach didn’t act on this counsel, but immediately jumped into another dating relationship, starting the self-defeating cycle all over again.

How often are we like Zach? When experiencing discomfort or pain, how often do we compulsively do things to distract and console? We know in our heart of hearts that this is a fruitless, even self-destructive, way of handling things, but the scream for soothing is louder than the whisper of wisdom.

But wisdom teaches that if we want healing and transformation then we must find a way to deal with the temptation to circumvent emotional and spiritual pain.

 

How the Temptations of Jesus Can Help

We find wisdom for this part of our journey in the temptations of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11). As we focus on this passage, what’s most helpful is not a literal interpretation of the specific trials, but an understanding of the dynamics of temptation revealed by a symbolic reading of the story.

 

Trial 1

After Jesus had been fasting in the desert for forty days, the “tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (4:3). In this way, Jesus was tempted to grasp something readily available to him and transform it into something else that would satisfy his hunger.

At first glance, we might not be able to see ourselves in this part of the story, but if we look more deeply it becomes clear that we too face this temptation. Discomfort and pain trigger cravings that we try to satisfy by misusing God’s good gifts. For example, the Bible says that wine, in moderation, is a divine blessing that makes the heart merry, and Jesus’ use of wine in the Last Supper elevates it as a symbol of forgiveness and the full reign of God’s righteousness on Earth. Unfortunately, many abuse this good gift by using it as an emotional anesthetic. Likewise, God gives us sexual intimacy to nurture deep and abiding love, but many transform it into a strategy for escaping pain. Through fantasy and objectification, human beings become objects that can be consumed to satisfy selfish hungers and sooth discomfort. Even emotional gifts like anger can be used to cover-up fear and hurt. God gives us the capacity for anger so that we can recognize and respond to injustice, but we transform it into an obsessive form of negative excitement that hides our fear and brokenness.

Indeed, virtually every good gift of God can be converted by the sinful use of power into a strategy for escaping emotional and spiritual pain. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Jesus refuses to misuse people and things to deliver him from discomfort but endures these experiences as necessary for the life to which God had called him.

 

Trial 2

Then the tempter led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus responds, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (4:5-6).

How often do we try to get God to perform a magic trick that will exempt us from the natural consequences of our own actions? The temptation of immature and false religion can be seen in our attempts to leverage God’s love and faithfulness to get miraculous relief from pain. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing our desires to God, and God certainly works in mysterious ways to help us through difficulty, but mature spirituality always gives way to the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42).

Nevertheless, when wrestling with the negative consequences of their own actions, religious people sometimes spiritually and emotionally regress. “God, what have I done to deserve this? I have been faithful to you, so if you love me, if you are faithful and just, then rescue me from this pain!” Some even act as if the request for a magic trick is completely selfless: “God, miraculously deliver me from this bad situation I’ve caused for myself so that unbelievers will come to know your power.”

In this way, we put God’s love, faithfulness, and power to the test, while indulging ourselves in magical thinking, entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-deception. Instead of focusing on doing God’s will, we try to get God to do ours.

 

Trial 3

Finally, the tempter took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world . . . and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). According to the story, the devil had the kingdoms of the world to give because he, in some sense, ruled them. Interestingly, to worship the devil in this case meant to accept that he was the rightful ruler of this world and to endorse his methods and strategies. He was essentially saying, “Jesus, if you accept the world on my terms and play by my rules, then I can make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. But you must put your faith in me and do it my way.”

As odd as it might sound, “worshiping the devil” in this way this also is a temptation for us. We are encouraged to figure out how the world works and then leverage our power within this system to gain worldly success at the expense of others. If you can accept the brutal facts about how the world works, curry favor with the rich and powerful, leverage the right resources, and intelligently navigate the politics of it all, then you too can be the envy of all your friends and banish all your anxiety. This will require you to compromise or sacrifice some of your most deeply held beliefs and values, but the payoff is incredible!

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (4:10). When we are tempted to capitulate to the value system of the world and accommodate our lives to escape pain through the acquisition of success, Jesus says, “It’s a trap.” Worldly success does not magically heal your pain and make you happy. There are more miserable successful people than you might imagine, and while they appear to have everything you’ve ever wanted, deep inside you can hear the crickets chirping in their souls. Without deep spiritual transformation, they are invariably haunted by the question, “Is this all there is? Is this what I practically killed myself for?” (“Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

 

Illusions that Drive the Dynamics of Temptation

These trials of Jesus in the desert disclose three things that perpetually threaten to derail our journey toward transformation, and at their core they disclose the same compulsion: to escape discomfort. All of us are tempted in innumerable ways to leverage our personal power to escape pain, compulsively grasping for things and experiences that promise immediate relief. We do this by transforming God’s good gifts into various kinds of anesthetics, leveraging our relationship with God to force a divine magic trick, and sacrificing deeply held beliefs and values to attain worldly success.

But the temptations only work if are duped into accepting three assumptions.

  1. All forms of discomfort and pain are unproductive and bad.
  2. We can circumvent discomfort and pain and still get everything we want.
  3. There are shortcuts and magic tricks that if shrewdly applied will give us immediate gratification.

Of course, these assumptions are false.

Experience teaches us that not all the discomfort and pain we experience is bad. In fact, spiritual and emotional growth require us to abide with these feelings to learn the lessons they teach and to tend to the inner wounds that drive them. At the beginning of our Bible story, we read the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Jesus was baptized by John and given a vision of his true identity and mission, and before his shirt was dry God drove him into the desert. Why? Because abiding in this lonely and uncomfortable place was necessary for him to become in reality what God had already declared him to be. Likewise, God leads us into desert places and exposes us to challenge and pain to create the necessary conditions for healing, freedom, and transformation. We cannot experience lasting change without working through our pain (which requires us to cultivate the virtues of longsuffering and forbearance).

Finally, experience teaches us that there are no shortcuts and magic tricks for receiving the gifts that make life worth living. It takes time to develop loving relationships. It takes time to develop character and cultivate virtues like faith, temperance, patience, kindness, humility, and courage, all of which are necessary for a truly happy life. It takes time to attain wisdom, develop our gifts and talents, and find the best ways to share them with the world. It takes time to let go of ego and live into the reality of your true self in the unity of all things. The tempter says, “You can bypass the pain and get it all now if you’re willing to misuse your personal power.” But, Jesus says, “Be true to yourself and faithful to the life which I have called you. Trust God’s goodness, faithfulness, and timing, and God will give you abundant life.”

And Jesus would know, because after enduring temptation, God eventually gave him everything the devil offered ahead of schedule (Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word, 192-195). The devil tempted him to turn a few stones into bread, and Jesus would later multiply two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people (by any account, a much greater feat). The devil promised relief from hunger, and Jesus would later feast with his disciples and talk about the heavenly banquet that he would host for all eternity. The devil promised the ministry of angels, but as soon as Jesus sent him away, “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and a few years later God raised him from the dead and made him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

If Jesus had taken matters into his own hands and used his power for immediate gratification, it would have corrupted the very gifts that God had promised and would have led to his downfall. But he waited for God and received them in ways that no one, including the devil, could take away. God promises the same to us. If we are willing to abide in a desert place, God will use it in God’s time and in God’s way to transform us in ways that lead to abundant life.

 

Challenge

How do you deal with discomfort? What happens inside of you in response to feelings like sadness, fear, loneliness, guilt, anger, anxiety, or boredom? Do you compulsively try to get out of pain, or have you learned how to stay with it long enough to get curious about the lessons it can teach? Do you distract and console or do you allow yourself to feel, reflect, pray, journal, and talk about it?

Which of the three strategies illustrated in the temptations of Jesus do you most frequently employ as an escape hatch? Do you misuse your personal power to transform the good gifts of God into anesthetics? Do you leverage your relationship with God in hopes of a divine magic trick? Do you abandon your most deeply held beliefs and values in executing strategies for worldly success? What would it mean for you to recognize at least some of your pain could be a pathway to spiritual transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the strength to abide in my pain long enough to learn the lessons that only it can teach.

 

(This post is the fourth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[1] The name of the person has been changed to protect his identity.

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