Temptation: The Three-Pronged Hook

More often than not, a fisherman’s favorite lure has at least one three-pronged hook. This is usually found right after the shiny, colorful, glimmering and (for the fish) irresistibly attractive part. The deadly barbed ends of temptation are also manifested in triplicate. Their sinister cooperation can be described as “the true ‘Axis of Evil’ … [in which] three enemies have an unholy alliance to ruin your spirituality.”[1] They are most commonly known as the world, the flesh and the devil. We see them exposed together on a number of occasions in the Scriptures and in several ways.

John calls them out as he cautions against allowing our affections to be drawn away by these threats which operate in the worldly realm. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world” (1Jn 2:15-16).[2] Author Mark Shaw helpfully links them with the dangerous and corresponding aspirations of the proud and sinful heart: “These three temptations have to do with the lies that feed our fleshly desires: We can do what we want (lust of the flesh); We can have what we want (lust of the eyes); We can be what we want (pride of life).”[3]

In the Garden of Eden, the serpent’s subtle deception of Eve produced the desired three-fold persuasion that what she was contemplating was indeed the best possible choice in the moment. Eve was unaware, but the triple threat was in full attack mode as she pondered both the serpent’s words and the forbidden fruit. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food [lust of the flesh], and that it was a delight to the eyes [lust of the eyes – the world], and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise [pride of life – the devil], she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen 3:6).

In the Lord’s wilderness temptation, we can again see the three prongs of attack as the devil relentlessly assails from every angle, searching, hoping for a chink in the armor. In spite of the Lord’s extremely hungered state, both Matthew and Luke relate His all-important responses to temptation’s unsuccessful assaults on His heart’s desires. The call to turn stones into bread is an attempt to appeal to “the lust of the flesh”; the challenge from the pinnacle of the temple to hurl Himself down and be saved by angels is reminiscent of the pride of the tempter himself, “the pride of life”; the offer of the kingdoms of the world and their glory is designed to speak to “the lust of the eyes,” which the world promises to indulge to the fullest. In the face of each threat, the Lord counters temptation with relevant Scripture, teaching us that we have a higher calling and that true human fulfilment comes not in satisfying our own desires but by pursuing God’s glory.

In the parable of the Sower, the Lord identifies the three threats relative to the reception of the good seed of the Word. The birds which snatch away the seed by the path are “the evil one,” the devil. Though he cannot read our minds, he has access to them and is skilled at introducing harmful thoughts while snatching away that which is wholesome. As seen both in Eden and in the wilderness temptation, his only interest in the Word is to challenge and twist it for our harm. The rocky ground heart, on which seed sprouts and then withers due to the lack of a root in the hearer, represents the effects of the flesh. In contrast to divine life and its resulting fruit by the Holy Spirit, the flesh has no such life and only produces sinful works (Gal 5). Those in whom the thorns choke out the Word and who prove unfruitful are affected by the distractions of the world and the seduction of wealth. The world will do all that is possible to convince us that its tantalizing offerings are to be more prized than the very Word of God itself.

We hope to look at the three enemies separately in more detail in the future. Though we will see the three for what they are and how they will operate distinctly, we should be clear that they don’t necessarily, or even usually, operate separately. Most often, we can likely identify elements of two or even all three in any given temptation that we face. The fisherman cares not which prong or prongs of the hook the fish bites – only that it does!

Though temptation is never beyond inciting a full-throated rebellion against God within the human heart, it usually aims not for a blatant rejection of His Person but a blurred recognition of His presence. Slowly but surely it lulls us into a condition in which “God is quite unreal to us, He loses all reality … Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God.”[4]

We would do well to heed the instructions of Paul, Peter and James: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). “Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1Pe 2:10-11). “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas 4:6-7).

Combatting temptation, then, has a great deal to do with not forgetting the will, the mercy and the grace of God.

[1] John Dennison, “Tough Topics for Teens: The Temptations You Conquer,” Truth & Tidings, May 2006.

[2] Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[3] Mark E. Shaw, Understanding Temptation: The War Within Your Heart (Focus Publishing, 2014), 7.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall / Temptation: Two Biblical Studies (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1997), 132.