When we follow Jesus, our God-given identity unfolds within us and animates us with purpose and intention for living our days.
The evil one’s strategy with Jesus in the wilderness intentionally follows the baptism, where in prayer Jesus heard the voice addressing him from the heavens: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Lk. 3:22).
The temptations in the wilderness focus on Jesus’ identity. As proposed by Satan, they attempt to lure Jesus with wrong ways of framing what it means for him to be the Son of God. In both Luke’s account and Matthew’s Gospel, two of the three testings begin, “If you are the Son of God…” (Lk. 4:3, 9, NIV). The conditional “if”…Satan’s way of trying to move Jesus away from his core identity, from the center of his personhood.
Philosophy calls what is happening here creating a ‘false dilemma’. It is a near relative of a false dichotomy. A false dilemma is defined as an “informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” This kind of false dilemma says, “If A is true, then B must be true” or “If A is true, then B must happen in this way.” Options are limited to a single course of action or a single result.
Most all of us think and relate to others in this – devilish? – way everyday. We live with this kind of presumptuous thinking that seeks to control and manipulate others into a particular way of acting and being in the world.
• “If you are my friend, you will do this for me.”
• “If you really are a Christian, then you will believe this or that.”
• “If you want to see social change, then you need to align yourself with this or that movement.”
• “If you are a REAL Republican, you’ll vote this way . . . or take this stand on issues.”
• “If you are a REAL Democrat, then these things must be important to you.”
All of this “if-then” thinking limits options…says that there is only one, straight-line way to express your sense of personhood…and tries to force persons into a kind of logic that is false from the beginning. And as I said, those who think and act in this way may not intend it, but they are behaving in a very “devilish” way…for if you do not respond in the way they feel is appropriate in their original “A” statement, then you must not be “A.” (the word for devil in the New Testament means ‘one who divides’)
In the case of Jesus being tested by the evil one in the wilderness, he is told, “If you are the Son of God, then you will act in certain ways.” The evil one tries to limit his options and choices. As far as the devil is concerned, there are no other ways to be the Son of God. And if Jesus chooses other ways to be the Son of God, then the devil can say “see, Jesus is not truly the Son of God.”
The good news is Jesus doesn’t take the bait, and neither should you. You will be confronted with many false dilemmas in our world. Some will be about faith, others politics, and others more personal issues. As long as you are grounded in your divine identity and willing to look deeper beyond the surface of the false dilemmas presented, you will will discover the kind of faith that truly transforms us at every level of life.