Know Then Thyself
Matthew 4.1 Then the Spirit led Jesus into
the desert to be tempted by the Devil.
Alexander Pope, famous for his
poetry, was crippled for life at 12 years old. Tuberculosis stunted his
growth and deformed his spine. And yet he turned out to have a particular
genius for stating "What oft was thought, but ne'er
so well expressed."
The aim of the author of Matthew's Gospel is similar. His story of the
temptation of Jesus by Satan imagines "what oft was thought" by people of
the late first century. They were puzzled by the human tendency to break
the rules of right behaviour.
Though it may be hard for us today to fully understand, Jesus and his
contemporaries thought of the world as crowded with invisible spirits,
good and bad. To stay right with God one had to know how to get the
support of the good spirits and ward off the attentions of the demons.
We can't be sure, but Matthew probably used what we would today call a
"myth" from another culture as a template for this story. To the ordinary
early Christian his tale would have rung true. It could not be, they
thought, that the evil we do derives entirely from ourselves. There just
has to be an outside agency who dangles temptation before us.
It is possible today to think about life just as Matthew did. Many
millions do. But most find the idea of demons difficult or (more likely)
impossible to go along with. How then can "temptation" be better
One of Pope's phrases, still strikingly fresh 250 years after his
death, is helpful here:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man. 
These lines illustrate a radical change in our
perspective today. Instead of wondering what "out there" causes us to sin,
we now question what it is about ourselves that sets us on the
wrong path. That is, to understand sin, we should study humanity and not
the supernatural. One implication of this change is that knowing yourself
is vastly more important than, for example, knowing Church teachings.
Although there are today many and varied theories about
human formation, one aspect has been broadly accepted. It is that everyone
internalises norms of right and wrong as a child. We are programmed this
way or that by parents and others. What we "should" do is imprinted upon
our brains and emotions during our early years - and constantly reinforced
as we grow older.
What then of temptation as we enter the Christian season
of Lent? How are we to think of it?
There are at least two ways ahead:
Grow up: It is childish to seek partial absolution by blaming an
external tempter. After all, the good news is that Jesus gives us
freedom from "the ruling spirits of the universe" .
We alone, not a hypothetical Satan, decide to do right or wrong.
Know ourselves: It is now possible to be keenly aware of the
parental and social forces which make us who we are. The dynamics of the
"shoulds" which provide us with an awareness of sin are there for the
Many effective ways exist of resisting "Satan and all his works" - or,
to put it differently, of knowing our weak points and guarding against
them. Sadly, traditional Christian teaching displays few of them.
Nevertheless, Lent can become a time when you and I can venture into the
sometimes scary business of self-knowledge. Pope's "proper study of
mankind" is the key to metaphorically crushing Satan under our feet
 An Essay on Criticism, Epistle 2.1.1
 Galatians 4.3
 Romans 16.20