Would you rather have an itch and enjoy being able to scratch it, or would you rather have no itch at all? This is a profound philosophical question — a question that goes to the root of a lot of issues about the meaning of life and the human condition. All the great world religions address the human struggle with desire and temptation — one of the most important themes of life on earth and the challenge of the soul to gain mastery over the many impulses we experience.
Itching is a metaphor for desire, and as we all know, the temptation to scratch an itch can be one of the strongest feelings imaginable. One of the great questions of life is whether the itch is in control, or whether we are. Are we the masters of our desires, or are we mastered by them?
Last year I had a terrible itch that was caused by eczema that for whatever reason appeared on my arm. Whenever I scratched the rash on my arm, it felt really good, and so I scratched it more and more. But as a result of all that scratching, the rash got worse, and the itch grew more intense. It got so bad that I would wake up in the middle of the night with a burning itch that was just begging to be scratched.
But I knew that if I yielded to the temptation to scratch, the rash would never heal — and I found that if I could resist the temptation to scratch for just a few days, it began to go away.
So once again, I ask the question: Would you rather have an itch and enjoy being able to scratch it, or would you rather have no itch at all? Many of us, myself included, might tend to prefer the pleasure of scratching an itch — until we learn that too much scratching causes an itch to get worse, and we find ourselves in a seemingly hopeless cycle of addiction to whatever kind of pleasure we’re tempted to pursue.
When it comes to literal itching, there’s a medical term for this problem, called the “itch-scratch cycle.” The more you scratch, the more you itch; and the more you itch, the more you scratch; and the more you scratch, the more you itch — and round and round it goes. It’s like this with any addictive behavior, any excessive pursuit of pleasure, whether it’s the desire for food, sex, money, power, attention and approval of other people, or really anything else, whether physical or mental, that human beings are hard-wired to crave.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that pleasure is bad and that we should never seek to experience anything enjoyable. What I’m saying is that if we can’t control ourselves, if we don’t have the ability to resist temptation and we become addicted to the quest to fulfill our desires, then we are forfeiting our free will and becoming less than fully human, more like a lower species of animal that acts only according to instinct.
As human beings, we are not only of the flesh, but also of the spirit. We are created not only in the image of the animal, but also in the image of God. And it is this dual nature that makes life on earth such a challenging journey, as our souls seek to navigate a path of responsible moderation between the rocky shoals of yielding to worldly temptations, on the one hand, or punishing ourselves with an unhealthy asceticism.
There are different opinions about what constitutes an appropriate and spiritually enlightened moderation. Buddhism, for example, offers itself as a “middle way” between the extremes of desire and self-denial. By practicing meditation and doing good deeds, Buddhists believe they can kick the addiction to the desires of this world which, like the itch-scratch cycle, only generate greater levels of suffering. The ultimate goal is to extinguish all desires and thus to relieve all suffering, which is the state of nirvana, the Buddhist version of salvation.
Although I think Buddhism correctly diagnoses the problem, perhaps the goal they seek goes too far toward the ascetic end of the spectrum. If we have no desires at all, then we’re essentially dead or nonexistent, and I don’t think that’s the kind of salvation we should be pursuing.
Instead, in the Christian view, our goal is to align our desires with God and be in control of our actions, rather than desiring things that are contrary to God’s will and doing things that neither God nor our own souls truly wish to do, because the animalistic side of our nature has the upper hand. By harmonizing our will and our actions with God according to our divine spiritual nature, we can experience joy — a far greater pleasure than anything we could ever experience by scratching a worldly itch.
But this goal is difficult to reach. As the Apostle Paul wrote in a classic soliloquy on the struggle of the human condition,
“For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. … For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” [Rom. 7:15,18-19,22-23]
Paul concludes, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God,” he says, “who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” [vss. 24-25].
Indeed, it is in Christ that we find our salvation. For the man Jesus Christ showed us that it is possible for a human being to resist the temptations that lead to suffering and evil. Though fully human like we are, and experiencing real temptation, Jesus did not yield to his baser instincts, but instead rose to the challenge of taking the high road — in his case, the road that led to the cross.
For the average person, temptation most often will come in the form of materialistic desires. If you like to watch movies, as I do, I highly recommend The Wolf of Wall Street for one of the most colorful illustrations of the life of a man who becomes thoroughly and utterly addicted to the vulgar pursuits of the flesh, living every day for the adrenaline rush of making money and indulging in the pleasures of all that money can buy.
But maybe you think you’re immune to these kind of temptations — that you’ve conquered the desire for excessive amounts of money, luxurious mansions, fast cars, and orgiastic sex with lots of different women or men. That’s good, but remember there are other, more sophisticated temptations that you might still have to face and overcome.
As illustrated in the story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert, Satan doesn’t only try to lure us into excessive indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh. “But the devil is a subtle worm,” said Upton Sinclair; “he does not give up at one defeat, for he knows human nature, and the strength of the forces which battle for him.” The devil tried to tempt Jesus to turn stones into bread to satisfy his physical hunger, but when Jesus refused, he proceeded to more subtle psychological temptations.
The wily Satan invited Jesus to put God to the test by risking his life in a reckless jump from the roof of the temple in Jerusalem. How great it feels when we believe that we’re special — so special that God will do extraordinary things for us, like saving our life, even when others would be allowed to die. Why not prove to ourselves that we’re one of the most beloved of God’s children, perhaps by living recklessly and seeing if God will spare us the normal consequences of our foolish behavior? Wouldn’t it be an incredible boost to the ego, for example, to find out that we can rampantly ignore social distancing and go around without a facemask during a pandemic, and somehow avoid getting the coronavirus because God just loves us so much, compared to everyone else.
Jesus resisted that kind of temptation and didn’t jump off the roof of the temple, so Satan proceeded to the last, and perhaps ultimate temptation: the lust for power. This is one that highly evolved souls still have to face, even after they no longer desire excessive material pleasures or obvious stroking of the ego. Passing this test is perhaps the most difficult of all challenges for the human soul.
That’s because power is an especially intoxicating drug, and there are many kinds of power and many ways it can be used — including for great good. It’s hard enough to resist the many temptations to abuse power for selfish ends when you possess it. Consider the story of King Louis IX of France, who as we learned earlier in this service, used his absolute powers of monarchy in a humble and righteous way.
But what about the temptation to acquire and wield tremendous power to make the world a better place, such as by enforcing the commands of your religion? That’s what King Louis thought he was doing when he went on the Crusades, but we know better than that today.
In the time of Jesus, there were many religious reformers and prophets who wanted to create the ideal Jewish state, obedient to God’s law as they understood it, and casting aside the yoke of other gods and invaders such as the Romans. So when Satan offered to give Jesus political power — to make him the kind of messiah who could restore the literal kingdom of Israel and reign over a mighty nation like the wise King Solomon — Jesus must have been really tempted. Imagine what good he could have done for Israel, and for the world!
In fact, the devil offered to make Jesus king over all the nations, for he “took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’” [Matt. 4:8-9]. Imagine King Jesus reigning literally over all the earth. Imagine a world with no poverty or injustice; a world where the greatest man who ever lived sits mightily upon a throne of absolute power, and uses that power only for the good, to make sure — by force — that this world will only be good, and that everyone will be righteous.
This is, of course, the ultimate temptation offered to humanity by Satan, the Adversary of God. For God’s plan is for each and every one of us to choose the good, to strive for it — not to have it forced upon us by a benevolent dictator, even by God Himself.
When Jesus rejected this temptation, it was like when Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings turned down the opportunity to possess the One Ring of Power when it was offered to him by Frodo. “Understand, Frodo,” he said, “I would use this ring from a desire to do good — but through me, it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”
That evil power is the power to take away human free will. For the very purpose of this world is to tempt us and test us, to help us learn how to resist temptation and to master our desires — the power of the individual soul to decide, in each and every situation, whether or not to scratch the itch.
Watch on video (starting at 7:42):