The Devil Made Me Do It
Mark 1:12-13, Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
The passage in Matthew’s Gospel reads, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
The Difficulty about the Devil
I must confess that in the 21st century many of us have a hard time believing anything about the devil, particularly the devil that we see presented in the scenarios constructed by recent books, films and sermons.
In the middle ages the devil was painted as some terrifying monster who lurks around the corner, dressed in red cape, with horns and hooves, wielding a pitchfork. That is a cartoon that is on the verge of being silly. Of course none of us believe in that kind of a devil.
But we are living in an interesting time of world history. For the past half century books that deal with “Spiritual Warfare” have appeared on the shelves of Christian book stores and have found their way on to the reading lists of many of us. Novels with Satan and evil demons front stage have become part of popular Christian consumption.
Some end up blaming him for what goes wrong in our world and in our lives. Some live with fear that in some dark ally of life they will meet the demonic one, full-blown and terrifying, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
I must confess I are more tempted to believe that such a being does not exists at all, than to believe what I hear from the popular press. But my curiosity insists that I raise the question, for if he is not like the medieval monster who runs the infernal torture chamber, or like the lurking evil spirit that is behind every evil in the world, what description of the devil would I find believable?
The devil as God’s reluctant servant
The Scottish Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford wrote in1637, “I find it most true, that the greatest temptation out of hell is to live without temptations. If my waters would stand, they would rot. Faith is the better for the free air and the sharp winter storm in its face. Grace withers without adversity. The devil is but God’s master-fencer, to teach us how to handle our weapons.”
This image of the devil as God’s fencing instructor reminds me of the multiple Pink Panther episodes when Inspector Clouseau returns to his apartment to be attacked by a crazed oriental Ninja. They fight in fury destroying furniture in their attempts to fend each other off. Suddenly the telephone rings. Everything freezes. The Ninja picks up the phone, and then says, “its for you boss.” He is Cato, Clouseau’s man servant, part of whose job it is to keep Clouseau’s skills fine tuned. Spiritual reality may not be quite so funny, but the point is taken. Satan may very well be God’s servant to test us and in consequence make us stronger.
But Rutherford and Clouseau may not be our best teachers. Do the scriptures give us a better picture?
If we were to look at the Biblical picture of Satan we would find a rather refreshing picture, devoid or horns and hooves.
In the Old Testament a devil hardly gets mentioned. Only four times in 39 books does such a creature get any coverage, and small at that. (He is not the person noted in Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 as some presume!) When he does appear, the picture is clear. He is in need of God’s permission if he wants to touch Job. In the prophesy of Zechariah he is able to accuse Jeshua the high Priest. but that is all the power he has. (Zech, 3:1-2) He is an accuser. He is able to put a thought into the mind, as in David’s case. (I Chronicles 21:1, but note also II Samuel 24:1 where the same episode in described, “Now God tempted David…) When David yields to the suggestion, God judges David not the devil for the sin. The Serpent in Genesis 3 is able to suggest an untruth, as in Eve’s case. But that is all the power he has in the Old Testament. The rest of the 39 books of the Old Testament puts the blame for sin and evil squarely where it belongs – on you and me and people like us. We cannot play the Flip Wilson game and claim the devil pushed us.
The New Testament offers us further insight. At the time of the temptation of Jesus, the gospel writers are very clear. “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to have him tempted by the devil.” The tempting was not an accident, or due to the devil’s deviance. The tempting of Jesus was part of God’s design for his son, just as the tempting of Adam and Eve was part of God’s plan at the beginning.
Have you noticed that prior to the temptation of Adam and Eve, God planted a tree right in front of their noses and said, “do not eat from this tree.” It was God that created the problem of forbidden fruit. He placed the tree there, and put no fence around it. He did not make it look so ugly that no one would want to eat of such thing. Eve noticed that the fruit was beautiful and looked so tasty. Who wouldn’t be tempted by such a promising possibility?
But to add to the temptation the serpent appears. What’s he doing there? Some have called him a fallen angel who fell before history began. Grant that that might be so, he is part of the world before Adam and Eve begin their own story. The question comes to my mind, “Is he there because even the omnipotent God cannot stop him?” “Is he there because he snuck by God’s omniscience when God was not watching?” I don’t think so.
The only other possibility is that he is there by God’s permission or direction. He is God’s reluctant servant. He is allowed existence, but only to fulfill the greater purpose of God. In the passage that follows the temptation of Adam and Eve the serpent is judged by God. But he is not exterminated, he is allowed existence. God can deal with him as he pleases, but he chooses to retain him. But he is God’s dog in God’s kennel. He may be a reluctant servant but he is on God’s leash. At the end of history, God will pick up the devil by the nape of the neck and drop him into perdition, but in the meantime God finds him useful.
But why would God want Adam and Eve or Jesus or me to be tempted?
It may be because there is no goodness possible except that which comes in response to evil. If goodness were automatic, that would be innocence, but it would not be virtue. If evil were not a possibility, then moral courage would be an impossibility too. Rutherford may be right, “The devil is but God’s master-fencer, to teach us how to handle our weapons.”
The Apostle Paul points us towards the same reality. “No temptation comes to us that is not common to us all, but God is faithful who will not allow us to be tempted beyond our capabilities to resist, but he will with the temptation provide a way of escape so that we may be able to endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:13) Whatever the devil is allowed to do, he is limited to our abilities to resist.
The Book of The Revelation when speaking of the evil one can say over and over again. “It was granted authority to make war on the saints.” Any power in evil is given by God for our good, not our destruction.
The apostle James is of the same mind. He says, “Think it nothing but joy my friends when you are tempted…” and then later can say, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” The devil is a coward by nature. As he withdrew from Jesus, he flees from those who submit to God’s will for their lives. That is why Martin Luther can shout with relish,
“And though this world with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him.
His rage we can endure
For lo his doom is sure
one little word shall fell him.”
There is too much fear in the world, and in the church, and in our lives. Some would make us paranoid about some malevolent force that lurks in our lives and dogs our days. Some would insist that the devil has a front pew in every church. They say that to cause us to fear. I would remind them that God occupies every other seat in the house, and that’s enough for me!
They try to tell me that prayer is always wrestling with the devil who will get the upper hand if I don’t fight him in my praying. I would remind them that Jesus defeated all evil in his own temptation and on the cross and in his resurrection, and for me to live in fear as I pray is to be faithless and unbelieving. I would rather pray in astonishing confidence that nothing can come between my God and myself, unless it be my own sinning.
We have nothing to fear from anyone, except ourselves. We have no one to blame for human evil, but ourselves. The devil is not to blame. He only offers me an alternative to doing the will of God. I get to choose whose voice to listen to and to whom I will give allegiance. And every day and in ever circumstance, we get to stand between God and Satan, and make choices as to whose voice we tune in and tune out, and whose counsel we follow on every issue. God has allowed and ensured a balance between an inherent goodness in creation due to His own pervasive presence and the equally attractive option of evil, so that a free choice can be made between two equally attracting alternatives.
When Jesus was being tempted, he turned from the seducing sweet voice of temptation, and turned to the Word of God, the Word of his Father that offered wisdom, courage and a clarity of purpose. But before we can look into the three accounts of the temptation in detail, we need to define our terms. That will be attempted in the next chapter.