First Sunday of Lent
Let’s jump right in and talk about Satan! The song in my head this week is the Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil,” which begins:
Please allow me to introduce myself; I’m a man of wealth and taste.
Please to meet you, hope you guess my name.”
As a Bible Belt kid, I thought the song was heretical, but I now believe Mick told the truth. The devil hides behind the face of wealth, power, rank, and respectability while covering for evil and injustice.
Who (or what?) is the Devil? Lucifer, Beelzebub, the prince of darkness, and the Anti-Christ are all names we give to that power of “the dark side of the Force.” Satan has gone through many metamorphoses. In the Old Testament, Satan is not a personal demonic power of evil but the accuser or prosecutor who stands at the right hand of the accused. In the book of Job, Satan plays a prominent role as prosecutor of the philosophical question, “Will humans have faith in God if things go badly for them?” Job’s life is the test case in this trial conducted by Satan. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is just a clever snake, not the Evil One.
The Greek word in our text from Matthew is “diabolos,” which can mean the adversary, accuser, or seducer. The diabolo tries to trick you with falsehood. I experience the diabolo as a writer. Most writers must overcome an inner critic, a judgmental editor that says your writing is never good enough. That pastoral prayer you wrote is silly compared to Mary Oliver’s poetry. You are not nearly as kind as the Dalai Lama. You can’t make justice roll down like waters like Dr. King. Give it up, you fraud. That is the Diablo, the snake in the Garden, the accuser of Job. It isn’t the dark evil of Mordor from “The Lord of the Rings.” The judgmental voice undermines what is genuine within us from emerging. Diablo speaks whenever we seek to begin something creative and good.
By Jesus’s day, the idea had emerged from Persian that Satan was the evil leader of darkness to oppose the God of light. This character became the devil with hooves and horns and a forked tail. You can see this devil in Renaissance art of the Last Judgement in cathedrals like the Duomo in Florence. Satan will snatch your soul into the fiery pit and torment you for eternity. Horror movies like the Exorcist, or Friday the 13th, portray people possessed by evil spirits who give them superhuman destructive powers. For protection, the faithful must cling to the holy relics, a cross, or a rosary to ward off evil spirits. Do you believe in this Satan, who tries to snatch you from God with power beyond your control?
We can also talk about Satan in psychological terms. Part of being human is to have negative and maladaptive thoughts and behavior patterns that trip us up. Carl Jung brilliantly explored what he called the shadow. This shadow is thoughts in the unconscious psyche too shameful or fearful to face. We don’t align with our ideals, so we try to hide what is unacceptable. But Jung says this subconscious shadow finds a way to the surface, causing emotional disruption. Most often, we recognize our shadow in the behavior of others. It is easy to see arrogance, cruelty, or greed in others while ignoring our own. In Jung’s view, we form the shadow as a normal part of developing our identity. It just happens. The key to healing is to face and accept, even befriend, our shadows. When Jesus said, “love your enemies,” he meant our internal enemies too.
Who did Jesus meet out in the wilderness? Was it the accuser of the Old Testament who tested Job, the Diablo speaks falsehood to us, the dark forces of evil, or his own shadow?
What gets my attention in the first verse is that the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. This test is not an ambush by evil. The Spirit guides Jesus to face this inward test before he begins his ministry. Jesus spends forty days fasting to prepare himself. That sounds extreme. If Jesus were a minister in training today, he might be admonished for lack of self-care. But fasting in the wilderness is a well-traveled spiritual path common to prophets like Elijah or John the Baptist. Many cultures have rituals of a vision quest of facing adversity alone to be considered ready for adulthood or responsibility.
Imagine what would bubble up being alone, silent, and weak with hunger after 40 days. The point of this exercise places Jesus in a vulnerable state. Fears, flaws, and inadequacies arise. There is time to think about every failure or grievance. You blame yourself, then your parents, get angry, then feel sorry for yourself. No wonder we fear silence, yet every spiritual tradition counsels that we need solitude for our souls to emerge.
Remember, this wilderness trial is under the Spirit’s guidance. Perhaps Jesus began with counsel from a spiritual director. The trial follows a profound spiritual experience. While John baptizes him, God says, “This is my beloved, and in him, I am well pleased.” The testing isn’t happening because Jesus failed at something but because he is beginning something. God’s love has embraced him, and now the temptation begins. Pay attention to this! If you start something new, an important work of value, anticipate the resistance and questions. It is a part of the creative process. Watch for the Diablo. (That is becoming my word for the inner critic, shadow, trickster voice speaking in my head.)
Notice how Diablo tries to undermine the very foundation of Jesus’s strength. “If you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread.” What is the strategy here? Pay attention to the power of the word “if.” A red flag should appear when you hear the word because you are likely under attack.
“If you really loved me, you would…”
If you were a real man, you would…”
If you were a good Christian, you would…”
The attack pattern implies that you are somehow lacking unless you do what follows. If you don’t do what I ask, you are a fraud and not worthy. If you loved me, you would buy me that car. The bait is to fight about the car (or whatever the request is.). But the issue is, do you love me with the conditions I’m asking?
Diablo is trying to undermine Jesus’s calling from God. If you are the Son of God and have a divine calling, here is how you would act. If you let Diablo define your true calling, then you are lost. You will operate out of alignment with your soul’s most profound intent. Each of the three temptations is trying to get Jesus to be something other than God’s hope.
A messiah would turn stone into bread. Maybe this is the temptation of materialism. Your work only matters if it makes a material difference. Unless you can quantify the goal, it doesn’t matter. How big is your budget, how many people did you feed, what is your weekly attendance? It’s good to have some material goals. That is the “M” in SMART goals. Your goal should be measurable. But some things can’t be quantified. The love we offer is immeasurable.
A messiah could leap from the peak of the Temple and not be harmed. Was this the temptation to feel invulnerable? If God is with me, then nothing will hurt me. I am exempt from hunger, poverty, illness, and misfortune because I’m right with God. Satan offers all the world’s kingdoms if Jesus bows to him. Are they really his to offer? Is this the temptation that the ends justify the means? It’s OK to make a deal with the devil if we are pursuing the right outcome. Be realistic. That is how the world works. The voice of Diablo always sounds reasonable. Bite the apple; then you will know what God knows. It’s just a small lie to protect them. To make an omelet, you must break a few eggs. Don’t worry about collateral damage.
This wilderness trial is essential because Jesus will face challenges at every inflection to be what people think the Messiah should be. John wanted more judgment, his hometown crowd wanted more nationalism, Pharisees wanted rigid adherence to the law, Peter wanted him to stay safe from crucifixion, and some wanted more signs and wonders. How did Jesus stay focused on the voice of the Spirit?
I like the translation from The Message Bible becomes it makes it clear that all three of Jesus’s responses to the Diablo are from the book of Deuteronomy. (I also like the quote where Jesus says, “Beat it!” to Satan.). Listen to all three quotes to hear the similarity:
“We don’t live by bread alone, but by every word from the mouth of God.” V.4
“Do not test the Lord, your God.” v.7
Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.” v.10
Each quote has a singular focus. Stay focused on listening for God, seeking God’s presence, and walking with the Spirit. Diablo is the great distracter. Worry about money! Try to please everyone! Who is winning? Who is in, and who is out? Why me? Why not me? The goal of a healthy spiritual life is to resist Diablo’s devilish power of distraction. Walk with God daily. Listen for God through scripture and listen to Spirit speaking in our lives. Seek first the realm of God, and all things will be added to you.