Have you ever stared at a puzzle without making progress until someone redirected your attention? The same often happens in life with knitting instructions, recipes, mathematical equations and technique in sports.
Hopefully, the same will happen here. Remove the devil from the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert. Excise him from the scene.
The purpose is not to deny the existence of malevolent spiritual powers that assail human beings. No. It is much the opposite. If you picture an ugly, dark-winged figure, dialoguing with Jesus, you reduce the real power of evil. Why? Because you have removed the devil’s greatest advantage: the darkness of confusion.
It is not that the evangelist is not accurately relating what happened. St. Luke was not a simpleton, writing in a world suffused by myths. Christ was indeed tempted by the devil. But if you picture a demon standing in front of Jesus, talking with him, you make it entirely too easy for Christ to have resisted the temptation. Anyone can resist an evil that overstates itself, that steps right in front of us, fully decked out courtesy of hell’s costume department.
If you picture a demon standing in front of Jesus, talking with him, you make it entirely too easy for Christ to have resisted the temptation.
Think of some sin that you now truly regret. Would you have ever chosen it if you had been urged to do so by some hideous creature appearing before you? There is a reason the fallen angels seldom take that approach, and the same applies to angels of light and grace. If they were to fully manifest themselves—at least as fully as you can receive—would there be anything left for you to decide? All of the ambiguity, which is the very atmosphere of human life, would be drained away.
You fell into sin because of the dividedness of your heart, because the native strength of your intellect was darkened. You considered your course of action and saw, to some extent, what you should do. But then a counter-argument, an opposing story, entered your mind. If you are really looking for the devil in this Gospel scene, you will find him in the little word “if.”
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread” (Lk 4:3).
“All this will be yours, if you worship me” (4:7).
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you” (9:10).
The power of diabolic evil lies in darkness, subtlety and confusion. Remember, the Greek word diábolos means “one who scatters.” Here, the tempter quotes Scripture itself to great effect. He simply inserts that insidious little “if.”
Here—and in our lives as well—a small truth surreptitiously substitutes for a great one: “She deserves what’s coming to her” replaces “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Read the headlines: The church itself is full of sin, so what does it matter if the church has always identified this action as a sin?
Yes, ethical decisions can be complex, even confusing at times. Reasonable people, intelligent people disagree over the rightness of many actions. But none of them will be present when you stand before God. Do not deny that you have made a choice by taking refuge in the ambiguity of “if.” One can choose a life of sin simply by deciding to remain in the “iffy” middle. Sin is the failure to do what is right. That you declared darkness and confusion to be your inescapable lot as a human will be no justification before God, who is truth.
What does Scripture say?
The word is near you,
in your mouth and in your heart
—that is, the word of faith that we preach—,
for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord
and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:8-9).
There is little reason to fear devils as they are imagined by Hollywood. Fear the one who wanders your soul, darkening your mind and confusing your thoughts. The devil is real, the devil is powerful, and this is because the devil is within you. Reject a darkening world of “ifs” and turn to your savior. His Spirit of truth is also within you.