The devil’s appeal

For every soul that has roamed or will roam this earth, a war has been waged. This battle does not begin the moment one comes to a saving knowledge of Christ. We are born a fallen people in need of a savior, slaves to sin under the oppression of the enemy of our souls. Sin, the world and the devil all conspire to keep us in this unsaved state and separated from the Father who is made available to us through Jesus Christ. For as long as we are alive, the battle rages on. For the lost, this battle goes unnoticed; for the believer, it is a daily reality. And while the devil longs to keep us oblivious to this condition that afflicts every person, God desires to awaken us to the truth.

From our first visual experiences in this world we are shown the majesty of God [Rom. 1:20]. His glory manifests in the trees, the sky, the birds. Beyond this tangible evidence of his existence, God’s mercy manifests in life’s near misses and unexplained good fortune. The creator of all things, the maker of mankind, the one who desires to dwell within us in the most lavish display of intimacy, leaves us with no excuse to fail to acknowledge that He lives. Even so, many never turn their hearts to our Creator. Others turn their hearts for a time only to take them back for any of a host of reasons. It is the second case that seems to me the more difficult to understand.

Hebrews 6:4-6
For those who have once been enlightened and who have tasted and consciously experienced the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted and consciously experienced the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away—it is impossible to bring them back again to repentance, since they again nail the Son of God on the cross, and are holding Him up again to public disgrace.

This verse speaks of those who taste of the Holy Spirit, who experience the magnificent things that God offers to those who call themselves his, and turn back to their old ways. We are not here today to analyze the implications of this verse on the doctrine of eternal security. Our aim is merely to come to an understanding of the mechanism by which one would be compelled to abandon the Lord for the sake of anything else. For many believers, the idea of this happening seems like an impossibility. How does one go from professing Christ as Lord and serving in his kingdom to professing a false god or subscribing to the delusion that no God exists at all? A classic biblical example of temptation illustrates some of the ways that the devil appeals to humanity to attempt to steal the allegiance that only God deserves.

Hebrews 4:15
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet He did not sin.

Let us consider our Savior, Jesus Christ. His life is a tour de force in successfully carrying out our spiritual battles against the devil. As this verse states, He was tempted in every way. If Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted, that means that He also was tempted to turn his back on the Father. Strategically speaking, one would think that the devil’s tactics to attempt to make the Son rebel against the Father would be the best tricks he has in his bag. If we examine those tactics, perhaps we can come to an understanding of how someone can spend time living in Christ, the Father and the Spirit, yet fall away. And in examining how Jesus successfully thwarted the devil’s attempts to gain his allegiance, we can learn how to be successful in the same battle.

Matthew 4:1-4
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Between his baptism and the start of his ministry, Jesus spent over a month fasting. In the biblical context, fasting would accompany prayer as a part of the petition process. This was not a lose-weight-quick method but a time of spiritual closeness with the Father for the purposes of the work that Jesus was about to begin. One can imagine that after 40 days of fasting hunger would not be the only side effect. One would expect physical, mental and possibly emotional weakness as well. Other symptoms of starvation and dehydration might have set in. It is no wonder that during this time of need the devil appears to tempt Jesus to choose a way other than the Father’s.

In this first temptation, the devil enlisted two devices to try to make Jesus stumble. First, he tempted Jesus to prove a spiritual truth by acting against the Father’s will. Yes, Jesus had the power to turn the rocks to bread, but it was not God’s will that He should eat at that time. It was God’s will that He should fast and become spiritually prepared for what lay ahead. We know this because Jesus states in scripture that He did only what was within the Father’s will [John 5:19-20]. Jesus did not decide and act on his own. If He was fasting and praying in preparation for beginning his ministry, it is because that was the Father’s will for him. The devil tried to get Jesus to prove who He is by defying the Father. This is akin to tempting to us to sin to prove the truth that God forgives us. We do not sin simply to make grace abound. But just like Jesus, we have nothing to prove to our enemy. We have only to remain within the will of God.

Second, the devil appealed to Jesus’s physical circumstance. He had not eaten for 40 days, and presumably had not had water. Undoubtedly, Jesus was hungry. And while his fast was for an extreme period of time, it was only a temporary circumstance. He would not be hungry forever but for only a moment in light of eternity. The devil, however, understands how man thinks and sees the world. That is what gave him his success in the Garden of Eden. In tempting Jesus to turn those stones to bread, the devil was trying to distract Christ from the eternal by getting him to focus on the temporary. Jesus could act on his own and find his own way to fulfill his temporary need, but that would forfeit the eternal benefit of adhering to God’s will and waiting on the Father to fulfill that need in the Father’s way and at the Father’s time.

v. 5-7
Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Our faith is built on trusting, not testing. Testing is what we do when we doubt the word of God. Trusting is what we do when we believe it. In asking Jesus to throw himself down and allow the Father to rescue him according to what is said in scripture, the devil is casting doubt disguised as faith. We know that the devil’s questions come from a place of doubt because they begin with the word “if.” He again is asking for proof where proof is not needed. Jesus knows that complying with this request is not an act of faith in what God said but an act of testing God to keep his word. The devil is a liar, and we know that. The tools of his trade are deception and trickery. Logically, being at odds with the Father, the devil would not tempt us to do what is right. There is an evil motive behind all he does and says, and the wise person will remember that. He knows who banished him from the heavens and needs no proof of God’s power or existence. He would not prompt us to show faith in God but doubt.

In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis discusses the ways in which the devil presents us with evil masked as virtue. In letter 17, we are introduced to a woman who practices gluttony but not as we typically understand gluttony to operate. We think gluttony manifests only in excess but fail to realize that it can manifest in what seems to be moderation or lack. The woman who insists on eating only toast with weak tea, but is extremely particular about how the toast and tea are to be prepared, is no less controlled by her stomach than the man who desires to eat everything in sight. These are different forms of gluttony but gluttony all the same. The devil, however, will try to convince us that the woman is virtuous for eating in a manner that appears to be plain and moderate. The reality is that she has become a proud connoisseur of her delicate diet. Gluttony wrapped in a pretty package is still gluttony.

v. 8-10
Again, the devil 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.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

We will have a correct perspective on the devil’s temptations if we keep in the mind the difference between the temporary and the eternal. The bargain here is for Jesus to bow and worship the devil in exchange for authority over the kingdoms of this world. Jesus replies by professing his allegiance to the one and only true God, his Father. The devil rules over what God allows him to rule for only a finite period. The kingdoms over which he has power in this world are finite as well, to be replaced one day by a new kingdom on a new earth [Rev. 21:1-4]. In tempting us, the devil wants us to exchange our eternal reward of unimaginable splendor for temporary power or riches. He wants us to fall into short-sighted pleasure-seeking. Here, he tempts Jesus by offering him temporary dominion over the kingdoms that are only a faint shadow, a cheap counterfeit of the kingdom over which the Father desires to give him eternal dominion. We must remember this when our enemy tempts us to stray. No matter how good it looks, the devil can only provide what is within his power and control, that which is temporary and daily grows closer to destruction, that which is at odds with the godly and the eternal.

v. 11
Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

If we resist the devil, he will flee [Jam. 4:7]. Jesus resisted him each time He was tempted, and the devil left him. He did this by exercising wisdom and discernment in recognizing the devil’s true intentions in his words. He then responded with biblical truth, against which there is no prosperous weapon. This may be one reason why God’s Holy Spirit has the job of reminding us of the scriptures [John 14:26]. It is the very word of God, those words uttered by him, that are our spiritual sword, the only offensive piece of our spiritual armor [Eph. 6:17]. We should be ready and willing to wield our swords with every battle.

We are not fighting a fair fight. We have power against which our enemy cannot prevail. God has won already through the victory of Jesus Christ. When the devil prevails, it is not because God’s weapons are weak or because his advice is faulty. If we succumb, it is because we have not effectively used our spiritual tools. With wisdom, discernment, the arsenal of scripture and a true desire for the eternal things of God, we can successfully resist the devil’s temptations regardless of how many time he returns. The power is available to us; we need only exercise it.