Do You Believe in the Devil?

Matthew 4:1-11

One of the required courses in my first semester at seminary was an overview of Martin Luther’s life and his writings taught by the late, great Dr. Timothy Lull.  Tim Lull was one of those much-loved professors who always made us think, and his untimely death was an enormous loss to the Church, especially the Lutheran Church.  

Luther frequently wrote or spoke about his battles with the devil so it was natural that we ended up in a lively discussion in class one morning about Luther’s understanding of evil and Satan.  During that discussion, one of my classmates asked, “Dr. Lull, do you believe in Satan.”  Dr. Lull looked out the window for a long moment then said, “No.  I don’t believe in Satan.  But let me explain.  Luther tells us that to say ‘I believe’ is to say ‘I trust.’  I save the words ‘I believe’ for God.  I believe in God.  I trust God.  I would never trust anything opposed to God.  Now, if you want to ask me if I think there is a personal force or entity at work in the world bent on evil, a force or entity who is opposed to God and all that God is doing, a force or entity who seeks to undermine and destroy us and the rest of creation, well, I think a good argument could be made that such a force or entity does exist.  But I would never believe in it.”

Every year on the First Sunday in Lent we are nudged into thinking about how we understand evil and Satan and such things because the gospel on the First Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus being tested by the devil in the wilderness.  I suppose the idea behind this is that when we look again at how Jesus responded to temptation we are better prepared to acknowledge and wrestle with our own demons and temptations during this long 40-day season of getting our spiritual house in order.  

Evil is opportunistic and insidious, but it’s not stupid.  It plays on desires we already have even if we’re not fully aware of them.   It lures us with things that we think will make us whole in some way.  And it finds its opportunities by either prodding us to question our sense of self-worth or by pumping up our egos to inflate our sense of self-worth.

Eric Berne, the Canadian psychologist who created Transactional Analysis, had a theory that by age 5 most of us have developed a “core story” about who we are and our inherent worth.  For far too many people, that story is kind of shaky and not all that positive.  One of the gifts of baptism is that in baptism a new dimension is added to our core story.  We are given an identity to live up to, but it’s also an identity that grounds us and sustains us. As we are immersed into the life and love of the triune God, we hear the same words proclaimed over us that the voice of God proclaimed to Jesus at his baptism:  this is my beloved child.  You are God’s beloved child.

Evil wants us to doubt our identity as children of God…or at least to not remember it or think about it.  When we forget that identity, evil can get a foothold in our psyches by eroding our sense of self.  The very first words the tempter says to Jesus in the wilderness are, “If you are the Son of God…”  That’s a very big “if” and it’s loaded with insinuations.  The tempter is trying to get Jesus to doubt his identity or, failing that, to make too much of it.

Martin Luther once shared in a sermon how his sense of self-worth was assailed as he lay awake in the middle of the night: 

“When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already knew that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins–not fabricated and invented ones–for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ.”[1]

In  Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Henri Nouwen wrote: 

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. 

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” 

You are God’s beloved child.  Is that how you understand the core of your existence?

The word devil comes from the Greek word diabolos which means “the slanderer.”  When the tempter says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…” there is a kind of slander in that little word “if.”  It’s the same slander that comes to us in the voice of our self-doubt.  We hear it saying things like, “You’re not really a child of God.  You’re not really much of anything, are you?”  When that kind of voice gets in our heads we start wanting to prove ourselves, especially if we can do so without really doing anything “wrong.”

The thing that’s so insidious about the temptations the devil lays before Jesus, the thing that’s so insidious about most temptations and a good deal of outright evil, is that these things often look like good things on the face of it.  In fact, evil is often a good thing done in the wrong way or at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons.

What’s wrong with turning stones into bread?  Wouldn’t that be a great way to feed the hungry?  But to do that, you would have to do violence to creation.  You would have to coerce the stone into becoming something other than what God made it to be, something of an entirely different nature.  And to do that, you would have to separate yourself from creation.  You would have to stand apart from creation so you can impose your will upon it.  It’s true that later in Matthew’s gospel account Jesus will feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish, but he doesn’t turn them into something other than loaves and fish to do it.

What’s wrong with trusting the scriptures so devoutly that you’re willing to believe that angels will catch you when you plunge off the temple parapet?  But where is the love in a shortcut like that?  How would that build relationships that become the foundation of the kingdom of God?  How would that be anything but another demonstration of power in a world that is already much too much infatuated with power?

What’s wrong with the King of kings and the Lord of lords assuming control over all the nations of the world?  Isn’t that exactly what the Book of Revelation says will happen at the Great Conclusion?  But how would that be done?  What would happen to free will in the process?  What kind of violence would resist that singular authority being imposed and how many would be lost before all the dust settled?  How would seizing and wielding imperious authority teach the world to deconstruct all the soul-crushing oppression of imperialism?

For Jesus to have done any of these things would have been a denial of his humanity.  Yes, he was and is the Son of God.  But he also was a son of humanity. His favorite title for himself was “the Son of Man” which can be better translated as “The Human One.”  If he had taken the slanderer’s bait to prove his divinity, he would have separated himself from his humanity.

Jesus was able to resist temptation because he had a firm understanding of who he was.  He believed the voice of God that proclaimed him to be God’s beloved son.  He also believed in the essential goodness of his humanity so he was unwilling to separate himself from humanity.  In the end, in the full confidence of both his divine authority and his essential human goodness, he ordered the tempter to simply go away. And the devil departed from him.  

Jesus trusted God.  Jesus believed in God.  Jesus met the devil face to face.  But he didn’t believe in him.  So when you are assailed by that insidious voice that wants you to forget your basic human goodness and God’s divine claim on you as a beloved child,  be like Jesus.  Just tell that voice to go away.


[1] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, p.105-6

With Beasts and Angels

Mark 1:9-15

The first time I ever slept out under the stars I was in Cub Scouts.  Scouts go camping.  It’s what they do.  So when our little Cub den was still brand new, it was decided that the dads and the boys should go on a campout.  I think the moms were the ones who decided that.  And so it came to pass that one Friday afternoon in mid May a gaggle of excited boys and their job-frazzled dads made their way to O’Neill Regional Park in the wild foothills of Orange County.  

The dads, in their wisdom, had decided that, since it was May and there was no rain in the forecast, tents were not necessary.  So when it was time for bed we simply rolled out our sleeping bags on top of tarps and climbed in.  The boys, of course, were sent to bed before the dads who stayed up for quite a while, talking and smoking around the campfire.  

I remember lying there in my bag looking up through twisted oak branches into the night sky.  It was a clear night, moonless, vast and deep, with no clouds between us and the stars, and as I lay there, bundled in my bag, I became uncomfortably aware that there was no roof above me and no walls around me.  What had seemed like a fun idea when we were just talking about it was turning out to be a little bit scary.  Not that I would ever admit that.

I could hear the dads talking quietly over by the campfire.  But I could hear other things, too.  Things rustling in the trees and the scrub.  I knew I was supposed to be sleeping, but I was wide awake with worries and questions too big and too frightening for my eight-year-old mind under that deep, moonless sky. 

Finally, I heard the conversation at the campfire breaking up and the dads saying goodnight.  And then my dad was climbing into his bag next to mine.  “Dad?”  I said.  

“Are you still awake?” he asked.  

“Yeah.  Dad, can I ask you something?” 

“What?”  

“Are there wild animals here?” 

There was a long pause and I was about to ask him again but he quietly said, “Um hm.  Yep.”

“Well like…what kind?”

“Oh… coyotes, bears, bobcats, mountain lions, racoons, possums, skunks.”

“Coyotes, bears and mountain lions?”

“Look, you don’t need to worry about bears or coyotes or mountain lions.  They don’t like to get too close to people in groups.  We’re okay.  They won’t bother us.  Okay?”

“Okay.”  

“Now make sure you tuck in that corner of your sleeping bag.  You don’t want a snake or a scorpion crawling in with you in the middle of the night.  Now goodnight.  Go to sleep.”

Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days, tested by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and angels waited on him.  I wonder what kind of noises he heard in the night.

When Jesus rises out of the waters of the Jordan at his baptism, he is a new person.  Not merely a new person, but a new kind of person.  The Spirit has descended into him—that’s what it says in Greek, into him—so he is possessed by the Spirit.  The voice of the Holy One has declared his identity: “You are my Son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  From this moment on, Jesus is a new kind of human, a new creation.  From this moment on in Mark’s gospel, he will refer to himself as the Human One, or as we used to translate it, the Son of Man.  

St. Paul described Jesus as the first-born of a new humanity.  In 1 Corinthians 15, he refers to Jesus as the “last Adam.”  In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul made it clear that inclusion in this new humanity is extended to all of us who are baptized into Christ.  He writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The identity declared to Jesus in his baptism is extended to you and to me in our baptism.  When we are baptized, the Spirit is imparted to us and we, too, hear the words, “You are God’s child.  You are beloved. God is pleased with you.”  And in that word and by that Spirit we are made a new creation.

So if I’m new, why is it that on so many days I feel so old?

Well, I think it’s because of what comes next.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.”  

The Spirit immediately threw him out into the wilderness where he was tested by the Adversary. The opposition.  

The word that’s translated as “tempted,” peirazō, can also be translated as “tested.”  Tested and tempted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  A temptation may be a test, but a test doesn’t have to be a temptation.  Testing may be done to try to learn the nature of someone or something.  To assess their character.  To take their measure. Temptation is an effort to lead someone into sin.  It’s true that in Matthew and Luke he is clearly being tempted.  But here in Mark I get the sense that something more subtle is going on, which is why I think Mark doesn’t go into details.

Mark says he was tested by Satan.  Satan as a Hebrew noun means “adversary.”  As a verb it means “to oppose” or “to be hostile.”  So Jesus, the New Human, fresh from his baptism, was thrown into the wilderness by the Spirit to be challenged by the opposition.  I don’t think we need to dwell too much on how that opposition appeared to him, because I think sometimes we face it, too.

Forty days is a long time to be in the wilderness.  Forty days is a long time to be alone with your thoughts.   I think we can imagine at least some of the voices Jesus may have heard because we hear them too.  You know the ones.  The ones that catch you off guard when you’re tired and vulnerable. The ones that sneak in between  your thoughts.  The ones that ask, “Are you really a child of God?  Are you really beloved?  If God is so well-pleased with you, why are you having such a rough time here?”

There’s nothing you can do with those voices except confront them.  Don’t try to debate them.  Whenever Martin Luther was challenged by these voices, which was apparently fairly often, he would just make the sign of the cross over himself and simply state, “I am a baptized child of God.”  Sometimes he would add, “Now go away and leave me alone.”  One time he did throw an ink pot at the shadow bedeviling him, but that makes a huge mess, so I don’t recommend it.

After you come to terms with those voices that challenge your identity as a child of God, after you’ve anchored that piece of your self-understanding in quiet confidence, the Adversary may come at you with the big, hanging question.  “Okay.  You really are a child of God.  You really are beloved.  So now what?  What are you going to do about it?”

I think that might have been the thing that tested Jesus most during those 40 days: the Now What question, thinking about how he was going to live out his identity as the Human One, thinking about how and when and where he was going to exercise his power so that his work opposing power didn’t become all about power. 

Sometimes, like Jesus, we find ourselves thrown into the wilderness.  Most often we don’t choose to be there.  Stuff happens.  Opposition happens.  Pain happens.  Illness happens.  Accidents happen.  Death happens.  Pandemics happen.  Suddenly, we’re in the wilderness and we hear wild beasts in the night.

But the wilderness can be where we learn what it really means to be God’s children.  Sometimes the hard, flinty places of life are where we realize that being loved by God doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll always be comfortable.  These are the places where we learn to trust.  But learning to trust takes time.  It takes practice, learning to sit through the night wrapped in love you can’t feel from a God you can’t see providing a kind of protection you don’t understand. 

You can only learn that when you feel vulnerable.  You can only learn that in the wilderness.  You can only learn that where the wild beasts are, real and metaphorical.

Mark is the only one of the gospel writers who notes that Jesus “was with the wild beasts.”  I’ve read interesting interpretations of that line.  Some think it’s a reference to the book of Daniel where the kings of the nations are represented as wild beasts.  So maybe this line suggests that Jesus was considering how to confront political authority. Could be.  Some have wondered if Mark is suggesting that Jesus was having an experience something like a Native American vision quest.  

These are interesting ideas and they have their merits.  But I wonder if it isn’t just that there really were wild beasts.

Even today there are still leopards and hyenas in the Judean wilderness.  In Jesus’ day there were also lions, bears and cheetahs.  So in addition to confronting The Adversary in whatever form The Adversary happened to take, maybe Jesus was also coming to terms with the predatory creatures of the wilderness.  Perhaps Jesus in the wilderness was finding some kind of relationship with those beasts, reminding them and himself that they shared a connection with God and that they had no reason to fear each other.

Howard Thurman said it this way in Disciplines of the Spirit: “To Jesus, God was Creator of life and the living substance, the Living Stream upon which all things moved, the Mind containing time, space, and all their multitudinous offspring. And beyond all these, He was Friend and Father.”  Perhaps, like Saint Francis, Jesus saw these wild beasts as brothers and sisters.

I remember one night lying in a tent in Ngorongoro Preserve in Tanzania.  I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I was a little nervous, because I knew that outside the tent there were wild animals.  I knew they were there because I had seen them as we drove through the Preserve that day.  Elephants. Leopards.  Baboons.  Lions.  Wildebeest.  Hyenas.  It didn’t help my nervousness any that I could hear the gibbering of a pack of hyenas not too far from our camp.  And, of course, as I was lying there thinking of the thousand and one ways to die by animal, I realized that nature was calling in a more personal way and I really needed to go to the latrine. Which was at the other end of our camp.  Well, I put on my shoes, and left the tent and did what needed doing, praying all the way.

When I got back to my tent, I stopped and stood outside, looking out into the African night, and listening.  The hyenas were still gibbering, but it didn’t sound as menacing.  It really did sound kind of like laughter.  I could hear the soft rumbling and shuffling from a small family of elephants about a hundred yards away from us.  It was an almost friendly sound.  Somehow, as I had prayed my way to the latrine and back, my anxiety about the wild beasts in the dark had disappeared.

I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and turned to see one of our guides sitting on duffle bags in the back of the supply truck with a rifle resting across his lap.  He smiled and waved, then pointed at me and laid his face against the back of his folded hands in the universal gesture for sleep.  “Go back to bed,” he said without words. “I got this.”

“And the angels waited on him.”  There were angels with Jesus in the wilderness.  There always are.   Even in the valley of shadows, in the places with wild beasts, in the times and places of hunger and anxiety—even in the wilderness,  God’s messengers show up.  They come in all kinds of different ways and in unexpected forms.  And we don’t always recognize them.  But they come.

Do you recognize your angels?  Do you know them when they minister to you, when they show up bearing the love of God in some tangible form?  Do you recognize them when they remind you that you are God’s beloved child and that you are not alone in the time of testing, in the night full of wild beasts? 

Throughout our journey of Lent and beyond, may we walk with Christ.  May these 40 days remind us of what it means to be a new creation.  May we realize that God is also present in the wilderness of our challenges—when the Adversary in whatever form opposes us, may we remember that we, too, have been filled with the Spirit and heard the voice that proclaims us beloved.  When we hear the sounds of wild things all around us, may we remember that they, too, are created by God and loved by God.  And when we need it most, may we be waited on by angels.

In Jesus’ name.