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