Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Devil is a Lazy Tempter or If it Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It!

The old saying goes, "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" and sometimes, that's just because the old tricks work so well. I thought of this as I read the readings for Mass on the first Sunday of Lent. I've written before about how the bible starts with a wedding (Adam and Eve), Jesus's ministry starts at a wedding (Cana) and the bible ends with a wedding (the marriage feast of the lamb). Although today's readings weren't about weddings, they referenced the devil's temptation of Eve and the devil's temptation of Jesus for in the desert before he began his public ministry, I noticed that in all the years between those events, the devil's playbook hadn't changed and that made me realize that he's still using the same tricks now.

And yes, I did just say that the devil is alive and well now. I know that it's not terribly popular to acknowledge that there is a continuing battle between good and evil; God and the devil, but I have no doubt that there is a battle being waged for souls. Do you think that sounds dramatic? A little over the top perhaps? Well, guess what, if I was someone looking to do something malicious to you would I want you to believe in me and be on your guard or would I want you to laugh at those who tried to warn you about me and deny that I existed? The evil one's greatest weapon is that people no longer believe in the struggle for their souls. Some people don't even believe they have souls. How easy is it to hand over something that you don't value, let alone believe exists? He is alive and doing well using the same lies and misdirection he's always used and it's working better than ever because a lot of people don't think he's out there and don't feel the need to protect themselves.

You see, the devil employs three basic strategies in the temptations of Eve and of Jesus. The first, is to misrepresent God's words, the second is to appeal to the human desire for power and the third is to tempt by way of our physical nature. Now I don't mean to say that these are the only tricks he has up his sleeve or the only ways that he gets us to turn away from God. My point is that these particular strategies are still doing us in to this day, and I point it out in the hopes that we can all recognize them more readily before falling into his traps.

1. He said what?

In 'The Merchant of Venice' Shakespeare wrote that "The devil can cite scripture for his purpose" and you know what, he does. Now I realize that God's word hadn't been committed to scripture at the time of creation, but the serpent tempting Eve does twist God's word and commands to plant a seed of doubt in her mind.

“Did God really tell you not to eat
from any of the trees in the garden?”
The woman answered the serpent: 
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 
it is only about the fruit of the tree 
in the middle of the garden that God said, 
‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’ -Gen. 3:1-3

Eve corrects him by telling him that it's only the tree of knowledge that they can't eat of or they will die. But by overstating and twisting God's words, the devil plants the seed of doubt which he will build on in his next deception which I'll get to in a moment.

Thousands of years later, the devil is tempting Jesus. During the temptation, he brings Jesus to the parapet of the temple and dares him to throw himself down, quoting scripture to the God who wrote it:

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.” -Mt. 4:6

Jesus points out to the devil the true nature of God, quoting the scripture that you shall not put God to the test. What is up in the air a bit (pardon the pun); Is Jesus telling the devil that he won't test God or is he warning the devil that at that moment, he (the devil) is testing God?

So that brings us to the modern age. Here we are two thousand years later and the devil is still pulling the same trick. How many times have you heard that Catholics are "only supposed to have sex to have babies"? Or that the teaching on contraception is just so that the church "has more butts in the pews". Every word that Pope Francis speaks gets twisted in support of some agenda or another, and so far he hasn't said anything that the church hasn't taught for centuries. And it's not just Catholic teaching, it's all Christianity. From the misuse of the command to "judge not, lest ye be judged" to groups like the Westboro Baptist Church that would twist God's words into hatred and offensive displays, evil is citing God for its purposes left and right in our world. The only way to fight it is to truly know what God's word says to us and take the time to listen to the 'still small voice' so that we can learn to recognize the song of our shepherd and not be led astray.

2. Show 'em what's behind door number one!

After the devil convinces Eve that the forbidden fruit will not kill them, he then tells her that not only won't it kill them, it will make them as wise and powerful as God, able to judge on their own what is good and evil.

"But the serpent said to the woman:
“You certainly will not die!
No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it
your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods 
who know what is good and what is evil.” -Gen. 3:4-5

The doubt that he planted in Eve's mind could very well have fueled some envy and a desire to be equal with her maker. Perhaps she innocently thought it would be okay. Why wouldn't I want to eat something that will make me as wise as my creator? Why wouldn't I want to eat something that gave me the power to decide what is good and evil? In many ways, it's obvious we are still suffering from this. Moral relativism is the calling card of our generation and if you don't jump in line with it and go along with the idea that everyone has their own 'truth' and their own idea of right and wrong, then you are labeled a fool, or worse.

He tries this technique again when he is tempting Jesus. He brings Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, saying, if you bow down and worship me, then all of this will be yours.

"Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, 
and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you, 
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.” -Mt. 4:8-9

He offers Jesus, quite literally, the world, but Jesus doesn't go for it. I wonder sometimes if this might be a sign that the devil didn't know who he was dealing with. Anyway, this is actually the last ditch effort that the devil employs against Jesus before he is sent away in what I envision as a sad, slumped over, dejected, very much Eeyore-like trudge down the dirt road out of town.

In many ways, we are faced with the same decision today. I am not saying that faith and worldly riches are always mutually exclusive, but in a lot of ways, there are times when we know standing up for God's word could lead to discomfort (financial or otherwise). It is not always easy to integrate our faith into our daily lives without sacrifice, but guess what, it's not supposed to be:

"Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." -Lk. 9:23

 There are families who have made deliberate decisions to orient themselves towards God and give up the two brand new cars, big MacMansion style home and brand name clothes.  They're trying to follow Jesus' example, investing time into preparing their souls for His Kingdom instead of giving in the way that Adam and Eve did, losing paradise, and investing money into the empty promise of false fulfillment.

3. Passion / Pleasure

Once the devil has tempted Eve in the garden, the scripture puts it all together and says how the tree is good for food, desirable to the eye, and for gaining wisdom.

"The woman saw that the tree was good for food, 
pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.
So she took some of its fruit and ate it;" -Gen. 3:6

Eve then takes and eats the fruit and gives some to her husband. Because the fruit looked good to eat it was easy for the devil to 'sell' them on the idea that it would make them powerful. Could it really have looked that much better than all the other fruit in all the other trees? In the end, they disobeyed God's command and gave up their trust in Him. Their human desires for pleasure and for power got the best of them and they committed the first, the original, sin.

"Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden." -Gen. 3:7-8

The first temptation that the devil tries with Jesus is when he tells him to turn the rocks into loaves of bread. He, again, is appealing to Jesus' human nature and his hunger after fasting for forty days. Surely Jesus could have created food out of nothing to satisfy his hunger and break his fast, but he resists. This is part of the reason for Lenten fasts. We are offering up some of our earthly pleasures to be closer to Christ and to feel a minuscule portion of the pain he endured for our sins. Again, Jesus is the model of resisting temptation even though he was subject to the same hungers and desires that we have. I'm pretty sure that if I hadn't eaten for forty days and I had the power to make it happen, there would be a lot of rocks turning into double cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes, but I am, after all, only human.

I mention passions and desire last, because it seems to me that the appeal to bodily pleasures is the 'Achilles heel', if you pardon the expression, for all of us and often leads us to the other two temptations as a way to justify our wants. For example, the evil of abortion is made up of our arrogance in taking God's place to determine what is good and evil and thinking we have the power to decide when life begins. The reason for this (in the vast majority of cases) is that people want the physical pleasure of sexual relationships without the responsibility of the natural outcome of sexual relationships. We enshrine ourselves with the power to decide what's right and wrong and then suit it to our desires. Or maybe we're listening to a tiny whisper... "God doesn't care about that", "it's all a scam so that the church can have more money and power". It's a whisper that disregards God's words or misrepresents them, encouraging us to conform God to our image instead of trying to encourage us to conform ourselves to God's word and His desires for us. We need to remember His promise to us:

"My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand." 
-Jn. 10:27-28 who would want us to turn away from something as wondrous as that? Could it be? Hmmm.....

We all need to learn the shepherd's voice so that we will recognize when he speaks to us and will not be fooled by those who seek to lead us astray.

God bless,