There is an old story told by a Jewish Rabbi that goes as follows:
The Evil Spirit once came dejected before God and wailed, "Almighty God -- I want you to know that I am bored -- bored to tears! I go around doing nothing all day long. There isn't a stitch of work for me to do!"
"I can't understand you," replied God. There's plenty of work to be done only you've got to have more initiative. Why don't you try to lead people into sin? That's your job!"
"Lead people into sin!" muttered the Evil Spirit contemptuously. "Why Lord, even before I can get a chance to say a tempting word to anyone, they have already gone and sinned!"
It is a little story that suggests that there are enough seeds of temptation already living within the human heart, without the need for some external evil spirit to account for our tendency to give in to temptation.
There are a lot of Christians who make a big deal of Satan. For some Christians, the figure Satan would feature almost as largely in their lives as God himself. For such Christians, the character of Satan takes on almost God-like qualities. Satan becomes omnipresent, in all places all at once, in order to tempt humanity. He becomes omniscient too, knowing all of our thoughts and weaknesses.
For myself, and I recognize not all would agree with me, I wouldn’t subscribe to such a doctrine of Satan. I wouldn’t deny that there is evil in this world. Of course there is evil. One only has to read the paper to see the evil in this world. But like this little story told by the Jewish Rabbi, most of the evil in the world comes from the human heart. One doesn’t need a doctrine of Satan to account for all the evil in the world. Human beings are quite capable, all on their own of doing some pretty terrible things. Personally I wouldn’t regard Satan as being a real external person, but rather a symbolic personification of the seeds of evil that lurk within the human heart.
I have also noticed that when Christians constantly refer to Satan, there is a real danger that it becomes a way for people not to take responsibility for their actions.
In April 2000 in international cricket there was a great match-fixing scandal, and very unfortunately, one of the key players implicated was the very successful captain of the South African national cricket side, Hansie Cronje. He had a great record as being one of South Africa’s best ever captains captains in terms of results, but at some point, the desire for easy money overcame him and he began to take bribes in order to fix matches.
When it all came out in the media and he had to testify at a commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of the whole scandal, after claiming to have had some kind of conversion experience, his defense in the end was that Satan made him do it. The whole testimony left a very bad taste in many people’s mouths, because it seemed that he was avoiding taking responsibility for his actions. He was trying to preserve a sense of his own innocence by placing the blame on someone else. It was Satan’s fault.
M. Scott Peck writes that one of the signs of a person of psychological maturity is someone who is willing to take responsibility for their own actions.
In this instance, Hansie Cronje’s blaming of Satan for his actions was a failure to take responsibility. A failure to admit that the darkness that led him to act in the way that he did was actually lurking in his own heart. Bringing Satan into it was a mere distraction, an avoidance of admitting even to himself, of what he had done.
As I said a moment ago or myself personally, when I read references to Satan in the Bible, I don’t take these references literally as referring to an objective being. Rather I would read them to be a personification for seeds the evil that lurk within every human heart. Given the right conditions, we all have the potential to act with a selfishness that overrides our concern for other people. It takes effort and inner self-discipline to choose the path of integrity.
How then do we make sense of this temptation scene where Jesus is tempted by Satan?
Firstly, I believe that what we are dealing with in this episode is symbolic seeking to describe dramatically poetic picture language a very real experience of temptation, a wrestling between one’s higher and lower self, the lower self, symbolized as the character of Satan. And the specific question that Jesus is wrestling with his what kind of messiah he is going to be?
All of us at certain times in our lives have to wrestle with questions of what direction we are going to take and what kind of person we wish to be.
In the passage just prior to this one, Jesus has just been baptised. He has had an experience of God – as though the heavens were parted and God’s spirit coming upon him. He has heard a voice speaking to him telling him he is God’s beloved. From this experience, Jesus has a deep sense of vocation. God has a special purpose for him.
Now in the desert, Jesus enters into a period of wrestling and discernment about what kind of Messiah he is going to be?
Is he going to follow his highest nature? Is he now going to truly live as God’s Son in the world, or is he going to choose an easier path? Is he going to short-circuit God’s purpose in his life and settle for being something much less than he has it in him to be?
- The first temptation to turn stone into bread: Is he going to seek simply to feed people’s stomach’s or is he going to be the bread of life, helping to feed people’s deepest longings for meaning and purpose.
- The second temptation – the temptation to worldly power and wealth... “all these kingdoms could be yours” says the tempting voice within. The temptation to amass worldly political power. And it is enticing. Think of all the good you could do if you rise up the ranks and become a politically powerful figure. But is it really power for doing good that we are after or the desire for self-glory?
- The third temptation, To throw himself off the top of the temple and have the angels catch him. Winning people over with magic tricks and miracles? A poor substitute for living a life that is true and real.
What are the temptations that you face? What are the places in your life where you are tempted to choose the path that represents your lowest self instead of your highest self? What are the places in your life where you are tempted to not take responsibility for your life and to rather blame someone else? Or to short-circuit some difficulty or challenge that lies before you?
There is a wonderful Native American story:
An old Cherokee was once teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one that you feed the most.”