The Lutheran theologian Helmut Thielicke told of a time when he put on puppet shows for children in a refugee camp during World War II. His show was the greatest attraction in the camp. Every day the hall was filled with children who came to see the puppets. Thielicke’s played the part of the devil. He describes it this way: “I wielded a horrible, fiery red puppet in one hand and mustered up a menacing and horrible voice to represent all the terrible discords of hell. Then, in tones brimming with sulphur I advised the children to indulge in every conceivable naughtiness: ‘You never need to wash your feet at night; you should stick out your tongue at anyone who displeases you; be sure to drop banana skins on the street so people will slip on the!’”
Some people thought he was putting horrible ideas into the children’s heads, but they didn’t want to follow that creature that was opposed to everything that’s good. The result of those puppet shows was that children had abnormally clean feet, never stuck out their tongues at people, and there was no danger in the camp of people falling on banana skins that had been dropped deliberately.
The nature of temptation isn’t that the devil tempts us to do things that we know are in direct opposition to God. The nature of temptation is that without our realizing it we can begin to lose contact with God and be at cross purposes with him. Eve and Adam were not tempted to eat of the fruit of the tree because they thought it was evil. They ate of that fruit because they thought it was good, not believing that God knew better than they what was best for them. After all, the serpent tempted them by telling them the fruit would make them like God. Isn’t that a good thing? To be like our Creator? Yet they were already like God, made in his image, but they wanted to be like God on their own terms.
Adam and Eve’s response to temptation is always one option, and one with which we are all familiar! Oscar Wilde, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, says that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. We know that way of getting rid of temptation.
When Jesus was tempted, he was tempted not to do what looked to be evil, but what appeared to be good. What could be wrong with making bread from stones, when you’re hungry after a forty day fast? Notice, too, the devil said, “If you are the Son of God,” as if to say, “Prove it to me and to yourself.” But Jesus would not yield to this temptation to serve his own needs, whether physical or psychological.
The next temptation was to throw himself down from the temple, so that the Father would save him miraculously, thereby showing all without a doubt who he was. Faith wouldn’t be necessary at all. His work as God’s Son would be tremendously easier, or so it might seem. But to throw himself down from the temple would be to attempt to manipulate the Father, to put him to the test. So our Lord Jesus rejected that easy path to acceptance.
The third temptation was to be the kind of Messiah everyone expected—one who would rule the world. This temptation had higher stakes. He would have to worship the devil to do it. This is the only temptation in which the devil doesn’t challenge Jesus’ Sonship by beginning with, “If you are the Son of God.” All of the kingdoms of the world were to be his, but they weren’t to be his in the worldly sense, nor were they to be obtained through force and deceit—the ways of the devil—but through the cross. Like Adam and Eve, Jesus had to decide whether to have the kingdoms of this earth on his own terms or on the Father’s terms, by worshipping the devil or worshipping the Father.
When we look at our Lord’s experience of being tempted we’re seeing a cosmic battle being waged. The Prince of Darkness meets the Son of God, and the Son of God wins.
But there’s another instructive element here. First, Jesus was a man of prayer. He kept the lines of communication open between himself and the Father. He knew how subtle the tempter could be, tempting us to do things which might serve our interest in the short run, but which ultimately don’t serve the purposes of God. He knew those purposes because he communicated with the Father through prayer.
Secondly, he knew the scriptures. He used them to fight temptation. He didn’t respond to the devil through his own well-thought-out answers, but with the Word of God. We need to arm ourselves by reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture.
Finally, God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, understands firsthand what we’re up against. Take comfort that at the very point where our relationship with God is threatened, Jesus has already stood. He stands beside us, ready to help us through it; when we fall, he’s ready to forgive, and to guide us back to the Father.
The most dangerous temptations are the temptations we don’t recognize to be temptations. These are the things that take us away from taking time for prayer, reading Scripture, and corporate worship. We’ve crammed so much into our lives that little time is left for God: Facebook, television, email, work schedules, shuttling the children from one activity to another, social engagements—none of these things are evil and some are very good. The tempter has done his most effective work if we don’t even recognize his presence, while we’ve been drawn thoughtlessly to crowd God out of daily life.
If the devil appeared to us, complete with red cape, horns, and pitchfork, and said, “Fill up your time with as much activity as possible so that you don’t think one thought about God, don’t say one prayer, don’t read one verse of scripture, don’t confess your sins, we’d fill our minds with thoughts of God, pray constantly, take time for examination of conscience and confession, and we’d find the time to read the Bible. Those are not the devil’s methods, because they’re not effective. Instead, he draws us away from God without our giving it so much as a thought. And the farther away from God we grow, the more we don’t miss him.
Lent can be a wonderful time to take stock of our lives, our priorities; to look at those things that draw us from the love of God and to structure back into our schedules the habits of faithfulness. Only you and I can decide for ourselves whether or not to use this great season to that end.