(Jesus + us) > (Devil + temptation)

GN 2:7-9; 3:1-7; MT 4:1-11   (1st Sunday of Lent, Year A)

The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic at St Mark's Basilica, Venice

One of the most interesting books I have read is the Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis was an Oxford professor and author whose best known work is the Narnia series. The Screwtape Letters is a very unique work in which Lewis writes a series of fictional letters between two demons. The letters are all written by a senior demon, Screwtape, in order to mentor his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter. Wormwood has been given the task of ensuring the damnation of a man who is referred to simply as “The Patient”. In his letters, Screwtape tries to advise Wormwood how to succeed in his task. What impressed me about the book were the incredible insights it gives into human nature - both our strengths and weaknesses - and the reality of temptation. So much of the book described things that I had experienced, just from a very different perspective, that of our enemy.

It is important that we have a realistic and balanced view of the Devil and temptation. In particular, it we need to avoid extremes when we consider Satan and his influence in our life. On one extreme, there are those who tend to see the Satan lurking under every rock. They too easily attribute problems in the world to demonic activity. Instead of taking responsibility for their own bad choices, they can pass the buck saying “the Devil made me do it”. In this extreme position, it is often forgotten that Jesus has defeated Satan and given us the power to resist temptation. Another extreme are those who ignore the Devil altogether. Some go so far as to call Satan a myth or a superstitious idea that we have now grown out of. They deny that there is some actual, personal evil that is trying to bring about our ruin through temptation. This way of thinking is also a problem. Imagine what would happen if a nation were under attack and the people lived in a sense of denial about the situation, refusing to believe that they were at war or even had an enemy. There is an interesting point about this point of view in a part of the Screwtape Letters in which Screwtape writes to Wormwood:
Our Master’s (the Devil’s) greatest triumph was in convincing men that he doesn't exist.
Clinging to either of these extremes views of the Devil and temptation hinder our ability to follow Jesus.
Satan does indeed exist and is trying to destroy us by telling us lies about our true identity. We may wonder, if Jesus has defeated the Devil, why does the Devil continue to battle? An analogy might help. Imagine a smoker who is addicted to cigarettes. Everyday when he goes to open a package of cigarettes, what do he read on the package? Smoking kills. The smoker knows this habit is killing him but he does it anyway because he are dependent on the nicotine. He needs it. Satan is addicted and dependent on hate. He knows he is defeated but he cannot but hate us and try to destroy us. He does this by lying to us about who we are as human being. The reality that we find in the book of Genesis is that we have been created in the image of God. We are all beloved sons and daughter of God, infinitely loved and precious to Him. We have been given a wonderful role in God’s wonderful creation: to build a world that reflects His values of love and justice. For these reasons, as human beings we need to have God at the center of our lives, it is just who we are. Satan attacks this identity. Just as in the case of Adam and Eve, he tries to make us push God outside of our lives and not without success. How many families today are so busy with work, school, and extracurricular activities that they do not have enough time to be together, let alone with God? In our busyness we forget about trying to build a world more reflective of God’s values. The Devil tries to make us forget that we are loved and precious to God. How many young people today, thinking that they don’t measure up to society’s standards for beauty and goodness, feel that they are worthless and unlovable? Satan is trying to destroy us by telling us lies about who what it means to be a human being.
In His temptation, Jesus shows us our true identity. Pope Emeritus Benedict explains that Jesus’ temptations are so significant because they
address the question as to what truly matters in human life. At the heart of all temptations, as we see here, is the act of pushing God aside because we perceive him as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives. (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 28)
In His responses to Satan, Jesus always affirms that as human beings, we can have no existence outside God – He must be at the center. The same temptations that Jesus experienced were undergone by Adam and Eve and the people of Israel, all of whom failed. Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit, thereby pushing God outside their lives. The people of Israel, after being freed from slavery in Egypt, turned their back on God by not trusting that He would provide for their materials needs and instead worshiped idols. Jesus, during His temptation in the desert, conquers the temptations of the Devil to push God out of the center of our lives, thereby affirming what it truly means to be human.
Lent is a time to take strength in our fight against Satan. In different ways, the Devil wants to tempt us to push God outside our life. With Jesus at our side and with His strength we can fight this lie. I would like to offer four practical tips for fighting temptation.
  1. Remember we have an enemy. Maybe this sounds simplistic, but recall what C.S. Lewis wrote: the Devil’s greatest triumph was convincing men he doesn't exist.
  2. Know your weak spots and guard against them. St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that like any enemy the Devil attacks us in our weak spots. What is your weak spot? Pride? Vanity? Lust?
  3. Show a bold face to the Devil. St. Ignatius explains that in tempting the Devil is like a barking dog, if you are firm and determined from the beginning, the dog will back off. When temptations come, we should resist them strongly the moment they arise. For example, if you feel resentment towards someone, try to forgive them right away. Do not let relive the hurt and allow it to build up.
  4. Stay out of the Devil’s territory. St. Augustine says that the Devil is like a chained dog. This dog is powerful, but is confined by the length of the chain. If you enter the dog’s area it can hurt you, if you stay outside, you are safe.  The Devil’s territory is serious sin, un-forgiveness, occult practices (like consulting horoscopes and fortune tellers) and spiritism (trying to contact the dead). If we don’t want to get hurt, we need to stay clear of this territory.
These are just a few tools that can help us this lent to take strength for our fight against Satan with the help of Jesus.

When I first heard about the Screwtape Letters, I was hesitant to read the book. I thought that a book about imaginary letters between demons trying to figure out the best way to tempt someone would be sad and depressing. When I read the book, it had a very different impression on me. I found it encouraging because it helped me make sense of what I experienced in my own life. The reality is that we do have an enemy who tempts us and tries to make us push God outside our life thus ignoring our true identity as sons and daughters of God. The Good News is that Jesus has defeated the Devil and with Jesus by our side we too can resist temptation. As we begin this lenten season, strengthen ourselves by: 1) remembering we do in fact have an enemy, 2) knowing and guarding against our weak spots, 3) Showing a bold face to the Devil when temptation comes, 4) staying out of the Devil’s territory. With Jesus by our side we will surely be victorious in the battle against temptation.