22 February 2010

Satan: the First Poacher

1st Sunday of Lent: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Who knows what tempts you better than you do? You know the sights that can draw your eye; the possibilities that make your heart beat a little faster; the delights that lead you off the righteous path into the wilderness of sin. If power and prestige can't tempt you, maybe vengeance or victory can. If food, drink, sex have no inordinate appeal to you, maybe possessions or dissolute daydreams can grab you. Though what tempts each of us is calculated to appeal to an individual weakness, all of our weaknesses together share a common theme: sell eternal life for the price of a moment's indulgence; exchange enduring love for temporary affection, divine mercy for worldly pardon. Temptation is all about showing us what we can have right now if we would just let go of all that we have been given as heirs to the Kingdom. The Devil whispers, “Sign over your eternal inheritance, and I'll give you everything you desire right now.” You do know what you want, right? I mean, you can draw up a list of desires; catalog everything you need, true? If you can't, no worries. The Devil is here to help. If anyone knows what you desire better than you do, it's the Fallen Angel. He's eager to parade all of God's eternal rewards before you. The catch? Nothing he can show you is his to give. Everything he can show you comes with a price. 

We might wonder why the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Adversary. Is there really any chance that he might surrender to temptation and fall from his Father's grace? Could the Devil win? Nope. Jesus can be tempted, but he cannot sin. If he cannot sin, what's the point of tempting him? Why does the Devil waste his time? Quite apart from the fact that it is the Devil's nature to tempt God's children to sin, it's important for us to see how temptation works, to understand what's so appealing about what the Devil has to offer and why his wares are so dangerous. The first thing we must remember about the Devil is that he is a fallen angel. Once, he was placed at the pinnacle of the Lord's angelic hierarchy. He enjoyed God's favor; lived at the foot of the Throne. He has seen what awaits us if we endure in Christ. He also knows that if we endure in Christ and find ourselves face-to-face with the Divine, his self-imposed loneliness and despair is made all the more intense. By enduring in Christ, we abandon for eternity the demonic agenda of rebellion against our Father. And Rebellion longs for nothing more than it longs for miserable company. So, the Devil's recruitment program is simple: offer us our heavenly reward to be enjoyed now; tempt us to borrow against our inheritance and party 'til it's spent. 

Think about what tempts you. Why do those particular things appeal to you? What is it about power, prestige, sex, money, vengeance, food/drink, etc. that draws your eye? Are you so corrupted, so deeply fallen that you long for these delights? Maybe so. But your corruption doesn't explain why power, prestige, sex, etc. are appealing. Our fall from grace doesn't explain the lure of greed or envy or wrath. Pride, sloth, lust, etc. are all states of a soul already surrendered to temptation. Why do these souls surrender? Remember what the Devil knows. He has seen what awaits us if we endure in Christ. Having seen our perfected reward in heaven, he can show us imperfect copies, distorted imitations. In fact, the only thing he can tempt us with is cheap knock-offs, bootlegged versions of the prizes Christ has already awarded us. The temptation to indulge in inordinate sexual desire is nothing more than an offer to fake a genuine loving relationship. The temptation is indulge wrath through vengeance is nothing more than an offer to distort true justice in charity. Everything that tempts us to sin is a godly desire perverted to serve Rebellion.

This is what Jesus teaches us in the desert. Everything the Devil uses to lure Jesus into the demonic fold already belongs to the Lord. Christ already possesses all wealth, all power, all bodily fulfillment. The only course left to the Devil is to promise to give these treasures to Jesus now. Skip the teaching and preaching, skip the miracles; skip the beatings, the ridicule, the Cross. Skip all the nasty, brutal pain and suffering and all this can be yours. Jesus answers the Devil by saying, in essence, “These are mine already. You cannot give what is not yours.” The Devil is defeated not by the force of Christ's will to endure temptation but by the fact that the fallen angel has nothing to give, nothing with which to reward those who surrender to him. All he can do is hold a filthy mirror up to the Father's heavenly treasures and promise that the murky reflections are the real thing. The Devil is crushed by truth.

Can we turn this episode in the desert into a weapon against temptation? Yes! If the Devil is only able to tempt us using fun-house mirrors to make fraudulent promises of treasure, then all we need do is carefully examine what it is that tempts us. If we can discern our temptations, we can discern what it is that we most desire from God. If I am tempted by worldly prestige, then perhaps what I most desire from God is the chance to use my gifts for His glory. If I am tempted by inordinate sexual desires, then perhaps what I most desire from God is the gift to truly love without limits. Our weapon against temptation is not willful, stoic resistance but prayerful discernment for clarity about what gifts we need to do the work we have been given to do. Certainly, we can resist temptation but even the strongest walls eventually fall when placed under siege. At what point in the battle do we come to believe that by resisting temptation we are actually refusing a divine gift? That's the greatest temptation of all! How many Christians commit adultery in the name of true love? How many Christians welcome the abuse of worldly power in the name of social justice? Have you ever surrendered to temptation so that a “greater good” might be accomplish? It's a trap. A very dangerous, very devilish trap.

You can spend these forty days of Lent mulling over your sin and seeking after mercy. That's hardly a waste of the season. But here's a challenge for you: rather than contemplating past sins, contemplate on what tempts you to sin. Watch for those times that the Devil draws you in and then contemplate on what gifts you desire most from God. The Devil will promise you a knock-off. But only the Lord can give you a genuine grace.

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  1. Maybe the Devil didn't know Jesus was God.

  2. I think the Devil knew Jesus is God, but because the Devil has an Ego that clouds his vision (imaging himself greater than God) he figured he could actually tempt God and win. Just my two-cents.

    The first project of my new job is to implement a parish based anti-pornography program. I continue to be shocked at the numbers of people (mostly men) who are tempted by pornography, and since it is readily available in the media (and Internet) this is a serious temptation in our world.

    Several points you have made in this posting will stick with me as I work to implement the program, its goals and objectives.

    One diocesan priest told me that at a Catholic Men for Christ conference he heard about 50 confessions, 49 of which included viewing of pornography. And these men came willingly to the conference, paid money, love Christ. These are men who go to church regularly and probably appear to be pillars of the community.

    Temptation takes many forms and the Devil knows what our weaknesses are, for sure. Thank you for this reflection on the Gospel.

  3. Faith brings up an interesting point ("Maybe the Devil didn't know Jesus was God").

    The Gospel reading says:
    The devil said to him,
    "If you are the Son of God,
    command this stone to become bread."

    Perhaps this is a case of knowing too much, but concerning the two natures of Christ, Jesus' human nature came from Mary, and Jesus' divine nature came from God, which Son of God seems to imply.

    How could the Devil know that Jesus was the Son of God without knowing that Jesus was God? Is that a fair assumption; that Son of God implies God?

    Or is it that the Devil didn't actually know Jesus was the Son of God, but rather was looking for evidence of such in making the statement above?

  4. Anonymous7:11 PM

    I'm a simple man and a horrid sinner. Not sure if I'm more evil or more stupid.

    I think the important lessons are:

    Man does not live on bread alone but all that proceeds from the Mouth of God. That is the spiritual is infinitely more important than the temporal. Keep that in mind.

    You should not put the Lord your God to the test. In other words, if God doesn't give me good, but bad comes my way, I do not blame God or change my faith and hope and love for God. See Job. If God gives us good can He not also send bad our way? And, in all his trials Job did not blame God. He said, "I know my Redeemer lives." See God's Will in all things.

    You should only worship God: all temporal desires and things are subordinate to God and His Law. As in: if I need to sin to obtain some thing, obviously I must forgo that thing. And, there are a lot of daily temptations. But, that does not eman that we cannot follow our vocations as fathers and breadwinners nor does it mean we may not also love our country.

  5. Gregg the Obscure9:35 AM

    So it would seem that refusal to forgive another person might be related to wanting to be blameless (since then the other person would still be the one at fault). Interesting.