14 February 2016

Don't play the Devil's games. . .

1st Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

If you'll listen carefully, I'm going to reveal to you – tonight only! – the Guaranteed to Work Every Time Father Philip Neri Secret to Resisting Temptation. But you have to listen 'cause you might miss it. That's what our 1st Sunday of Lent Gospel reading is all about. . .resisting temptation, or rather not resisting temptation b/c there's nothing there to resist. There! Were you listening? Did you catch the secret? If not, don't worry, we'll come back to it. Our Mother, the Church, knows us well. She knows that just a few days into Lent and we are all already regretting our freely chosen penances. I think Lent must be the Devil's favorite liturgical season b/c he gets to prance around dangling forbidden goodies in our faces, trying to catch us out like carps on a hook. BUT if we listen carefully to Luke's telling our Lord's desert adventure with the Devil, we learn the secret of how to beat the King of Hell at his own game. Here's the secret again: nothing belongs to the Devil. . .he has no power to give us anything or to take anything away. Anything he can tempt us with already belongs to God, and as God's heirs, to us. The secret to resisting temptation is: don't. Don't resist. Don't play the Devil's Game of spiritual tug-of-war. Christ defeated Satan on the cross for us. Lent is our time to act like the spiritual winners we are!

Have any of you ever played tug-of-war with a dog? The dog fetches a stick. You take one end and pull as hard as you can while the dog growls and snorts and tugs in the opposite direction. Let's say, the dog wins, pulling the stick away from you. Then what happens? He trots over to you and offers you the stick again. If you are playing this game with a bulldog or a Labrador Retriever, the game can go on all afternoon. But what's the game. . .for the dog? The game is not Get the Stick and Win. For the dog, the game is Get the Human to Tug on the Stick. As long as you're picking up your end of the stick and pulling, the dog wins. The only way you win this game of Get the Human to Tug on the Stick is by not playing. Whether your efforts in the game are half-hearted and weak or manly and majestic, if you pick up the stick and pull. . .from the dog's perspective, you lose. Just to be clear: in this analogy, your dog is the Devil. The stick is the temptation the Devil uses to get you to play with him. And you. . .well, you're you. The moral of the analogy: if you never play with the Devil, you can never lose.

Jesus pretty much lays it all out for us during his forty days in the desert. At first it might appear that the Devil is tempting Christ with food, power and wealth, and pride. Not so. The Devil is using food, power and wealth, and pride as the stick, trying to get Jesus to play a devilish version of tug-of-war. Jesus doesn't pick up the stick. Why? Because he knows that everything the Devil is offering him already belongs to his Father. The Devil has nothing to give. The Devil tips his hand when he says to Jesus, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” And there's the trap. The Devil is a liar. Nothing has been handed over to him. . .except what we ourselves have freely handed over to him in exchange for . . .well, in exchange for nothing. When we choose to play the Devil's tug-of-war, we lose. What does he win? He keeps us occupied with playing his games, so we aren't praying, fasting, giving alms. We aren't preaching and teaching the Good News. We aren't bearing witness to the Father's infinite mercy. What are we doing instead? It would appear that we are mightily resisting temptation, growing in holiness. In fact, the Devil has us hooked like a carp.

I know all this sounds odd. Almost exactly the opposite of what we've always been told about how to confront the temptation to sin. But look at our example in the desert, Christ. He's not writhing around on the ground, trying to fend off the smell of freshly baked bread. He's not drooling at the prospect of ruling all the nations on earth. He's not puffed up with pride, knowing that he has an army of angels ready to defend his life. Christ doesn't resist these temptations b/c he knows that there is nothing there to resist. The Devil is a liar and thief. And he exposes his own lies when he offers Jesus the world in exchange for his worship. What the Devil wants is for us to play his games and turn our inheritance to his service. He cannot make bread. But he can tempt us to turn food, water, shelter, etc. to serve his diabolical ends. He has no wealth or power, but he can tempt us to turn our wealth and power to his ends, using them both to undermine the Father's kingdom. The Devil has his own army of angels, but they serve him out of fear and self-loathing. They chose at the moment of the creation to worship him instead of their Creator. What did they get in return? Nothing. That's what we get when we play the Devil's games.

So, what do you do when the Devil comes around making promises in exchange for your time and energy as his minion? Remember what Paul writes to the Romans: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” You have the Word on your tongue. Speak it! Jesus is Lord! What does the Lord do when the Devil presents his non-existent temptations? He quotes Scripture. Why? Not b/c Scripture is some sort of magical spell that repels the Devil, but b/c Scripture speaks the Truth, the Word. And the believer is made bold and strong in the Word. As heirs to the Father's kingdom, his sons and daughter by adoption through Christ, we have everything we need to come to our perfection. We have the victory of the Cross over sin and death. We don't have to sin; we don't have to die. We have the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit sent to us at Pentecost. We have the guarantees of the sacraments. We have Christ's promise that his Church will never be defeated. We have all that need. There is literally nothing no-thing in the created universe that the Devil can offer us in exchange for our allegiance. Nothing. Because nothing is all he has.

So, how does the story of Christ's forty days in the desert end? Luke writes, “When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from [Jesus] for a time.” For a time. He'll be back. He always comes back. If and when he visits you, remind him that he has nothing, that he is nothing. Lay claim to Christ's victory on the Cross. And do not play his game.

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  1. Very nice reflection.

  2. In accord with your post, I believe Newman says (something like) it is not advisable to get in a contest of wills with the devil. But this is exactly what seems to be implied in the notion of "resisting temptation." St. Therese I believe advised that the best way to overcome temptation was to flee from it, and it took me a very long time to discover that if temptation is a thought, the way to flee was to change my thoughts. In a way, it is a tactic that employs the devil's own strategy of distraction. Of course, on the internet even in the most innocent pursuits one is constantly tripping across the salacious, and I do wonder what would have become of me if I had come across the same at age thirteen. To such young men I would say, look, however careful you are, you are going to encounter temptation on the internet. The important thing is not to indulge your curiosity, but to immediately switch to another subject that interests you intensely. For me it would be Trump, for them maybe sports, but putting one's mind in a different world is key. Or, if the temptation comes to mind-as it will- when one is drifting off the sleep, again the key is not to resist, but to flee. Flight IS resistance. But to where does one flee at that point? One is still capable of thinking of something else, perhaps the events of the day, but I think St. Therese would say to flee to the arms of Jesus. Yet, how does one do that? Well, one could invoke the name of Jesus again and again, with the intent to repeat it ad infinitum if need be. That tactic pursued it would be very typical for one's very next thought to be the realization that it is morning, and that one has had a particularly restful sleep. ""To pray 'Jesus' is to invoke him and call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies" (CCC 2666). That last sentence has to be one of the most astounding sentences ever formulated, but in the present context one has overcome temptation by inviting the Conqueror of sin, satan and death into oneself.