“The whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether Our Lord was the Son of God or not,” wrote Msgr. Ronald Knox.
His words echoed many of the Church Fathers, who pondered what Satan knew and what he wished to accomplish in tempting Jesus. St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote, “He tempted Jesus because a definite sign of Christ’s divinity had not yet been given from heaven.” Yes, he noted, Satan was aware of Jesus’ baptism, but he thought the true identity of Jesus couldn’t be known until he was tested in spiritual combat.
It is a point worth contemplating on this first Sunday of Lent for three reasons: Temptation reveals the nature of our enemy, it reveals the reality of our situation and it reveals the identity of children of God.
The enemy has many names. He is not a metaphor or a myth, but a real creature, a fallen angel. Pope Paul VI, in his Nov. 15, 1972, general audience titled, “Confronting the Devil’s Power,” said that refusing to acknowledge the devil’s existence or to explain him away as “a pseudo-reality, a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes” is a complete rejection of Scripture and Church teaching. Ironically, the refusal of so many to admit the true identity of the devil is itself a dark triumph for the great deceiver.
The name “devil” comes from the Greek word diabolos (Latin, diabolus ), which means “slanderer” or “accuser.” He seeks to accuse and slander each of us before God in his relentless desire to destroy souls. In doing so he has an advantage — namely, that on our own merits we have no real defense against his accusations. The reality is stark: We are sinners who often give into temptation and, in doing so, make ourselves subjects of the ruler of this world.
This fact is part and parcel of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, which was a purposeful re-enactment of the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. But whereas the Israelites failed to obey, trust and worship God, Jesus overcame the devil’s attempts to have him disobey, distrust and deny God. “At the heart of the temptations,” notes Pope Benedict XVI in “Jesus of Nazareth” (Doubleday, $24.95), “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.”
We are rarely tempted to flatly deny the existence of God or to publicly curse him. Rather, we are tempted to replace God, the highest good, with lesser goods: food, comfort, safety, possessions and position. People rarely go from Christian to atheist in a few days or weeks. As Pope Benedict points out, the devil is just as pleased when we demand that God caters to our wishes as he is when we reject God. They are not so different, especially when it comes to destroying the life of grace.
“But,” some protest, “Jesus had an advantage: He is God!” Yet all who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ (see Romans 6). Today’s epistle states what is required in the face of temptation: Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead. In facing the enemy and rejecting temptation, Jesus revealed himself. Lent is our opportunity to do the same, in the name and power of the Lord.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.