Did Jesus really have an encounter in the wilderness with a personal Devil? That is how the story of Lent – Jesus’ 40 days and 40 nights in the desert – puts it. I can’t go into that in great depth here. But, like the Church of England, I do believe in a personal Devil. Not a being with horns and hooves – that’s a medieval picture. I don’t believe Jesus was taking to himself in the desert!
In total there are 177 references, 118 in the Gospels to the devil and demons. Jesus cast out many demons. Many demon-possessed people were brought to him, “and he drove out the spirits with a word.” “He would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.” (Matthew 8:16; Mark 1:34, 39).
In the Church of England Baptism Service candidates (or their parents and godparents) are asked: Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? After the signing the candidate with the cross the Minister says: “….Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil …” Then he prays: “May almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness ….”
In the Post Communion prayer for the 3rd Sunday in Lent we pray: “ Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Similarly in the Collect for 2nd Sunday in Advent: “O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life: ……”
In the Prayers for Protection and Peace in the latest Church of England service book, “Common Worship,” there is a prayer “for a person before sleep”:
May the cross of the Son of God,
which is mightier than all the hosts of Satan
and more glorious than all the hosts of heaven,
abide with you in your going out and in your coming in.
By day and by night, at morning and at evening,
at all times and in all places may it protect and defend you.
From the wrath of evildoers, from the assaults of evil spirits,
from foes visible and invisible, from the snares of the devil,
from all passions that beguile the soul and body:
may it guard, protect and deliver you.
And then there is a blessing: “May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions and from the fear of the known and unknown.
In the Norwich Diocesan Handbook there is reference to the “Ministry of Deliverance” (exorcism). This is described as “the term most commonly used to describe the church’s ministry to those who are affected by paranormal phenomena, whether real or imagined.” It adds: “If … it is sensed that unknown or evil forces may be at play, help should be sought [from the deliverance team].
So the Devil is a real personal power of evil. How does he operate? The Book of Genesis, sometimes using symbolism – like the serpent, gives us some insights into this and how human beings fall to temptation:
1. The devil questions God’s Law
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say….” (Genesis 3:1)
A favourite tactic of the Devil is to tempt us to doubt God’s word. Did God really say ….? Like a propaganda officer in war time, Satan tries to make us doubt God. We never condemn anyone who suffers from doubt, but we do try to help them to work the doubts out.
2. The devil misrepresents God’s Law
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The Devil loves to make out that God’s word is unreasonable, that God is a celestial spoil sport. He tries to get us to believe that God’s word (which is actually very liberating) is inhibiting and frustrating. God had not said “You must not eat from any tree of the garden. They could eat from all the trees except one. God said this to test Eve (and Adam), and to see if they would obey him.
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” 4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Verses 2-5) In other words: God is a great spoil sport.
The Devil hasn’t changed his tactics. Today he whispers into people’s minds: “Christianity will hold you back from realising your potential, enjoying life, being autonomous. Actually, real Christianity is the most liberating, fulfilling and joyful way of life.
However, we can’t blame all the world’s evil on the Devil. We do quite well on our own! So we see:
3. Man co-operates by enjoying temptation
The more she looked at the forbidden fruit, the more appealing it became! “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” (Verse 6). She saw it as satisfying, pleasurable and beneficial. Of course there is nothing wrong with eating fruit. But, as I said, this prohibition was simply a test by God to see if she would obey him. She didn’t. She fell to temptation and then we see:
4. Man damages by spreading rebellion
“She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” (Verse 6). And so the first fellowship of rebellion was born. And still today we often give way to peer pressures. We want to be one of the boys (or girls!), part of the club. We don’t like being different. We hate being laughed at. So sometimes we do the wrong thing, just to remain “in” with the crowd.
We take our standards from one another rather than God’s word. The sad thing we see is that:
5. Man suffers by losing innocence
The story tells us that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” (Verse 7).
Hitherto they had been innocent, natural and relaxed in God’s beautiful creation. Now this beautiful creation was defiled by guilt. God’s wonderful world has been to some extent spoilt. Instead of relaxed joy, there is furtive guilt. It’s still the same today. Many people suffer from guilt. On the other hand, we know that normally we’re never happier than when we’re doing the right thing.
So how should we live? The best way to live is to:
- Follow God’s word (the Bible)
- Understand God’s word (with the help of written material available through the church and of the church’s teaching ministry).
- Resist temptation (when we receive Christ into our lives, he gives us a new power to overcome temptation).
- Encourage others in doing good.
- Rejoice in God’s love and acceptance.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction