Serpents in the garden and devils in the wilderness. No matter which year or which gospel, the first Sunday in Lent always feeds us stories of temptation and confrontation between Jesus and that figure who has been named “the devil,” about whom there is much confusion — which, I assume, suits the devil quite well.
The devil is a staple figure in more conservative expressions of our Christian faith, in ways that often embarrass or anger more progressive Christians. We’ve seen the devil’s name used to cover up a multitude of human sins, as anyone who looks different, prays different, lives different, or loves different gets lumped in with the devil. Satan, to too many, is just another name we use for anyone or anything unfamiliar or agitating. In the classic case of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction, we who deplore this kind of scapegoating distance ourselves from anything that reminds us of it, making “the devil” a laughable stereotype of backward religion and denying our own daily struggles with temptation.
C.S. Lewis, the Christian author and apologist remembered perhaps best for his Chronicles of Narnia, described this dynamic well in his satirical novel The Screwtape Letters. First published during World War II in 1942, The Screwtape Letters takes the form of a series of letters from an elder devil, Screwtape, to his younger nephew, Wormwood. They are both bureaucrats in Satan’s service, and Screwtape is advising his nephew in the devilish arts, how to win souls away from God.
In his preface to the book, Lewis states,
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
Lewis calls the phenomenon I have observed in too many conservative Christian communities, whose “excessive and unhealthy interest” with the devil gives Satan too much power and credit, a kind of magical thinking and hails these sorts of people as “magicians” whose distraction with the devil borders on devotion.
But Lewis has a name for people like me, and maybe communities like ours, as well. People and parties committed to objective reality, cold hard facts, and psycho-social explanations for every variety of human experience he calls “materialists” — not in the sense of “materialism,” the word we use for an unhealthy love of consumer goods, but in the sense of a slavish devotion to what can be seen and known and studied and mastered: the material world. Our condescension toward anything we do not believe or understand makes us susceptible to all kinds of attacks that we never see coming, even while we are in their grip.
About a third of the way into the book, Screwtape addresses this issue in one of his letters to his nephew.
I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in [God] … If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” — then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders. I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”
In the garden we get the story of a serpent and a tree, or a wyrm in the woods, and the perversion of knowledge into shame. The stories from Genesis are so rich with symbolism and inexhaustible meaning that we’ll be returning to them for most of this coming summer. There are many ways to make sense of this story, and one of them is that in the garden God marks the boundaries that distinguish between humanity and God.
“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Fruit, or food, is equated with knowledge — both being necessary for life. God affirms humanity’s need to be sustained, not only by food but also by intellectual engagement with the world. We are meaning-making creatures, who long to understand our experience. Perhaps alone among God’s creatures, we reflect upon the meaning of our own existence. And that, God does not prohibit. But God issues a strong warning about our desire to claim mastery over what is good and what is evil. Those categories of thought lead almost inevitably to forms of judgment that are reserved to God alone, and once humanity sets out to know and to name good and evil all kinds of insidious harm occurs. We see this illustrated in the story as the woman and man eat the forbidden fruit and know themselves in a new way, in their nakedness, which they immediately move to cover.
This isn’t the only way to interpret this story, but if we do read in this way we are led to reflect not only on the origins of human suffering, but on our own individual and communal suffering as well. In what ways does our strong desire to be able to label people and circumstances “good” or “evil” lead us into relationships that leave us vulnerable to shame, and anger, and violence? Can you think of a time when you followed the voice inside your head, or your gut, or your heart that seemed so sure it knew the truth about another person’s life — only to discover that you were tragically wrong? If so, then you know what it’s like to be tempted by wormwood, the serpent in the garden, an all-too-real experience that makes the question of the “reality” of the devil practically irrelevant.
Following his baptism, the event at which Jesus saw the Spirit of God descend and rest on him and heard God’s voice name him as God’s own Beloved, Jesus is led out into the wilderness where he was also tempted by the devil. This time, instead of fruit from a tree, the devil acknowledges Jesus’ hunger, the result of his fasting. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But Jesus answers, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:3-4) Food and knowledge are once equated with each other, but unlike the man and woman in the garden, Jesus does not take the bait to rely on his own knowledge, but on the wisdom of God.
Can you remember a time in your life when poverty, or isolation, or deprivation took you to a place where you were ready to give up on all that you know to be true? When you were ready to trade in your trust that God will provide with a lower faith in the reliability of the world’s wisdom, in which there is only so much bread to go around and you should feel entitled to get yours before it’s all gone? If so, then you’ve met the devil.
Next Jesus is taken to the holy city and set on top of the temple, where the devil goads him to demonstrate his divinity by throwing himself from the heights and forcing God to rush in and save him from his own death. Here the devil betrays a woeful lack of knowledge about how and where God chooses to work in the world. Rather than choosing a handful of people to love, and sparing them from death and suffering, God chooses to to love all of creation and to join us in the fullness of our experience, including and especially death.
Have you ever found yourself at the crossroads of a difficult decision, trying to talk yourself out of a necessary task by reassuring yourself that God would never want you to suffer so much? If so, then you’ve met the devil.
Finally, Jesus is taken up to a very high mountain and shown all the nations of the world. Satan, that liar, makes a ridiculous offer, that Jesus will be given the world if only he will bend the knee and worship him. This is the very baldest of lies, because we know that the devil is offering something that is not his in the first place. But, it’s not so ridiculous a scenario, as the world is always trying to convince us that realists, pragmatists, materialists even, need to be prepared to deal with the cold hard fact that the world is a tough place, with no room for the ethics of love, forgiveness, justice and compassion that God in Christ Jesus is offering.
Have you ever found yourself in a position of authority, where you had the responsibility of making significant decisions that would affect the lives of many others, perhaps your entire family, or your workplace, or the neighborhood, or the world? Have you heard within yourself the inner struggle between the voice that calls you to do what is right, and the voice that calls you to do what is expected? If so, then you’ve met the devil.
Jesus, unsurprisingly, sidesteps all of the devil’s lures and sends him scuttling off. We are not always as sure in our responses. Perhaps that is why we fear talk of the devil to some degree, because we suspect we’ve lost a match or two to his wiles.
C.S. Lewis dedicated The Screwtape Letters to his good friend J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you’ve read those books, then you know that evil is personified in horrible and almost majestic terms. In his epigraph to The Screwtape Letters Lewis shares two quotes that seem to suggest a more modest approach to dealing with the devil. He first quotes Luther, who said, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Then Luther’s opponent, Thomas More, who also said, “The devil … the prowde spirit … cannot endure to be mocked.”
That, I think, is the very best way to deal with the devil. Not to dwell obsessively on him like the magicians, or to deny him like the materialists, but ultimately to put him in his place, like the apostle Paul who declared with full confidence to the Romans,
“Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19)
In other words, the biggest lie of all is that it is somehow we who are locked in combat with the devil and all the powers of death, when in reality it is God who has already decided the outcome of that conflict. God is for us, and for all the world, and against that unshakeable fact all the devil’s lures and lies are powerless. So we will jeer and flout and mock the devil, who has already lost the war.