On Matthew 4:1-11

Here’s an embarrassing question: is there a devil? As in, do we believe that Jesus, out in the Israeli desert, talked to an actual flesh-and-blood person with horns and a pitchfork and like, the world’s worst sunburn? In 2017 the most sensible response might seem to be, no, this is a pre-scientific way to depict internal psychological struggle. 'We all have our "demons,"' you might say with audible scare quotes — addiction, anxiety, mental illness. The gospel stories about exorcism and satanic temptation are best read as allegories for how we handle our own inner obstacles.

I don’t want to belittle or reject that line of interpretation. It’s not currently my approach, but it has been in the past, and it’s a respectable one. However I do want to point out that both Matthew and Jesus apparently thought they were dealing with a real entity, the Greek ὁ διάβολος (ho diabolos), the Hebrew הַ שָּׂטָן (ha satan), Satan. The late American supreme court justice Antonin Scalia once made the point that for most folks throughout most of history, the devil was definitely a real person. I suspect the ontological assumptions about that person were more sophisticated than we usually give them credit for — I don’t think the text insists, for example, that the devil is a tangible creature rather than a felt presence or a disembodied voice. But still, millions of people, some of whom we admire intellectually or even venerate, believed the devil exists. Even if we don’t agree, humility might prompt us to ask if their worldview has anything to offer which we miss with our more psychoanalytic reading.

Here’s why I believe there is. Although we usually assume when we read Matthew 4 that Jesus has all the right answers from the get-go, there are actually three rounds to this spiritual boxing match. After the first two, Satan seems to think he still has a chance to win, or why else would he keep at it? He doesn’t really back down until the final exchange, which is also the first time Jesus names him: get away from me, Satan. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think one thing Jesus learns in this encounter is that to really send your demons running, you have to call them by name.

One reason I think this is that Satan seems to go out of his way in this passage to disguise his true identity. On his first approach, he speaks in a voice that Jesus could almost confuse for the voice of his own hunger. After fasting for forty days, Christ is probably already thinking to himself, ‘man I could go for some bread.’ And that’s nearly, but not quite, what Satan says. Rather than ‘you should eat something,’ the devil whispers, ‘if you’re the son of God, you should have something to eat.’ It’s only a tiny perversion from the honest thought, ‘I’m suffering’ to the despairing idea, ‘my suffering proves God doesn’t love me.’

Jesus responds by leaning on scripture, quoting a passage from Deuteronomy in which the Israelites learn there are things of greater importance than food. A man is more than just his physical urges. If it’s a choice between having a full stomach and trusting God, Jesus will pick the latter.

That settles the hunger issue, but it doesn’t completely resolve the underlying fear: is Jesus really God’s beloved son? So the devil tries again, and again in a voice that sounds deceptively similar to Jesus’ own. Only this time, instead of masquerading as hunger, Satan mimics the voice of Christ’s logical mind. If Jesus argues by quoting the Bible, Satan will do the same, citing Psalm 91. But where Jesus relies on God’s promises, Satan questions God’s faithfulness: not ‘God will take care of you’ but ‘you can’t believe you’re God’s son unless you see him taking care of you.’

‘I don’t have to prove God loves me,’ Jesus responds, ‘because he’s already told me he does. Therefore I shall not test the Lord my God’ (Deuteronomy again). It’s almost an argument you could imagine Jesus having with himself, holding up verses against each other to develop a consistent scriptural philosophy. All Satan did was poison the conversation by injecting a hint of doubt and anxiety.

Still, that’s a definitive answer from Jesus: God’s declaration of love is final, no further demonstration necessary. And so the tempter, I think, is desperate. He puts all his cards on the table and begs for what he really wants: ‘I’ll give you anything in the world, just worship me.’ This time it’s not Jesus Satan’s impersonating. If Christ won’t listen to a voice that sounds like his own material desires, or his own intellectual doubts, then maybe he’ll listen to a voice that sounds like someone he trusts unshakably: the almighty. This is Satan doing his best God impression, demanding worship in exchange for blessing.

Bad move. Because Jesus knows the voice of his father. He heard it not long ago in Matthew 3, when he was baptised right before he went into the wilderness. And God’s voice didn’t say, ‘worship me and I’ll give you what you want.’ It didn’t say, ‘worship me so I’ll love you.’ Here’s the crazy thing: it didn’t even say, ‘worship me.’ We expect to hear those sorts of things from the king of heaven, so it makes sense Satan would imitate God in that way. But that’s not what Jesus heard at his baptism. No, when the heavens opened God’s voice said, ‘you are my child, and I love you. This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.’ No trade-offs. No demands. Just love without condition or price.

I think that’s how Jesus knows. This voice he’s been hearing, the voice that tells him he’s been abandoned because he’s in pain, the voice that says he has to prove God loves him, that’s not his own voice. And most importantly, it’s not the voice of God. When Jesus realises who that voice belongs to, he’s already won. Because by naming Satan, Christ declares that the one who suggests God might not love him is, ipso facto, someone other than himself or God. By defining that someone as Satan, Jesus simultaneously defines God as the one who loves without question, and himself as the son who worships that God — not in a bargain for love, but as a free response to the love he’s been freely offered.

Ha satan. Ho diabolos. These words mean, ‘the false accuser,’ the one who lies to you about who you are. So learning to recognise him necessarily means learning to recognise his lies, and thus to recognise your own true identity as God’s beloved. That’s why Satan has to disguise himself, why Jesus defeats him by saying his name.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote that ‘the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.’ As long as you believe your demons are a part of you, an ineradicable feature of your personality or your brain chemistry, you can’t fight them without tearing yourself in two. But I suspect that’s why, when Jesus confronts a possessed man in Mark 5, he immediately asks the demon, ‘what is your name?’ Those are the words of a Messiah who believes his people were created without flaw, that their misery and their self-harm and their neuroses can be identified as foreign additions and cast out of them. I wonder if that’s the first time the man ever knew he was once whole. Ever hoped he might be restored.

It’s Lent. Most of us have probably given something up, or thought about something to which our relationship is unhealthy — food, alcohol, caffeine, whatever. I noticed recently that I compulsively check my email, staring blankly into the screen and refreshing the page every few seconds. I can’t give up email and still do my job, but I did start to keep track of when I feel compelled to hit that refresh button. Lo and behold, almost invariably, it’s when I think I’ve messed up or made a fool of myself. Then I fire up Gmail because maybe there’ll be an acceptance letter, or a couple Facebook likes, or a positive comment on an article I’ve written, to convince me I’m worthy of love.

It always starts that way. It sounds like an impulse of your own, some desire: check your email, have another beer, don’t eat dinner. When you know it’s not good for you. So why do you want it? If I had to bet I’d say, listen closely and you’ll hear another voice behind the urge. ‘Get thin so someone will love you; get drunk so you’ll feel comfortable in your own skin.’ And if you resist, maybe you’ll hear another, louder voice, one that sounds like your own reasoning: ‘well if you already are worthwhile, why did you mess up so bad in class? If you are lovable at a normal weight, why don’t you have a boyfriend?’ 

Perhaps you’ll answer that God loves you as you are, no proof needed. In which case, I wonder if the voice will shoot back, ‘why would God love you? What have you done for him lately? Actually, didn’t you sin against him just yesterday?’

I’m not here to persuade you that voice belongs to a real metaphysical entity. I’m here to tell you one simple piece of good news: it’s not God’s voice. Don’t let it be yours either. It might sound like your own thoughts, it might know every secret flaw you wish you could hide from yourself, but it does not get to be you. Call it loneliness, call it anorexia, call it fear. Whatever you call it, just don’t call it by your own name. You already have a name, and that name is not ‘coward’ or ‘screw-up’ or ‘impostor.’ That name is Child of God.