The Devil’s Trick

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We begin our Lenten journey with Christ in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days in preparation for His public ministry.  Unlike our modern discipline of fasting, which allows us to take “one full meal and up to two smaller meals which together don’t equal one full meal,” the gospel tells us that Jesus “ate nothing during those days, and when they were over He was hungry” (Lk 4:2).  No kidding.

It was in this state of extreme hunger that Jesus is tempted by the devil.  But Christ is not tempted with what you or I might consider “temptations of the devil.”  The devil tempts Christ with bread.

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread,” the devil suggests.  It is easy to imagine how someone who has not eaten anything for 40 days might be tempted at the prospect of a fresh baked loaf of bread — and if Jesus were to transform a stone into bread, there is no doubt it would be the best bread you have ever tasted.  Recall that at the wedding in Cana, when Jesus transformed water into wine, the guests all remarked on how the best wine was saved till last!  But Jesus resists the temptation, telling the devil, “Man does not live on bread alone.”

Jesus 1; devil 0.

But have you ever stopped to wonder why Jesus couldn’t do what the devil suggests?  There is nothing sinful about bread.  Bread is a good thing — so good, in fact, that Jesus chooses bread as the matter for the sacrament of His Body in the Eucharist.  So why couldn’t Jesus turn the stones into bread and satisfy His hunger?

When we consider the other things that the devil temps Jesus with, we find that they also involve good things.  He offers to give Christ power over all the kingdoms of the earth.  Wouldn’t it be good if Jesus ruled over all nations?  He suggests that Christ manifest His divinity by casting Himself over a cliff so that angels could rescue Him.  And indeed, later in His ministry, Jesus does manifest His divinity, in many ways, including overcoming death.

The devil tempts Christ primarily with good things and this is also how he tempts us.  Every sin has some good aspect about it.  If there were ever a sin which was wholly evil, we would not be tempted by it.  There would be nothing about it to attract us because we all desire to do good.  Tempting us to seek a good improperly is an old trick of the devil’s. This is how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the garden.  He tricked them into eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Knowledge is a good thing, right? What could be wrong with just a little bite?

Any sin you can name has a disordered good at its heart.  Lust, for example, involves a desire for another human person.  Human persons are good!  But lust desires the good in a disordered way, treating other people like objects for our pleasure.  The commandment against coveting your neighbor’s wife is not because your neighbor’s wife is bad.  I’m sure she’s very nice.  But, like Adam and Eve eating from the tree, it is wrong to pursue a good which you are not meant to have.

Greed involves a desire for material possessions.  Again, material possessions are not bad in themselves.  God is the author of creation and all that He makes is good.  So material possessions are good things.  But when we value these things above people, or above God Himself, our desire for possessions becomes disordered.  We pursue a good in an improper way.

This is the nature of all evil, because evil itself is not a created thing.  Evil is a perversion or misuse of a good God has given us.  As St. Augustine put it, “What is that which we call evil but the absence of good?”

We often use the good that we are pursing (albeit wrongly) to justify our sinful actions.  Christ shows us a better way.  This Lent, take a look at your life and anything you may be doing or have done in the past that you knew was wrong, but felt justified in doing.  Are there thing that you know the Church teaches are immoral, but you have told yourself that they really are not that bad?  What is the good that you are seeking in these actions?  Are you seeking that good in an improper way?  Are you seeking a lesser good at the expense of a higher good?

Lent above all is a season of repentance.  It is an invitation extended by Christ and His Church to turn away from our sins, past or present, and turn back to the love of God.  We should never be satisfied with pursuing a lesser good, but settle for nothing less than that perfect good God has in mind for each of us.