War in the twenty-first century is significantly different than it was in the past. Not only has technology evolved but so has the field of battle. Where in the past the field of battle was clearly marked out with armies standing on opposite ends – often in uniform bearing the insignia of their country or their leader… today, these battles have moved into more populated areas using subversive tactics. While this isn’t the moment to argue the morality of pre-emptive strikes or covert operations, let’s just say that in this arena, it is a much greater challenge to tell friend from foe. This is why there seems to be so much more collateral damage – civilian casualties – on both sides in any conflict.
Yesterday, reflecting on the battlefields of years past, I wrote about the spiritual battle that comes hand in hand with following Jesus. And I think we have a lot in common with the way that wars are fought today: it’s difficult to tell who our enemies are. Gratefully, these enemies haven’t changed much – and the narrative of Jesus’ own temptation by the Devil (Matthew 4:1-11) presented us an unholy trinity of the world, the flesh, and the devil himself against whom we Christians are called to fight.
The first temptation Jesus faces is a very practical one – He’s been fasting for forty days, and He is probably very hungry. The devil tempts him to turn stones into bread – to feed his flesh – to which Jesus responds “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). St. Thomas Aquinas says that: the flesh… tempts us by attracting us to the swiftly passing pleasures of this present life. This is the enemy we often have the greatest difficulty with; we’re battling against ourselves. One of the big lessons we’re meant to learn from the stories of Genesis is that we’ve inherited a fallen human nature and a tendency to be selfish, to like sin, and to seek comfort at all costs.
I vividly remember arguing with three of the most dedicated teens in my youth group a few years ago how they felt it was important – necessary, in fact – to experience all that the world has to offer: getting drunk or doing drugs. I’ve also debated students as to why anyone would embrace chastity for a lifetime (as a priest, for example) or even for a period of time (before getting married, for example).
These are just a few examples. If you’re brave enough to be honest with yourself, you’ll likely notice a pile of battles you’re not willing to fight: whether it’s being too lazy to get out of bed in the morning and pray, an unwillingness to try and love those it’s hardest to love, or a desire to feel good in a moment (even if that moment is fleeting) that goes against what you KNOW God wants you to be? The question is… do you trust God? Standing on the front lines of the battle means learning to trust God even when your “flesh” is screaming for something else.
Next, the devil dares Jesus to throw Himself down form the top of the temple, presuming on God’s goodness to rescue Him. Jesus replies that one should not put God to the test (Matthew 4:7). Reflecting on this incident, Fr. Dwight Longenecker states that this temptation “is a temptation concerning power, and power is the great way of the World. Satan tempts Jesus to put God to the test; in other words to assert his power over God rather than submitting himself to God.”
St. Thomas Aquinas says that: “the world tempts us either by attaching us to it in prosperity, or by filling us with fear of adversity.“ Where the spiritual life is about learning to trust and love God, the world has always tempted us to seek more control. Whether we’re discussing our future our sexuality, our fertility, or even the way we suffer and die, what you’re seeing over and over again is a society that promises absolute control. In a lot of ways, our technological innovations imitate this as well; soon we can even start our cars or control the temperature of our house from our mobile devices.
The world’s temptations go beyond control and power. Both traditional media (music, TV, movies) alongside social media continue to provide a million possibilities of ways we can become more informed – but they also can do great harm to our spiritual lives. Simply put, they either draw us closer to God or lead us away from Him. This isn’t to say they have to be overtly “spiritual” – because as Bishop Robert Barron often likes to say, there are seeds of the Word found throughout our culture in all of these places… but there are also things which blatantly lead us away from God.
Have you ever examined the “things” in your life – whether it be the clothes and gadgets you buy or the media you consume, with this in mind – does it lead me towards God or way from Him? .
The last temptation of Christ is the most overt: the devil asks Jesus to worship him, but Jesus rebukes Him (Matthew 4:10). St. Thomas Aquinas points out that this is, ultimately, is the devil’s gambit: “the devil would have us disobey God and not be subject to Him.“ St. Peter explains it a little more graphically: “Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for (someone) to devour“ (1 Peter 5:8).
When it comes down to it, there are two things you need to know about the Devil:
1. He is real. Not only does Jesus talk with and interact with Him during His temptation, He also warns us about him in Luke 8:12, when in the Parable of the sower he explains that Devil tries to “devour the Word,” taking it from our hearts.
2. His greatest tactic is to allow us to believe that he doesn’t exist. Very rarely does he resort to the sensational possessions and attacks we see in the movies. We refer to him more often as “the father of lies.” It is by lying that he convinces Adam and Eve to turn on God – leading them to believe that God cannot be trusted.
There is a reason that among the final words of the Our Father, we pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The battle against evil is a real one… and we have real enemies against which we do battle. But we also have many things on our side – a community of believers, the grace of the sacraments, and most of all, God Himself who stands with us and looks out for us. We have a God who loves us and who will never leave us to fight alone against any of these enemies. Our job is to ensure we never give up the fight.
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” -1 Corinthians 10:13