The Devil Isn’t Fair

One of the qualities St Benedict seems to have admired is fairness. The abbot is instructed to act fairly, not to make distinctions among the brethren; the monks themselves are not to allow previous rank in society or purely human considerations to affect how they behave towards one another. Then we come to the Mass readings for the first Sunday of Lent and realise, if we didn’t before, that the devil isn’t fair. If we’re fasting, he’ll tempt us with food, or at least whisper that it doesn’t really matter: God will provide what we need (which is true, but not in the way the devil suggests). If we’re giving alms, he’ll tempt us with the thought that if we give too much, we may not have enough for ourself — and look at all the things we could have if we didn’t give (all the kingdoms of this world, in fact). Finally, if we are trying to pray, the devil will tempt us with contemplation of how wonderful we ourselves are and the empty promises he makes to us, so that we end up worshiping self and the devil rather than God. Sound familiar? Then pity Eve, who did not have the experience of Jesus in the desert to guide her but faced the allurements of Satan alone and uncertain.

Most people, confronted with the narrative of Jesus’ temptations in the desert, tend to think they are so obviously wrong that no-one, least of all the Son of God, could fall for them. I am not so sure. The problem with temptation is that something in us finds it appealing. Take that first temptation. Jesus is in the desert, hungry, thirsty, worn out. He is no less a man because he is also God. There is no sin in him, but part of his humanity responds to the idea of bread or there could be no temptation. It is the same with us. It is precisely when we seem to be at our weakest that temptations crowd upon us. The devil knows how to play us. It may not be something as obvious as food that attracts us. It could be celebrity or fame or power over others. That is why the old monastic teachers lay great stress on knowing ourselves. They didn’t mean by that endless contemplation of ourselves, which can lead to narcissism, but something much more akin to what we call nowadays the process of discernment, discernment of thoughts. Seeing through our own justification for various acts, the ways in which we cloak our motivation, can be painful but is very necessary if we are to become truly free of the devil’s snares.

Fortunately for us, the devil does not have it all his own way. As St Paul reassures us in the Letter to the Romans, grace abounds. We have only to stretch out our hands to receive it. That is a heartening thought for the first Sunday of Lent. But I think there is something more heartening still. Jesus meets temptation with the Word of God. That is why familiarity with the scriptures is so important. Reading and praying the scriptures (lectio divina) is something we can all do, whatever our circumstances, and is particularly helpful in the matter of temptation. If we do nothing else this Lent, let us deepen our knowledge and love of scripture. It is our surest defence against the devil’s wiles, our passport to life.

Mass readings
Genesis 2. 7-9, 3.1-7; Romans 5. 12-19; Matthew 4. 1-11

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18 thoughts on “The Devil Isn’t Fair”

  1. Please excuse my asking what is probably a very obvious question to you (and to others who follow your blog) but do Christians externalise bad behaviour and temptation as the devil because that is the way it is expressed the bible? One of my reasons for asking is because I’ve read some with senior positions in the Church who never refer to the devil and, as far as I can tell, don’t see it as an external entity. In the Eastern religions with which I am (slightly) more familiar, a similar concept of ‘mara’ was originally described as an external demon of death and evil who tempted the Buddha and tried to prevent his enlightenment, but is now seen more as an inner counterpart to our Buddha-nature that gets in the way of enlightenment – our fears, delusions, doubts and so on. I would be interested in any reflections you have on this internal – external aspect of temptation Sister.

    • The answer I would give is, it is both. If you follow this link, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P1C.HTM, you will find the teaching of the Catholic Church on what we might call the principle of evil — Satan, the devil, Lucifer (there are many names). I use ‘devil’ because it is the name used in the gospel I was alluding to in my post. Many people in the Church seem to think the devil does not exist. I cannot agree, I am certain that evil exists, although I would be hard put to try to explain to you the interaction between the external and the internal workings.

  2. Thank you, Sister. Have you any suggestions for Lenten lectio divina? I think I am attracted to a continuous text rather than the daily readings, although I see the wisdom of using what the Church has chosen for us.

  3. Many thanks for the link Sister – it looks very good (although it only shows up in the e-mail notification not on the blog page itself). I shall study it carefully.

  4. Started reading Gospel of St Mark in Lent, as the first vowel of my name is ‘a’. Noticed the word ‘immediately’ used incredibly frequently. Had the thought that perhaps St Mark’s gospel is rather like a tabloid version of the Good News. Short and dramatic version of mission of Jesus. However he does focus often on the casting out and silencing of evil spirits. If the devil was tempting Jesus, in the desert, to demonstrate His power as the Son of God how much easier would that have been than to be an itinerant preacher. It seems to me a message to us to subdue the ego, which is too tempting give into, than be humble and recognise our frailty and weakness without God’s help.

    • Mark isn’t as ‘simple’ as some people make out, but i love the urgency of his style and the little details that he, alone of the evangelists, incorporates, e.g. only Mark describes the 5,000 sitting down on the green grass.

  5. This is a wonderful read thank you. It gives me a lot to think about and work on in my daily life. Please know that those of us that do not live near really appreciate your posts on-line.

  6. Profound. And yet uncomfortable. I see myself in so much of today’s blog. But not in a good way. Please, Sister, keep me in your prayers as I do you in mine.

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