The Gospel of Luke tells us that before he calls his disciples, before he heals anyone, or says a word of teaching, the Spirit leads Jesus out to the wilderness to pray. There he fasts for 40 days. Before he goes out to serve, he gets ready in fasting and prayer. He deepens the wells that he draws on for spiritual strength, trusting in God for nourishment and direction. He fasts, denying his physical strength in order to build up his spiritual strength.
What a different world it would be if we all followed his example. If we asked God what we should do instead of asking God to bless what we have already done. If we got ready so that we had the spiritual strength to accomplish all the good we hope for, instead of giving up when it gets difficult. If we want to do God’s will, we can’t start our prayers after we’ve made our plans. If we want to bear good fruit, good intentions don’t go that far. We have to put in the discipline and the effort to prepare ourselves for the work that it will take.
So Jesus goes to the wilderness to fast and pray. He eats nothing for 40 days. And that’s when the devil shows up. Some folks don’t want to believe in a literal devil and that’s fine, a metaphorical one will do. Either way, the temptation appears when Jesus is weak. That is how the devil works. The devil tempts us when we are weak. When we’ve just been raked across the coals by our boss, that’s when we are tempted to say something cruel and hurtful at home. When we feel unloved, that’s when we seek out gratification. When we are hopeless, that’s when we’re tempted to self-destructive behavior. Temptation is easy to deny when we’re feeling great and everything is going our way. But when we are tired, when we are frustrated, when we are hungry, then is when we have to be on our guard. That is when sin is crouching at our door.
And Jesus is of course all these things. He has been in the wilderness for 40 days. He is hungry, he is tired, he is alone. And suddenly the devil is with him, saying, “You have the power, why not use it? Turn those stones into bread. You don’t need to be putting yourself through this, Jesus. You don’t deserve this. Try some self-care.” The temptation that the devil offers is for Jesus to give in to the weakness of his flesh, of his own desires. And use his power for himself. The devil tempts us when we are weak. And the devil tempts us to be strong.
But Jesus stays true to his faith. It’s true that Jesus could solve his hunger problem if he wanted to. Fasting is a problem of his own choosing. It is the choice to strengthen his resolve to follow God. He has a long journey ahead of him, and he’ll need more than bread to survive it. To satisfy his hunger at the cost of his ability to follow would be shortsighted indeed. Jesus remembers the meaning of God’s manna in the wilderness. What we need most deeply is not the bread but the God who gives it. “One does not live by bread alone,” he says. The rest of that verse is, “but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It’s not just the good things that we get from God that give us what we need. But the hard things too. It is not bread that gives life, but God that gives life, and Jesus knows where to put his trust. Jesus chooses the harder path. He chooses dependence on God over his own strength.
And so the devil takes a new angle. He shows Jesus in an instant all the kingdoms of the world, and he says all this could be yours. The kingdoms of the world are mine, and I can give them to you, if you would only worship and serve me.
It was nice of the devil to explain it so clearly. Here the catch is as clear as day, but in the real world it is not. In the real world we make all sorts of choices around power in all sort of ways, but never does anyone tell us what we’ll have to worship to get what we want. Nevertheless, where you get your strength is where you have to go to sustain it. Richard Beck sums it up neatly in his book, Reviving Old Scratch: “The price for political power is spiritual allegiance.” The price of power is allegiance. If your strength is the might of your arm or the size of your paycheck, you will do what it takes to protect them. And your wallet or your body will make your choices for you. If you get your strength from being popular or pleasing other people, you will have given your will over to them, and they will tell you what to do. If you get your strength from being smarter than everyone else, or better than everyone else, it does not matter how much charity, how much generosity you show, because it will always be reinforce the hierarchy in your own mind, and you will never lift anyone up but yourself.
And Jesus’s answer holds one of the deepest truths we know. If you worship anything other than the one, true God, whatever it is that you worship will eventually consume you. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” he says. The devil tempts us when we are weak, and the devil tempts us to be strong, but to take that strength is put ourselves in debt to it. If we choose to make ourselves strong we will end up serving our own strength. If we choose to depend on God we will find God’s strength given to us. Christ’s answer is to choose weakness. He doesn’t choose to control the world, but to love the world, and loving involves being vulnerable. God’s power revealed in Jesus Christ involves choosing the weakness of love over the power of selfishness. Jesus recognizes the danger in the devil’s offer. This is why the cross is the defining symbol of our faith. Because it is a rejection of all worldly power in favor of humility, solidarity, and obedience. And it is the only way through which we can be truly lifted up. The cross calls us to serve the one who chose to conquer with weakness, not control with strength.
The devil tempts us when we are weak, and the devil tempts us to be strong, but the price of power is spiritual allegiance. Jesus chooses to depend on God.
The devil’s third test tries to turn this dependence on God against Jesus. He takes Jesus up to a high place, and says, “If you reject worldly power in favor of dependence on God, then why not depend on God here. Cast yourself upon God’s mercy, and let the angels bear you up, so that you won’t dash your foot against a stone.” In some way it is the same question that Paul asks to the Romans, “Should we continue to sin so that grace may abound?” Heavens no. To throw himself down is an attempt to force God to act. It is not depending on God, It is demanding of God. It is an attempt to use God for his own purposes. To turn God into a tool.
It is so tempting to use God for our own purposes rather than letting ourselves be used for God’s purposes. It is so tempting to confuse our desires with God’s purposes. And then the word of God stops being a lamp to our feet and a light to our path and becomes a club that we can swing around at people we don’t like. Scripture is big enough and long enough that if you know it well, you can make it say about anything you want. And this is just what the devil has done. He quotes Psalm 91 in his temptation to Jesus. But of course Jesus knows better.
The cure for our temptation to make the Bible serve our own ends is to read Scripture with the cross firmly in mind. The end result of Christ’s gospel is the crucifixion and death of God. It is a scandal to our understanding of how the world should work, it is offensive to our ideas of what is good. We are always tempted to turn it into something that sounds better, either by making ourselves heroes for our own prejudices, or by watering it down into something that won’t ever ask any sacrifice. But God is not our tool.
Resistance to the devil. Resistance to temptation. Resistance to evil. It is cross-shaped. It requires that give up our own wants and needs, it requires that we give up our own desire for strength and power, it requires that we reject our own tendency to use God to satisfy our own desires. Instead, it calls us to set God before ourselves, to place others before ourselves,
The shape of resistance to the devil is the shape that Jesus took. Jesus had all the power in the world, but he chose powerlessness. He could have dined with kings, but he ate with sex workers, tax collectors, the disgraced and the disgraceful. He could have sat on thrones, but he was nailed to the cross. To resist temptation is not to depend on our own strength, it is to be utterly dependent on God accepting not just the good, but everything that comes from the mouth of God. The way we resist the Faustian bargain of power for our souls is not to make ourselves more powerful. It is to tend to the care of our souls. It is to make ourselves powerless. It is to take the shape of Christ. It is to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.
 Beck, Richard. Reviving Old Scratch; Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2016, p. 113