Discerning the spirits

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. ’” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test. ’” (Luke 4:9-12)

What is it to be tempted? It seems here that the word “test” is almost better than “tempt,” and yet they are related, as Jesus’ response to the devil indicates. Temptation for me describes a thought or idea that leads to an inner conflict. The thought is appealing but it seems wrong and leads to unrest. A mental argument arises – to give in or not. Sometimes the temptation is blatantly wrong and it is embarrassing to even give it a second thought. But at other times the temptation can seem like a good idea. The question arises – is this idea from the devil, or from God?

The third recorded temptation of Jesus is a little like that. The devil suggests that Jesus do something which is plainly ridiculous. Throwing yourself from the highest point of the temple is just silly, an action most likely to lead to death, and certainly to pain, suffering and tears. And that is the devil’s whole point. Pain, suffering, tears, death – these are the common experience of humanity: the devil knows it, Jesus knows it. But there are places in the Old Testament where protection, even immunity, from such struggles appears to be offered to the person who is faithful to God. The devil picks up on one of those places – Psalm 91. He tempts Jesus to test God. To prove that God is the protecting, rescuing, loving God that he claims to be.

Furthermore he tempts him to test God by employing the supernatural – angels flying in and catching Jesus would certainly cause a sensation. The devil very reasonably points out that such a phenomenon, which is, after all, biblical (Psalm 91), would add much to Jesus’ cause. People would be sure to listen to someone who performed such an act.

At this point it would be easy to start to think that the devil’s idea was a good one. I wonder if Jesus for a fleeting moment considered saying yes. I suspect I would have. I would have thought about the options before me and wondered if the very crazy idea the devil had put forward was actually a test by God of my faith. I would have wondered if it was God leading me to do something that would advance his cause. Jesus was surely completely sure of both the Father’s love and of his ability to do what had been suggested. If I had been as sure of God as Jesus was then I could easily have been swayed by the devil’s argument. And yet Jesus, without hesitation, says no, firmly and clearly, using the Bible as a weapon against the devil.

Jesus was quick in his reply, but I am so often slow to decide what to do. I struggle often to know which way is from God. I am confused by the many thoughts that come to me every day, the many “voices” that speak into my mind. How can I become so sure as Jesus in my responses? Jesus did not hesitate like I would have. He does not spend hours agonising over which way is God’s way. He appears to know immediately that this thought, this suggestion, is not God’s way but comes from his enemy, the devil. How can I become like Jesus?

The key, I believe, is to recognise the voices. When we get to know someone we recognise their voice. We do not recognise the voice of strangers on the phone, but we recognise our friends. Even if we cannot see a person’s face, if we know them, if we have heard their voice a hundred times before, we recognise that it is them that is speaking. It does not clearly say in this passage whether the devil was present in bodily form with Jesus in the wilderness. But Jesus recognised his voice. He knew that it was not the voice of his Father. And he knew that it was the voice of his Father that should guide him and not the voice of the enemy, however smart or impressive the argument of the enemy might sound.

You see, Jesus did not just recognise the voice of his Father, but also the voice of the enemy. And that is the challenge for us too. We need to become familiar with all the voices that speak to us every day. And there are many: God speaks, but so do “the world, the flesh and the devil,” to coin an old fashioned description. The world represents the many influences “out there,” the flesh is another expression for our own selves, and the devil – well that is the spiritual enemy of Jesus, the fallen angel that we read about in the Bible, our adversary, the one who wants to destroy us and discredit God. Just as we need to get to know God’s voice intimately, we need to learn to recognise all these other voices well enough to distinguish them from God’s leading. We live in a spiritual world, and the Bible calls this skill “discerning the spirits,” whether they be the spirit of the enemy, the world, or our own spirits (see 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 1 Timothy 4:1).

This is a lifelong task, and we have the life and teachings of Jesus and the writings recorded in the Bible to teach us, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus rejected the devil’s temptation first because he recognised the devil’s voice and he knew it was not to be trusted, but second because he knew the will and way of the Father, and he could see instantly that the course of action the devil suggested was not consistent with that will and that way. Just as Jesus knew God’s will and God’s way, he knew the devil’s goals and strategies, and he was not going to give into them.

There are some important lessons for us here. To navigate the Christian life requires as much understanding of the devil’s plans and purposes, his aims and strategies, as of God’s. The devil is our adversary and if we are to engage him in battle we need to know him. To defeat our enemy we need to understand him and the way he works. We also need to understand the world, and ourselves. Learning discernment is one of the greatest challenges of our lives, but we are not left alone. The Holy Spirit has been given to us to help us. The challenge is to become like Jesus.

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