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)
Here we see the devil employing one of his oldest and most trusted techniques: manipulation. The devil clearly attempts to manipulate Jesus, using apparently innocent questions and suggestions backed up by carefully selected (and admittedly confusing) Bible passages to get Jesus to pursue a certain course of action. The devil wants to be able to trick Jesus into doing something which he believes has the potential to discredit Jesus and his Father, but even if it does not achieve that result, then at least to place Jesus into a position where consciously or unconsciously he is doing the devil’s will.
Manipulation is a strategy for control that the devil delights in. It is a behaviour that is easily observed in the interactions of the people we see around us, indeed, even in ourselves and those closest to us. We get angry when we feel we are being manipulated. We are horrified when we realise we are manipulators ourselves. We see manipulation in many areas of life, from relationships to advertising, from politics to entertainment. In each case manipulation is a way that people use to get others to do what they want. Sometimes the outcome is relatively harmless but often it is deeply disturbing. It can be frighteningly destructive, because the desired outcome of manipulation is control, and control means power, and power can easily be abused.
In the third temptation we see the devil trying to exploit Jesus’ uncertainty about whether the Father loves him, and whether the Father is able to save him. He uses a well known Psalm to sow doubt into Jesus’ mind. It didn’t work well with Jesus, because Jesus was secure in the Father’s love. The uncertainty the devil was hoping to exploit was simply not there. But such attacks often hit home when they are employed against us, because we are not so secure in the Father’s love. We are not sure that the Father has our best in his heart and mind.
Our deepest desire is to be loved. To be loved by God and to be secure in that love meets our most profound need. God goes to great lengths to communicate that love, and when we believe it and receive it into our lives there is the potential for us to be transformed. But despite God’s efforts we feel unsure. As such, we are fair game for the devil who wants to take us from unsure to unbelieving. He goes to great lengths to prevent or destroy faith in the Father’s love and goodwill. He uses our deepest anxieties, tries to awaken doubt in our hearts. He points to circumstances and says that they are evidence that God has abandoned us. He highlights God’s apparent silence, or inactivity, and uses it to discredit God. He encourages us to put God to the test, to see if he is really there.
But if we give in, if we put God to the test in response to the whisperings of the devil we are adopting Satan’s strategies. We are attempting to manipulate God, to get him to do what we want him to do, to do what we think he should do. We say to God, “if you really loved me you would …. “ (insert something relevant to you). But this is manipulation and it is no more right when we use it to control God than when we use it to control those we meet in our everyday lives.
God will not be controlled however, indeed cannot be controlled. Ultimately he is the one who decides. And when we cry out to God and he does not respond in the way we ask, the devil exploits our disappointment to cast even greater doubt on the love and power of God. He uses our reactions to turn us against God.
Evangelists and preachers have often been accused of manipulation, and there is no doubt that some religious leaders do use manipulative techniques to get people to act or behave in a certain way, just as political leaders do. Manipulation, when it is used as a method of control (and it is seldom used for any other purpose), is just as wrong when it is used with religious goals as it it when it is used for political goals.
I can imagine an objection: isn’t control of others important to maintain order and decency? Don’t people need to be controlled to create a manageable society? When the devil attempted to elicit Jesus’ worship by offering him authority over the kingdoms of the world, wasn’t he really doing a good thing for the world, giving Jesus control? Surely Jesus in control of the world would make it a better place.
Here we see the fundamental difference between Jesus and the devil. The devil wants to control people but God wants them to be free to choose. The devil wants people to behave in certain ways and will offer them any amount of good things to get them to do so, or alternatively threaten them with any amount of bad for the same reason. God, on the other hand, also wants people to behave in a certain way, but he does not force them, either with threats of bad or promises of good, in order to achieve that end. God simply says, I love you, and then waits for us to respond to his love. He does not threaten to withdraw his love if we do not behave that way. He does not offer us more love if we do. He loves us all, each and every one, the same. He loves us enough to die for us, but he never tries to force us to love him back. God tries to get us to change our way of life by loving us. The devil tries to get us to change by controlling us.
Often people ask the question, how could a loving God allow such things to happen? The answer is in some ways simple, even if it is confusing. God allows such things to happen because he loves us. If his way of relating to us was one of control rather than love, he would not allow such things to happen, because they are not consistent with his original plans and purposes for the world. But then we would not be free. And God’s greatest desire for us is freedom. He wants us to love him, but he will never force us to love him. He wants us to worship him, but he wants us to choose to do so. He wants us to behave in certain ways but he gives us the freedom not to.
We live in a world which is divided along religious lines. A large part of the world has been impacted by this God that Jesus showed us and of which the Bible speaks. That part of the world is sometimes called “the free world,” which is interesting. Why is it free? I believe it is because people there experience a freedom that comes from a God who wants us to be free. Non believers seem often to attribute this freedom not to God and the Bible but to evolution, the idea that humanity is constantly developing toward a better state. Such a concept is hard for me to accept. If evolution is such a powerful force for good, why do we not see it all around the world? Has the West climbed further up the evolutionary ladder than those in other parts of the world, and if so why? If evolution is random, surely every part of the world would have come the same distance as every other part. If the freedom we see in the West is better, a higher form of life – for the long term survival of the human species that is – then why have the billions who live in the non-west not simply died out, being of a lower life form, not conducive to survival?
Evolution is not a satisfying explanation for me of why things are the way they are. It doesn’t make sense.
The world I see around me is testimony to the existence of a God, revealed by Jesus, who loves the world, and who offers freedom rather than slavery. It is distressing to see increasing numbers in the West using their freedom to deny or denounce God, but God allows that. It is distressing to see people manipulating and controlling and oppressing others for their own ends. God allows such things because he is committed to freedom, and if he were to intervene he would need to take away that freedom, at least for some.
No, God does not control. He loves. He asks us to respond to his love, not his threats. He does not try to manipulate us into loving him. He speaks into our lives, he acts in our lives, and he waits for us to respond. If we don’t, then he pursues us with his love. But if we keep rejecting his love he eventually backs off. God will not force us.
There is suffering in the world. There is pain. We don’t understand it. The devil tries his best to convince us that freedom from suffering is the evidence of God’s love, and therefore logically speaking, suffering indicates the absence of God’s love. The life of Jesus challenges us to think differently, challenges us to believe that God’s love exists in the midst of the pain, that the presence or absence of pain is not a reliable indicator of the absence or presence of God’s love.
Indeed if we say yes to God’s love I believe we can endure the pain and suffering. I believe that deep down humans long for love more than they long for freedom from suffering. Ultimately I believe that love is more important to us than comfort. God confronts us with his love, he pursues us with his love, through the trials and tears of life. He relieves our pain, but does not always remove it. He dries our tears and comforts us in our suffering, but he does not guarantee a life free of them. He asks us to trust him even in the midst of our questions and fears.
There are important principles for us here as we confront the problem of pain and suffering in the world, whether we are professional health carers or just ordinary Christians, whether we employ “natural” or “supernatural” methods of healing. Both of these are important, for various reasons. We are called to relieve the suffering of others and to show God’s power over sickness. But these are not our primary calling. Our primary calling is to love. Even if I can heal all sicknesses, even if I can dismiss every pain, if I do not love I am nothing. The doctor who heals without love is nothing. The healer who heals without love is nothing. The healing has value in itself, but it will not make either the recipient or the giver into better people. Love is more important than healing.
Jesus resisted manipulation by the devil. He said no to the devil’s temptation to manipulate the Father. Jesus was not and is not a manipulator. The devil was and is. Jesus tries to change us by loving us. The devil tries to change us by manipulating us. Jesus is committed to our freedom, while the devil is committed to controlling us.
Are we people of manipulation and control, or love and freedom?