Faith Matters

To whom shall I listen? - the challenge of resisting temptation

In a Lent reflection, Fr Edward O'Donnell considers temptation and the reality of the devil

The temptations of Christ, as imagined in a 12th century mosaic at St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

THE Scriptures of the First Sunday of Lent told of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve, and of the temptation of Jesus during his forty day fast in the desert.

Both these narratives confront us with a question which is fundamental, not only for Lent, but for our whole lives. That question is: "To whom shall I listen?"

Pope Francis has remarked: "The presence of the devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the devil, and with the victory of God over the devil."

The story of the fall of Adam and Eve is from the first pages of the Bible, and describes the devil as "most subtle"; that of the temptation of Jesus speaks of him as "the tempter".

A striking feature of both readings is the polite conversational tone of the devil - this is not some raging evil beast with horns and fiery eyes. This is a remarkably courteous individual, gently asking questions and making suggestions.

And when you think about it, isn't that our own personal experience of the devil? We are seduced by gentle suggestions, politely whispered in our ears. There is a Chinese proverb that says: "The whisperer's tongue is worse than a serpent's venom."

If we compare the scene of Adam and Eve in the garden with that of Jesus in the desert, we learn something very important.

In the garden, Eve, and through her, Adam, enter into a conversation with the devil; they have a dialogue.

Ever so gently, the devil seduces them into thinking that if they don't listen to God they will be like God, and, consequently, have no need for God; they themselves can decide what is "good and evil".

How true that proverb we find in the Bible which says: "The words of a whisperer are tasty morsels that go right down into the belly" (Proverbs 18: 8).

Now look at how Jesus deals with the devil. He decisively rejects all the devil's temptations - but note how he does it.

He refuses to have a conversation with the devil; he doesn't dialogue as Adam and Eve did.

Jesus shows us that the devil is so subtle and cunning one can't dialogue with him.

Instead, Jesus invokes the Word of God and responds with the power of this Word.

This is something that we must take to heart; in the moment of temptation if we seek to reason with the devil, he, the "Master of Lies", will get the better of us. If we listen to his beguiling whispers, if we look at, and smell, his "tasty morsels", we will fall, as did Adam and Eve.

Perhaps some are wondering, "Why all this talk about the devil?"

The reason is, there are those who maintain that the devil is only a myth, a colourful way of explaining evil in the world, and that all the stories about the devil are the stuff of legend.

The Christian response to this is: "Don't be so naïve - he is real." We have the word of Jesus for it; we have the witness of the scriptures; we have the experience of the Church; and we can see with our own eyes the work of humanity's oldest foe - a world seduced by evil. We know too that being in the Church is no guarantee of immunity.

We must not risk listening to the devil. Jesus listened only to his Father; we defend ourselves from the enemy by doing the same.

With Jesus we cry out: "Be off, Satan. 'The Lord, your God, shall you listen to, and him alone shall you serve.'"

The temptations that the devil ever so courteously whispered to Adam and Eve, and to Jesus, were all aspects of a single temptation, and the temptations we face are aspects of that same one temptation.

All temptations have exactly the same aim; they are not merely trying to entice us to commit this or that sin.

They are trying to distract us from the path of God, to cause us to turn away from God, to deny our birthright as children of God, which was so graciously given us by God in our Baptism.

It is the devil's sole aim to thwart God's purpose, and convince us that we alone are our own best judges as to what is truth. The "Master of Lies" espouses only deceit.

As we journey into this Lent let us do so in the friendship of Jesus - confident, as Pope Francis says, that he walks with us, speaks to us, breathes with us, works with us.

Let us be convinced that Jesus is alive with us in everything we do. May our never ceasing prayer be his Holy Name, held in our hearts, in our minds, and in our souls.

"Lord Jesus, you are the Way, the Truth, and the Life; in you alone do I place my trust." Amen.

:: Fr Edward O'Donnell is parish priest of St Brigid's in Belfast. He is also an Ecumenical Canon of St Anne's Cathedral in the city.

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