Halloween, Jesus and giving the Devil his due

October 30th, 2015

This Halloween there will be plenty of opportunities to have our wits scared out of us by the usual array of haunted houses, horror flicks and devilish pranksters, but I wonder what a real encounter with El Diablo would be like if such a being exists. Curiously, the Bible's most famous story about an encounter with the Evil One suggests that it would not be some terrifying Exorcist-type situation, but something ostensibly friendly — perhaps even uplifting — yet insidious.

The story, as recounted in both Matthew's and Luke's gospels, is of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness by the Devil. The most insightful depiction of Jesus' temptations that I have ever seen is The Second Temptation by the English poet and painter William Blake.

Blake's painting depicts a pious-looking man with a great tan standing to the left of (pasty) Jesus. For all appearances, the man could be a Hebrew prophet like Moses or Elijah. He points up toward the heavens with one hand and down to the world's cities with the other. Jesus stands calmly to the right pointing in the same two directions. As I acknowledge in my new book, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (and Other Wanderers), if you did not know the painting was of Jesus' temptations you might not realize that the man on the left is the Devil. No horns, fangs, or pitchforks give him away, nor does his demeanor look the slightest bit sinister. If anything, the man looks earnest and sincere.

Here Blake displays his insight. Blake recognizes that someone with the spiritual stature of Jesus would be even less tempted by overt evil than we are. If you were the Devil and wanted to tempt someone like Jesus, you'd have to convince Jesus you were on his side while rolling out the biggest temptations you could possibly muster. All your temptations would have to be about doing good. Let's consider the specific goods Jesus was tempted by:

  • Turning stone into bread 
  • Ruling the world 
  • Performing impressive miracles

These temptations seem pretty harmless, don't they? If Jesus would base his ministry on turning stone into bread, he could not only feed himself (not a great temptation for the Messiah of God) but also feed all the hungry of the world. (Now we're talking!) If Jesus held all political power, the ego trip would not have been a significant temptation for Jesus, but imagine the temptation of being able to change a few of the world's laws, or directing public and private resources to their best use, or creating world peace? Then again, if Jesus could impress people with some extravagant public miracles, like jumping off the Temple roof and surviving, he may not find the boost in public esteem very tempting but surely the prospect of converting everyone and making them disciples would be. No longer would belief be necessary. Miracles would provide certainty.

While Jesus does feed the hungry, change the political equation and perform miracles, at various points in his ministry, at no point does he devote his entire effort to any one of them. While others may be legitimately called by God to devote their lives to these pursuits, each of them held the power to divert Jesus form his own particular calling, which is why the Devil chose them.

The problem is, there is a world of difference between doing good, and doing the specific good that you are called to do. We were created not simply to be good, but to be human, which ultimately means finding your "elemental waters," which are connected to God, and living into your fullest energies. You can (and will) do a lot of good by walking the path that brings you most fully alive in this world, but in order to stay on this path, you must learn to say "No" to doing a great many good things.

I have a minister friend who often observes that the question is not "Are you saved?" but "Are you used?" In other words, have you given yourself over to Life in such a way that you are willing to allow the Spirit to lead you on your path and bring you to fullness of life? Are you willing to move beyond the protestations of your logical, strategic mind, and your will to figure out everything for yourself, to follow where your soul yearns most deeply to travel in this world?

Many people never allow themselves the joy of following their best path because they think it would be too enjoyable, therefore selfish. They assume it is more godly and self-sacrificing to follow a path that is not central to their deepest yearnings, never considering that God has placed these yearnings within them for a reason. When the Christian scriptures speak of becoming a "new creation," what they mean is surrendering to God's intention for our lives by following the path of our greatest aliveness. When they speak of entering the kingdom of God, they refer to the place where your elemental waters reside and you engage with life wholeheartedly.

Halloween images of ghoulish monsters and devilish demons may be scary, but far more terrifying to me is the idea that one could die before ever having really lived in this world. No, if there is a Devil, I doubt he (or she) would appear before us Exorcist-style, but rather as an earnest person of faith who simply urges us to do good in response to the word's great needs — but the "wrong good" (for us) that has nothing to do with the particular good that brings us and the world alive.

Eric Elnes is a pastor, author, speaker and the host of Darkwood Brew. He's also the author of Gifts of the Dark Wood from Abingdon Press.

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