“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” (Keyser Soze – The Usual Suspects).
Sometimes for Christians the opposite is true where the devil is to blame for every negative experience in life. So the world views him as a bit of a joke and yet the bible take him seriously but what are his common tactics given that we are to neither underestimate or overestimate him ?
In Matthew 4:1-11 there’s a head on encounter between Jesus and the devil and we can assume he throws his best at Jesus. Let’s look at the punches he pulls and the nature of the fight we’re up against.
One common tactic is to punch in the guts where failure is keenly felt. The whole encounter is one big attempt to derail Jesus’ mission. Everything he throws at Jesus is designed to entice him to sin and thereby fail the test of perfect obedience to God and in turn fail to fulfil his role as the perfect saviour for sinful mankind.
The devil loves this. Derailing a Christian in their purpose and creating failure is one of his favourite moves. Creating opportunity for sin and inconsistency is all part of the lure. Even a minor failure in life can feel gut wrenching and can create real disappointment. A major fail will bring a world of pain and is enough to make someone doubt who they are before God.
This is why he also likes to get people on the ropes with a deluge of doubt. A similar tactic is adopted when the devil repeatedly uses the phrase ‘if you are the Son of God’ (4:3,6) inviting Jesus to either doubt this truth or retaliate.
Well the devil may not deal with us face to face but his tactic remains the same. Injecting doubt into the Christian’s mind is a powerful way to derail someone. The cracks of failure are enough for the devil to jump in and hurl his accusations of falsehood and fakery.
Furthermore the desire to prove ourselves and set the record straight is strong and so easily leads to sin. Misrepresentation is met with the urge to respond. This desire may be a legitimate desire for truth and justice but it’s easy to abuse power and position in order to set the record straight. This is what Jesus faced.
Another advance comes when the devil weaves between our weaknesses. The first of the three temptations in the passage comes when the devil makes the suggestion that Jesus should turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. In doing so though he would need to take advantage of his abilities as God’s son rather than relying on his Father’s provision. This is perfect timing as it comes after Jesus has fasted for forty days and he is weak physically and vulnerable to attack.
In a material world we are always exposed to this kind of temptation. We need our bread. We need our clothing and so the need is legitimate and sometimes desperate. We can understand the lengths people in poverty go to, to feed their children such is the nature of a broken world. In desperation sin and disobedience is an easier path to get to what we want or need.
At the same time we may also point out that this is also a weakness at the heart of our western world for how much is enough? Just a little bit more. We are likewise exposed by our own timing issue to be living in a period where so much is available and we always feel hungry for more.
So the devil is opportunistic and makes his move punching in the guts, weaving between our weaknesses and our common material needs are a playpark for the devil to bounce around in.
Another play (and to stretch the alliteration!) he will sometimes hit high which can be as startling as a punch in the face. It’s no mistake that this event comes hot on the heels of Jesus’ baptism and a significant moment where God affirms his identity. It’s true that he is lead by the Spirit of God to be tested but the devil is not slow to make his move within a short period of this high point. God does the testing but the devil does the temping.
One reason for this is because as we’ve highlighted the devil is unhappy with Jesus’ relationship with his Father and he is unhappy with anyone who is connected to God and has a strong awareness of their identity in him. He will naturally seek to tear down in these circumstances.
However another reason is because he will seek to strike when there is a chance of complacency and presumption. This may apply generally when things seem to be going well in life and we feel able and strong enough to handle anything but it also applies spiritually.
We know that pride comes before a fall and when we feel spiritually able as a result of a spiritual experience the devil is ready to take a swipe. Jesus of course never sinned in any of these examples but the devil had a go anyway. In the Christian life we have to be aware that there are dangers during spiritual lows and spiritual highs.
A fifth move is like a feinting punch where the devil makes a move one way but is actually going another. This is no great surprise as one who commonly uses lies and deception to lure people away from God.
In verses 5-6 he takes Jesus to the heights of the temple and asks him to jump because according to Psalm 91:11-12 he will be lifted up by angels and kept safe if he is God’s son. Not only is he giving Jesus his place on the temple but affirming him with scripture.
Except that’s not what Psalm 91:11-12 means for the devil conveniently omits a crucial clause that this idea applies to life in ‘all your ways’ not if you do something that is clearly unwise. As Robert Mounce writes;
“God promises providential care for life as we live it out not supernatural intervention when we jeopardize life in order to prompt him to action.”
This feigned punch is a threat on two levels. Twisted scripture that is misapplied can lead to foolish and dangerous behaviour. Sometimes destructive behaviour. As one who is intent on destruction this is right up the devil’s street. He is good at twisting and distorting scripture in people’s minds. Not too long ago I read a story about an Italian gentleman who literally gouged out his eye after hearing the Priest’s sermon about sin!
On another level though it leads to the testing of God. The devil is desperate for Jesus to prove himself not to God but to the devil himself. One tactic to achieve this role reversal is to have him put God to the test. The plot thickens because scripture encourages a certain type of testing of God but not the type that forces His hand to act according to a false understanding of His word.
So this feigned punch can lead the Christian down a rabbit hole of problems. Scripture that is misunderstood and promises that are misapplied lead to false expectations of God. When our expectations fail us and it goes horribly wrong it’s sometimes God who gets the blame and the individual is once again blown of track.
In the closing stages of the bout the devil shifts his feet and tries another attack with a classic sucker punch. He promises Jesus the world which is a big enough deal but as it rightfully belongs to the Lord the promise comes with a catch that he worship Satan in return taking the quickest and easiest route to success.
I wonder if you’ve ever felt that temptation in the Christian life. We want the glory but without the suffering. We want the sweetness of the morning without the darkness of the night. We want the rainbow without the rain. For Jesus the temptation was glory without the cross. He could have his kingdom now and bypass the agony of the cross if he worships the devil and ignores his Father’s plan. Where would that leave us?
So even Jesus was faced with the age old question. Does the ends justify the means? The sucker punch that draws people in. Can you sell out on obedience to God for a desired outcome. In life many would say yes but in that answer we sell a slice of our soul. Yet what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul (Mark 8:36)? Jesus wasn’t going to fall for this. How could he?
So these are some of the tactics that the devil used to try and derail Jesus and will no doubt use on the Christian. I’m not the kind of person who reads the devil into every detail in life and when I consider this encounter I’m glad of that.
The devil was maybe behind that flat tyre or he could’ve put that unhelpful person in my path. Maybe he did make me lose my phone or get in the way of that deadline. But I’ve got enough to think about in all of the above without second guessing other stuff!
I’m also glad because despite the focus of this piece the major take home point from the passage is not what the devil can do but what Jesus has done. Jesus succeeded in resisting and the devil fled. He is therefore our success.
When Jesus fights back with scripture he uses verses from Deuteronomy during a period when God’s people in the Old Testament failed spectacularly in the testing ground that was the wilderness wanderings.
Like us who have wandered in the wilderness of life they failed in their obedience and were in desperate need of a perfect saviour and so whilst it’s important to think through the devil’s tactics so as not to underestimate or overestimate him it is even more important to keep looking to the Lord and his perfect sacrifice that destroys the works of the devil.