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Stifle the doubt demons

by
18 June 2021

Christ’s response to temptation shows us to how react when scripture is misused, Miranda Threlfall-Holmes writes

Brooklyn Museum/Alamy

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness by James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness by James Tissot (1836-1902)

THE story of Jesus being tempted shows that scripture can be used both for good and ill. It is perfectly possible to pick out accurate quotations from the Bible and utilise them for unhealthy and destructive purposes, as the character of the tempter does here. This passage demonstrates both the use and the misuse of scripture and gives us some important principles to exercise in telling them apart.

The temptations begin simply, with a basic appeal to two fundamental human needs: hunger and a sense of identity. The temptation is not simply to satisfy the very real hunger that Jesus would have felt after his fast, but also to satisfy the equally fundamental desire that we have as human beings to know who we are, and to have our identity and our value affirmed.

In fact, this question of identity, rather than simple hunger, is the main point of this temptation. Jesus has completed his fast in the desert at this point. There would be nothing at all wrong with him eating bread.

The point of the temptation is not that bread would be nice but should be resisted; it’s in that weaselly “if” at the beginning of the sentence: “If you are the Son of God . . . ” That “if” calls Jesus’s sense of identity into question.

It challenges him to test out the affirmation that he received at his baptism immediately prior to his time of fasting and prayer. This doubt-demon can destroy relationships — our relationship with God, and indeed human relationships.

 

IT’S the same voice that whispers inside our heads, “Do you really love me? Can you prove it to me, again? Will that assurance hold up if I check your phone?” Nothing will ever be enough to satisfy this line of questioning.

Assurances given will always be questioned; assurances repeated will be dismissed with, “Well you would say that, wouldn’t you?”

Our hunger for love and for the assurance of love is bottomless. In response to this whisper of self-doubt, Jesus reaches for a quote from Deuteronomy. As we saw in the previous section, although superficially the question and answer are both about bread, the deeper meaning of the quotation references the whole hinterland of Israel’s wilderness experience. In doing so, it answers not only the question about bread, but also this question about identity.

In reaching for a quotation from the Pentateuch, Jesus finds a firm place to stand in the tradition, history, and religious experience of his culture and context. It’s as if he is saying, “If I’m the Son of God? Well, I’m certainly a Son of Israel. This is my heritage, these are the promises I can claim and this is the greater story in which my own story takes on a wider meaning. My identity as a beloved child of God is unshakeable, because it rests on these firm foundations.”

Jesus uses scripture here as a firm foundation stone, a place to stand. We might be reminded of the parable of the wise and foolish builders who built their houses on rock and sand (Matthew 7:24−7).

Both looked like suitable houses, both had as much care taken in their construction, but when storms came only one was able to endure because of its firm foundations.

 

IT’S NOT incidental that the quotation Jesus reaches for here comes from the Pentateuch, those first five books of the Bible that were foundational for Jewish faith and self-understanding. Knowing your roots is important for being able to stand firm when your sense of identity is questioned. This in itself provides a good reason to read the Bible and be familiar with its core stories.

When all is going well, you may not feel you need it; but when things are difficult, having that foundation to stand firm on can be a lifeline. Here Jesus has managed to reaffirm his sense of identity with an appeal to a foundational story in the history of Israel. But then his confidence in scripture is itself questioned. It might be true that the Bible says that; but what about the fact that it also says this?

What I particularly want you to notice about the devil’s use of scripture here is that what is quoted is both accurate and true. It’s quite common to hear it said that the devil lies, or the devil twists scripture for his uses.

But that’s not what’s going on here. The psalm quoted (Psalm 91) is a beautiful poem about the assurance of God’s protection, and it is accurately quoted.

It’s not that the tempter has taken a quotation out of context or twisted it to mean the opposite of what it really says. The point is that we can tie ourselves up in knots so easily if we allow ourselves to be drawn into the game of playing one piece of the Bible off against another. Which has priority?

If the texts contradict each other, which is right? Effectively, the temptation is for Jesus to say “The Bible says it, so I believe it” and to be drawn into dramatic, self-destructive action to prove — to himself or to others — that he really does believe it.

And again, Jesus refers back to the Exodus narrative, part of the theological bedrock of his faith. Believing this, his identity is secure, and he has no need to demonstrate it, to himself or to anyone else who might be watching.

How often have you heard, when people are quoting the Bible, something like “If you are really a Christian . . .” or “If you really believed that the Bible is the word of God …”? Or it might be that it’s your own internal monologue that attacks you like this.

 

WHAT can we learn from how Jesus handles his conversation with the tempter, about how to handle these unhelpful voices and unhealthy uses of scripture? First, don’t waste time arguing about the accuracy or truth of a scriptural reference.

Sometimes these will be taken out of context or be based on mistranslations, but often they are completely accurate. It is true that Psalm 91 says what the devil quotes in our passage.

It’s true that parts of the Bible say that women should behave in certain ways, or that only certain relationships are acceptable, or that people with less than bodily perfection can’t serve God liturgically, or that violence is an acceptable answer to certain questions. Jesus models here saying: “Yes, that’s true, the Bible does say that, but this other perspective is also true, and this is more foundational for my faith.”

Remember that, when someone asks you what Jesus would do or say, replying “That’s true, but so is this, and for me this is foundational,” is a valid way to read the Bible. It is one that Jesus explicitly sanctions and models for us here.

Second, use your common sense. The vital question in our text is not whether this is truly something that the Bible says but whether Jesus should take a very specific dangerous action based on it. It’s remarkably liberating to realise that even Jesus doesn’t believe that you should always act on what the Bible literally says!

Just because Psalm 91 says ‘he will command his angels’ to protect you, doesn’t mean you should jump off a high building. What is healthy and life-giving in a given situation is a sensible — and, from this example, biblical — question to ask. What would Jesus do? Sometimes he’d tell the tempter to stop being stupid.

Third, be alert to any sentence that runs “If . . . then . . .”! Don’t act out of a desire to prove your love, or your faith, to anyone watching. Your relationship with God is more important than what anyone else thinks of it, or of you: you don’t need to prove it to anyone.

And, conversely, don’t act out of a desire to get God to prove to you that you are loved. Comparison is the enemy of joy. Resist the temptation to say to God, “If you loved me as much as you loved her, then . . .” or “If you’re really there and care about me, then . . .”

And finally, know where you stand. Spend time reading, reflecting on, and praying through the foundations of your faith — before you need it. Jesus has just spent a long silent retreat in the wilderness at this point. This hasn’t made him more vulnerable to temptation.

On the contrary, it has made him better able to withstand it, because he is immersed in his faith and sure of his roots. Spend time reading the Bible. Go on retreats. Pray. Be part of a church community. So that when the demons of self-doubt come whispering — as I can almost guarantee they will — you have the bedrock of your inheritance of faith on which to stand firm.

 

The Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes is Team Rector of St Luke in the City, Liverpool. This an extract from her book How to Eat Bread: 21 nourishing ways to read the Bible by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.99).

Read a review here.

Listen to an interview with her on the Church Times Podcast here.

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