The Devil's in the Details: The Purpose of Our Privilege
Not too long ago I was helping my son with Algebra. I discovered that he was struggling not because of a failure to grasp the concept, but due to an inattention to detail. By forgetting to change one sign that should have been changed, he ended up subtracting when he should have added. The error continued to compound until he ended up with an answer that was significantly different than the answer he should have reached. He was wrong not because he was ignorant of the concept, but because he failed to pay attention to detail. It reminded me of one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Scarborough, who taught me AP U.S. Government at Columbus High School. A saying he was fond of using when speaking of how theory translates to practice was, “the devil’s in the details.” I don’t think Mr. Scarborough had the temptation of Jesus in mind when he used the phrase, but the origins of the saying could very well derive from Jesus’s time in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness where the devil tries to subtly offer Jesus a narrative that undercuts his identity. By simply tweaking one idea or passage, the devil attempts to change the outcome, all the while offering a way of thinking that does not appear to be wrong. We see in the wilderness the devil employing deceptions that sound right, but are intended to lead Jesus to the wrong place. In my next three posts, I want us to explore each of the deceptions that the devil used to try to divert Jesus from the path that led to our salvation, in order that we ourselves, as followers of Jesus, might be equipped to deal with similar deceptions that seek to keep us from following the way of Christ.
And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:3-4 ESV)
Deception #1: Privilege is to be exploited for our own benefit
The devil seeks to question Jesus’s identity straight away, and in the process provoke Jesus to “prove” himself. Surely the Son of God should never go hungry! Surely the Son of God can use his power to feed himself! What’s the point of being the Son of God if you can’t perform a miracle to make life easier for yourself from time to time? Can you imagine the hunger that Jesus is experiencing? Experience has taught me that the old suggestion to never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry is sage advice. When you have skipped lunch earlier in the day, everything looks good! You find yourself buying one, or two, or three of everything as you go up and down each aisle.
The devil tempts us in this same way. He entices us with luxury, or causes us to fixate on our needs until we forget that God put us here to do more than eat and drink. To be sure, our privilege is of a different type than Jesus’s. But that is not to say that we are completely lacking in status. Indeed, the Gospel of John tells us that those of us who have received Jesus and believed in his name, are given “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). What we see with Jesus is that, rather than falling prey to the devil’s attempts to create insecurity concerning his identity, he counters Satan’s deceptions with reality.
Reality #1: Jesus’s calling, and ours, is to use our privilege not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others
Jesus focuses not so much on his own physical needs, as he does on fulfilling his calling. Elsewhere, when the disciples wonder where Jesus has gotten food to satisfy his hunger, he tells them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). It tells us something about the nature of Jesus that he refuses to use his power to feed himself, and yet later when he sees a multitude hungry, he miraculously turns five loaves and two fish into a feast that feeds thousands. We imitate Jesus when we resist the world’s attempts to turn our focus inward to our own desires, and instead look to the needs of those around us.
The theologian Miroslav Volf speaks of Christians as conduits of God’s grace, as a people who are called to allow God’s blessings to flow through us. An easy way to envision this is by thinking of something we all do several times a day. When you walk into a dark room to wake up a sleeping child, or when you begin the work day in your office, the first thing you do is flip the light switch. When the switch is off, the circuit is broken and the electricity is prevented from flowing to the light. However, when you turn the switch on, the circuit is no longer broken and the flow of electricity is restored. In Matt 4, the devil is trying to get Jesus to break the circuit, to stop the flow of God’s blessings.
Satan will try to convince us to flip off the switch as well. Paul knows this when he writes to the Philippians, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4). To drive the point home, he then shares with them the Christ hymn, which tells of the Christ who humbled himself by taking on the form of a servant, and who was obedient to the point of death. If we want to overcome the deceptions of a devil who is in the details, we must keep our gaze firmly fixed on the Christ of the cross.