Facing the Demon

During Lent, Christians are meant to emulate Christ’s time in the desert, wrestling with temptation. Many of us have given up something for Lent, usually something we desire enough that this next 40 days will be challenging. Others have decided to take on a new activity, to do some extra good in the world. Lent is a time of stretching, and like any physical exercise, a spiritual stretch often results in some discomfort.  

Hearing the scripture passage today, you may have wondered why we must suffer when Christ deals with his temptations so easily. We hear that the Devil appears and tempts Jesus three times. This is meant to remind us of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden. The devil starts by tempting Jesus with food. That worked last time with the first humans, it’s worth a try with this new guy, too. But Jesus just quotes some scripture back at Satan – “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”  

So, Satan ups the stakes. He flies Jesus up to the top of a mountain, where they can see every kingdom in the world. People back then were not any less intelligent than us. They knew that there would be no way to see every city, every kingdom from one mountain top.[1] But Jesus has been fasting for 40 days, long enough for his human side to hallucinate. So, if these last two temptations seem fantastic, don’t worry. The scenes are a clue that this drama is about what is happening in Christ’s mind more than in the world.  

Why does the devil tempt him in this way? In the Old Testament, Satan isn’t a proper name, but a role. He is the Opposer, the being who tells you to do the opposite of what you want. A kind of spiritual loyal opposition. Today I would like to suggest that we see the devil as Christ’s inner demon. A personal demon, the one who says and thinks the things that Christ is not allowed to think or do himself.  

Jesus has been baptized, filled with the holy Spirit to offer God’s salvation to all who will take it. To do this, Jesus will need to love humanity, and use his miraculous powers to heal all manner of people. His job is to do this on God’s behalf. But his Satan suggests another possibility: use these powers for yourself. Don’t go hungry, turn these stones into bread. Show off: jump off the temple roof in front of all the religious folks down below and show how great you are when angels catch you. Be your own ruler be the emperor of every kingdom on earth, own harems, command armies, invade any country you want. You have all these amazing powers – why not just use them for your own gain?  

Of course, we have a hard time identifying with these temptations.  None of us is tempted to turn stones into food, or to take over countries, or get God to save us if we walk out into traffic. So, what do these temptations have to do with us? Nothing and everything. It’s true, if Satan showed up in our lives, these wouldn’t be our temptations. We’d have different ones. Each of us have our inner voices that tell us to do things we know are against the rules. Psychologists call this our shadow.[2] The desires we don’t want to admit to. Some of them can be awful – sexual desires that might hurt someone else, often a hangover of personal trauma in our past. Or perhaps a deep burning hatred of another kind of person, based on race or sexuality. Perhaps we present as straight, but we are really gay, but we aren’t ready to admit it to ourselves or anyone else. There’s nothing wrong with being gay, but you may not believe that. In many countries even now, including Russia,[3] being gay can be very dangerous, so keeping that suppressed may be a survival strategy.  

Everyone is forced to make choices about the identity we present to the world. And that means suppressing some aspects of ourselves. We want to be seen as together, professional, in control of ourselves. Many religious people throughout the centuries have presented themselves as pure, certainly more pure than other people around them. To do this, they deny they even have those ugly thoughts inside them. They deny that they any personal demons at all.  

But there’s a cost to this attitude. If a person thinks they have no inner demons, and no sinning nature, then they must be superior to the people who they see sinning. The sinless person is better than the sinner. That’s just logical. So, some people are great, and others are inferior. And if that’s the case, then the world would be better off with people who are strong, self controlled and pure being in charge. Those perfect people should do everything they can to take over places that are run by sinners. That was Vladimir Putin’s logic for invading Ukraine. He told the world that Ukraine is ruled by Neo Nazi drug dealers[4] – a government devoted to polluting and abusing the people. Hitler wanted to preserve the purity of the Aryan race and was afraid of racial mixing with Jews and others. Lynching’s of Black people in the United States usually started with the fear that a Black man had made sexual advances towards a white woman. The man was killed because he posed a risk to the white race. [5]  

Anytime someone starts to talk about moral purity, watch out. Because you can’t be a little bit pure. It’s all or nothing. And this attitude isn’t just found in political leaders and their followers. Normal people like us can also harbour this idea that we’re sinless, that there are no demonic voices inside. The town gossip is certain only other people are sinning, not them. That’s why it is so easy to talk about other people’s faults. It may seem harmless, but anyone who grows up in a small town knows that gossip can be toxic. In the age of social media, gossip has become even more potent, especially for kids in high school. They can feel like their entire life has been destroyed by online bullying. The root of all of this is the certainty that we are qualified to talk about other people’s faults because we are sinless by comparison.  

As Christians, we look to Jesus as the story of the one person in history who was truly without sin. The lamb of God, without spot or stain. The pure one. But notice what happens in the desert.  

Jesus has his demon. He is presented with the sins that could destroy his whole ministry. Satan tempts him to use his powers in a selfish way. Feed yourself, rule the world, make God catch you in front of everyone.  

Be selfish. Jesus is able to put aside each of these temptations by reasserting that he is obedient to God. Jesus may sound like a big bore here by quoting scripture, but this is actually critical psychologically. If someone tempts you to be selfish, responding by quoting yourself isn’t the answer. When we are selfish, we think we have all the answers. So, Christ’s only defense against the threat of selfishness is to defer to a higher power. He quotes the Bible as his external rock, his external guide. He is not in this just for himself, he will be acting on God’s behalf. That’s why he speaks in scripture back to his Satan. This same logic is present in twelve step programs – the second step is to realize there is a higher power who can help us.[6]  

So, what happens after you defeat your demon? Are you pure now, ready to live without demons? After the Satan fails to tempt Jesus, there’s no big argument. Jesus doesn’t tell Satan he is disgusting or evil. He calmly says no, three times. And then the Satan simply goes away. That may sound like Jesus is done with his devil, like he’s conquered the devil and now he is pure. But Luke’s gospel says that the devil goes away, to wait for an opportune time. So, Christ’s demon hasn’t disappeared, he will still be around, waiting to try again. And that’s key. Even Christ doesn’t get a chance to completely purify himself of the presence of his Satan. The opposer will still be with him, tempting him to fail.    

And if you think about what happens next, Jesus is not free of demons, but spends the next few years surrounded by them. Everywhere he goes, he is confronted by demons. He is constantly giving people exorcisms. But the way Jesus treats these demons is not with anger and derision. Jesus treats demons like wasps who have flown into a house. They are simply in the wrong place. Jesus doesn’t hate demons, he has quite cordial talks with them. They are often the only beings who know who he really is. Jesus does not hate demons, or the people possessed by them. And the people who have given into their demonic impulses? Jesus has dinner with sinners all the time. He has no problem consorting with people who have demons in charge.  

The only people Jesus is really frustrated by are the Pharisees – the people who claim that they are religiously pure. And that’s the key to understanding the psychological truth of what happens in the desert. Jesus is confronted by his own personal demons, and he resists them. But because he has wrestled with his own demons, he is then able to relate to people who have demons of their own.  

Jesus shows us that if you want to be loving in the world, you have to admit to yourself that you have demons. Once you can recognize your own inner demons, it is much easier to spot them in others, and be sympathetic. The irony is that Jesus shows us that the spiritual path is not about achieving purity but about being willing to live with demons, your own and others.’ Having resisted his demons, Christ doesn’t isolate himself from demons, as though he is above all of that. His love of humanity means that he plunges himself into a world where demons are everywhere. Not to be hated, but to be addressed.  

True spiritual growth is about accepting that we are not perfect, and neither is anyone else. Looking inside and hearing the voices you hope no one else can hear is a very healthy activity. Some of them you must never act on. But once you can admit that you have these tendencies, then you will be much more sympathetic to others who may have been overtaken by the same voices. Their problems could be yours in different circumstances. That could be your addiction, your bar fight, your affair, your tax evasion, your gambling debts. The people who act on their voices are not so different from you. If you’re really honest with yourself, you may recognize that your resistance could buckle at some time in the future. That suffering person, that sinner, may be you ten years from now. When you see people this way, it is like a kind of spiritual x-ray vision. You see the whole person, not just the bad behaviour. But this kind of compassionate perspective is only sincere when we admit our own dark side.  

This is why we have Lent. Because we don’t want to do this work of facing our demonic voices and impulses. Our racism, our sexism, our perversions, and even good aspects of ourselves which we have suppressed. During Lent, we are encouraged to give something up because it will cause us to experience some inner turmoil. That resistance, when we are hungry or missing some favourite habit, reminds us that it is important to build up the moral muscles that can resist those bad voices in us. The impulses that are always waiting for an opportune moment. When we realize we have those inside us, we can act in love and solidarity with others whose demons have taken control for a while.  

When Putin invaded Ukraine, he claimed the government was run by Neo-Nazi drug dealers. The charge was ridiculous. The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is a Jew. A recent prime minister was also a Jew. [7]This is not a Neo-Nazi government. Putin, who projects an image of an invincible fearless leader now looks like a cold-hearted Nazi in his invasion of Ukraine. This often happens when we deny our demons – everyone else can see our demons but us.  

In this conflict, we also see what happens when someone faces demons.  

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy was a professional comedian before he became President. Comedians make us face the voices inside us we would rather ignore.  

They hold our faces to the mirror and show us that we aren’t as perfect as we think we are. They invite us to laugh at our darker nature, and our hypocrisy. And now, as Russian soldiers shell civilian apartment buildings, President Zelenskyy has not demonized those soldiers. He has spoken to them as confused, vulnerable human beings. He has offered them money to surrender and go home. He realizes they are just regular human beings, capable of tremendous harm, but also of salvation. Human beings who have been misled, not monsters.  

All of us have demons within us, who are waiting to take control. The paradox is that to subdue these demons, we have to admit they are there. When we admit our imperfections, then we can love the world. Not as pure angelic beings, but as human beings like everyone else. If Christ can carry demons with him, so can we.    


[1] Origen, On First Principles, Book IV, 3:1. [2] Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, 1991. [3] https://www.equaldex.com/region/russia [4] https://www.businessinsider.com/putin-calls-ukraine-government-drug-addicts-neo-nazi-disinformation-2022-2 [5] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, p. 8. [6] https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/twelve-steps-of-alcoholics-anonymous [7] https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/russias-attack-ukraine-through-lens-history