Temptation: The Devil Is in the Details

Often when the topic of temptation is broached, the mention of the devil is usually right on its heels. Since he is a living being and outside of us, it is easy to look at him as temptation personified. While it is true he is called “the tempter,” the casual “the devil made me do it” is a poor excuse for any sin, and is at odds with reality (Jas 1:14). There is a sense in which we can give him more credit than he has earned. On the other hand, John warns that “the whole world is under the sway of the evil one” (1Jn 5:19).[1] Satan’s sin was that of self-exalting pride, desiring to be what God had not permitted. While we have noted that the flesh is that enemy which tempts from within, “the prince of the power of the air” is the enemy who attacks from above. While the world incites the desire “to have what I want,” and the flesh says, “I will do what I want,” the devil’s tempting whisper is that “I will be what I want.” His driving determination was this: “I will ascend above the highest clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa 14:14).

Our society urges us to respect “self-made” people and to espouse the misguided belief that each one can be what he/she wants.[2] Satan’s consuming desire to be self-made was his undoing. Let us not be caught off-guard; though he lost his position, he has lost none of his desire. He continues to encourage attitudes that despise God and exalt self from within our own hearts. The temptation John would later identify as “the pride of life” is what Eve experienced in “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” Satan’s temptation has ever been that I will, in fact, become a better, wiser, more enlightened and confident version of myself than I am now.

Since the tragedy in Eden, he schemes constantly to create within a lingering suspicion that God is withholding something good from us, namely, that He has prescribed us certain limitations because He feels somehow threatened by how powerful we might become should we reach “our full, unhindered potential.” A proud person will be the first to fall (again) to Satan’s temptation. In contrast, the humble seek and find refuge in God. Rather than the popular “rebuke the devil” motto, the Scriptures instruct us to resist him. However, the instruction to “resist the devil” is not a stand-alone command. Rather, it is paired with a corresponding and opposite response to God that involves “submitting” and “drawing near” to Him (Jas 4:7-8), “humbling yourselves” under Him and “casting all your cares on him” (1Pe 5:6).

While he attacks from above, the devil directs the gaze downwards. The result of looking down on someone else is that we feel elevated. Had Eve or Achan, David or Peter stopped to look upwards for a moment, their stories might have turned out very differently – and so would ours! Naturally, he will tempt us to want what we think is best for ourselves, which involves bypassing suffering, an integral part of following Christ (Mat 16:24). When Peter heard the Lord speaking of His own suffering and crucifixion to come, he strongly objected. “But He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s’” (Mat 16:23 NASB). The Lord indicts Peter for heeding Satan’s temptation to set the mind on one’s own interests and not on God’s. The believers in Thessalonica were experiencing the trial of suffering and Paul was “fearing that the tempter had tempted [them]” (1Th 3:5). He was greatly encouraged to hear that their faith was holding fast in the midst of suffering and the hour of temptation. We need to be reminded of this threat when we face or anticipate suffering.

Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Ephesians that Satan and his hosts of demons mean business, and the believer should take the threat seriously. “Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens. For this reason take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand” (Eph 6:11-13). When we recognize how formidable is our foe, we might be tempted to despair. However, “even if Satan does turn on the heat, your Father in Heaven keeps His almighty hand on the thermostat!”[3]

In military conflicts, the battle consists of more than incoming mortar shells; it also involves a war of information. Propaganda, hacking of intelligence data, signal interference, and satellite networks all combine to make the attack more effective. Satan is seasoned at using information to levy his attacks at the mind level, willing even to weaponize Scripture itself[4] in order to redirect our hearts’ affections. “The enemy of our souls will gladly give you your formal Christianity, your formal theology, even give you Biblical literacy … if he can capture and control your heart.”[5] Paul exhorts believers under attack to “in every situation take up the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph 6:16), directed at our hearts and minds.

The New Testament points out some of the minefields that can trip up a believer and leave him exposed to the devil’s tempting schemes: conceit of position (1Ti 3:6-7), unresolved anger (Eph 4:26-27), marital separation (1Co 7:5) or lack of forgiveness (2Co 2:10-11). “The deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9 ESV) whispers, “I will be what I want.” In view of this temptation, the antidote prescribed is humility before God.

[1] Bible quotations in this article are from the CSB unless otherwise noted.

[2] Undoubtedly Satan is exploiting psychological insecurities and trauma, and a desire to belong, to further the troubling personal identity politics agenda so prevalent today.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Mature (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1978), 27.

[4] In Eve’s case, he first cast doubt on God’s Word before openly denying its truth. In the Lord’s temptation he says, “It is written” in an attempt to legitimize his unholy treatment of the Holy Scriptures.

[5] Paul David Tripp, The Connecting Podcast, 2023 September 8, Episode 23.