Our trials can bring us closer to God or mire us in ourselves

Liz Stuart, 26 February 2023

Romans 5: 12–19; Matthew 4: 1–11

I wonder, if you think about it at all, how you picture the devil/Satan. Perhaps you think of a goat-like creature of reddish hue with a forked tail and sporting horns, a brooding fallen angel, or maybe you go for the Genesis model of a snake? Or maybe for you Satan wears the face of a human who to you represents evil?

I wonder if any of you imagine Satan in a barrister’s wig and gown – perhaps only if you have just had to pay a legal bill! I had a friend who was so upset with his solicitor over something to do with a house purchase that he would obsessively watch Jurassic Park over and over again just so he could enjoy the fact that the first person eaten by a dinosaur is a lawyer. My boss at the university is a lawyer and I know some of you are or have been, so I just want to say that I think lawyers are great.

But I also want to suggest that the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park may have had a point in that there is something of the lawyer in the way in which scripture depicts Satan. Most scholars believe that the Hebrew ‘Satan’ means adversary, accuser or opponent. If you remember the Book of Job, Satan is depicted as having access to God’s court, with the role of testing the righteous (with God’s permission). The Book of Revelation describes him as the accuser who stands before God day and night, accusing those who belong to Christ.

So, the image of Satan as King’s Counsel is not too far off the mark, and it is the image we may have in our head when we hear our gospel reading today. We are told that Jesus was led out by the Spirit to be periasthenai, which can be translated as ‘tempted’ but also as ‘tried’ or ‘tested’. God is allowing Jesus to be put to the test by the prosecuting lawyer.

For 40 days the devil tests Jesus in the same way that for 40 years the people of Israel were tested in the desert – by hunger, by putting God to the test and by idolatry. Sweeping from the lowlands of the desert to the heights of the mountains, Jesus is tested as to what kind of Messiah he will be – one in love with himself and with worldly power, or one obedient to the will of the Father whose modus operandi will be self-sacrifice.

Jesus defeats the trials of Satan, just as Job did. And that is the thing about Satan in his role as prosecutor: God allows him to test but does not allow him to win. He gets booted out of court after unsuccessful attempts. In the gospel of Luke Jesus says that he ‘saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning’, and the author of the Book of Revelation heard a voice from heaven say that the accuser of our brethren has been ‘thrown down’. So why, when Satan will never win, does God allow him to test people, including his own Son?

We tend to think of testing in academic terms, passing (or failing) an exam of sorts. But when the scriptures and tradition speak of testing, they tend to speak of it in terms of refining, as in the refining of silver and gold to remove impurities through a melting process.

The image of Satan as prosecuting lawyer, serving to refine those he tests through his endeavours, may have been our ancestors in faith’s way of making sense of the curved balls that life throws at us. The sort of events that shake the foundations of our lives and leave us caught between a past that has collapsed and a future which had not yet been seeded. The sort of spaces that create deserts or wilderness days, months or years.

The image of Satan as prosecuting lawyer, serving to refine those he tests through his endeavours, may have been our ancestors in faith’s way of making sense of the curved balls that life throws at us.

For it is a truth that we may have no choice in what life throws at us. But we always have the choice in how we respond (though it may not always feel like it), and the choices we make in how we respond can refine us or mire us. They can bring us closer to God or mire us in ourselves.

And it seems that sad and difficult experiences often present the greatest tests, the greatest opportunities for refinement; which is not to say that God sends them to us, but that life presents them and God can help us use them to refine. It is in this sense that Tim Farrington, in a brilliant theological reflection on depression, can say that if we are lucky, we will be ‘graced with the disaster our soul requires to find its way home’. It is not who God sends it, but God can use it.

This does not just apply to us as individuals but as Church and society. I was deeply struck last week by the words of Judge Graham Wilkinson in Wolverhampton to the defendants in the Just Stop Oil cases (just to prove that I don’t have it in for lawyers!). Here was a man who while upholding the rule of law chose to say something about the climate crisis which demonstrated his commitment to truth, mercy and justice. Every day the Church and our national institutions and those who represent them are presented with issues, people and crisis, and every day they are tested by them – will they respond with love, grace and justice or not?

In the gospel of John Jesus promises that after he goes the Paraclete, the Advocate or helper, will come. This figure is like our defence lawyer in the court, and it is the Paraclete who will turn the tables on Satan. This aspect of the Holy Spirit is available to assist us when we need guidance on how to react to situations. It will help us use what life throws us to refine rather than mire us.

Every day we are faced with choices – choices about whether to react to situations with love, joy, grace, faith, forgiveness or trust; or with negativity, fear, distrust, anger, bitterness or despair. It is easier to the choose the former if we know that ultimately these things will win over the latter, and that is what our faith gives us, that surety that Jesus has secured the future to be one in which the Advocate always defeats Satan.