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Helmut Thielicke on the Tacticts of Temptation

4 January, 2010
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Click to read about Thielicke as a preacher

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matt 4:1-3)

Temptation always arises in a concrete situation in our life. And yet it must be noted that even the brutally physical side of life is not the ultimate ground of temptation. The ultimate ground is the still deeper, still more real reality of our communion with God and our break with God. This reality, that our communion with God is lost or jeopardised — that we are wandering in exile (prodigal sons) and our lives are no longer rooted in God — is the true ground of all temptation, the cause of our being tempted, beaten and broken. Beside this reality, those other external realities — for instance, brutal threats to our physical existence, sickness, hunger, the thousand strains to which we are subjected — are only opportunities for that abysmal power to break in; they are only the means utilised by the tempter of Job and of Jesus Christ and of all the prophets and the children of men. And the earthly ministers of this great adversary are also very willing to use this means at all times and places, ‘tightening the belt’, using the instruments of terror and the threat to existence, in order to tempt the servants of God. But those means could not affect us if we were not temptable, if we did not live in an age which is on its way from the Fall to the Judgment.

That is the great lesson taught us by the hunger of our Lord; that the tempter takes hold of him through his concrete life and not through sophisticated theoretical questions. At this point we can only recognise reverently and with consoling certainty how deeply God plunged him into the flesh; for it is in this his flesh, in his and our body, that he experiences temptation; it is here, and not in his head which touches the stars that the crisis begins in his communion with God. At no point does Jesus’ temptation come so near to us as here. A temptation which consisted merely of feelings and ideas would remain foreign to us. For different people have different feelings and ideas. But everyone knows or can guess what hunger and bodily necessity are, what pain and the fear of death are. As our brother, Jesus Christ underwent temptation to set us an example; he learnt to know pain and temptation from his body, from the ‘problem of existence’.

He has lived before us and suffered before us.

Temptation due to the great realities, blows of fate, injustices, earthquakes, wars, revolutions — he endured all this in that hour. This temptation consisted in the failure of God to answer, in the great silence surrounding God, who kept him waiting‘senselessly’ in the hour of hunger, and did not raise bread for him out of the stones.

‘God keeps silence!’”that is the great temptation in those realities….

Can it be possible that God would keep silent — if he really were God?

‘If there is a God, he must give you bread now. . . . If you are the Son of God, then you must now be able to tell these stones to become bread.’

What is of decisive importance in this new thought is that the devil takes his stand on the basis of facts. He takes his stand, with cool effrontery, on the basis of God’s existence. The serpent in paradise did that when it posed the tempter’s question: ‘Hath God said”?’ The question means this: ‘Dear Eve, we will not argue about God. He is a fact with which we must reckon (the words drip like balm into Eve’s pious soul!). I won’t argue with you either as to whether he really spoke, whether there is such a thing as “God’s word” (what more can one want, enquires Eve gleefully; why not joyfully say yes and join the crowd?) Ah, no! dear Eve, I take my stand on the basis of these positive facts. But I must talk to you about another point — quite objectively and with no wish to entrap you. I must ask you precisely what he said — whether, for instance, he said, “ye shall not eat of every tree in the garden” ’ (Gen 3:1).

‘Well now,’ continues the serpent, ‘even if he did say this, I am prepared to take up my stand with you on the basis of the facts, namely, the fact of this “word”. For a serious person, conscious of his responsibilities, must still ask himself what he meant by that word, whether it is to be understood literally, or only in a general sense, and whether in your case it must not be applied quite differently’ (Gen 3:5).

After this fashion the serpent converses with the woman, and gazes movingly up to heaven as he speaks, then firmly closes his mouth — a picture of solicitude and understanding.

The serpent is assuredly not the Bolshevik type of atheist who blurts out his infernal notions in Paradise — the serpent is a firm believer in God. Indeed he is fully informed on the subject of God — and he trembles ( James 2:19). But being cunning and clever, he succeeds in trembling with his tail only, while his face remains calm, compelling and fascinating. At all events he takes his stand on the basic fact of ‘God’. For that very reason is he so sinister, so dangerous, so abysmal, so hellish, because he goes to work from that standpoint — does he not on that account wear the mask of an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14€)?

He goes even further! He actually takes his stand — and why not? — on the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. In the conditional clauses (‘if thou . . .’) the seducer makes full allowance for this. He is quite prepared for Jesus to set about proving that he is the Son of Go — “he has only cast doubt on that for tactical reasons — and to perform a few representative miracles. The tempter is not so ill–mannered as to make fun of the Lord or laugh at him because he fails to perform the miracle.

The tempter has no intention of exposing Jesus and destroying his reputation in this way. His intentions throughout are quite definite and deliberate. His aim lies in another direction. His aim is precisely to incite Jesus to miracle–mongering in proof of the fact that he is God’s Son. But why? What possible advantage could he, the devil, gain from this? No less indeed than this: it would then be he, the devil, who would prescribe Christ’s action. It would then be he who held the real power. It would then be in his name and to his glory that the miracles would be worked; in his name and to his glory — how horrible even to think of it! — that Jesus would be the Son of God.

That is the terrifying consequence of the devil’s taking his stand on the fact of God. That is why his disguise is so dangerous. For this reason is he so dangerous a seducer, a ‘teacher of error’ in the Church, because there his principle of taking his stand on the fact of God, on the basis of positive Christian belief, is seen at its most effective. We may well say that the most diabolical thing about the devil is that he takes this stand.  That is why he is accounted a liar from the beginning. That is why he is called the ‘ape’ of God. That is why we can mistake him for God.”

From Between God and Satan, sects. 17, 18.

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