In his account of our Lord’s temptations, Saint Matthew uses three different words for the Evil One. (Mt 4:1-11) In addition to the devil he also uses the tempter and Satan. Each title or name reveals something different about how the Evil One assaults us and – more importantly – how we allow ourselves to be led into sin.
The Greek word diabolos (devil) means a false accuser or slanderer. It comes from dia-ballein, which means to throw apart. After all, a slanderer is someone who confuses things, throws them into confusion, and leads to false accusations. A diabolos is someone who brings disorder and division – which is an accurate description of the Devil’s work. In fact, it’s a fair summary not just of all that he does but all that he can do.
The Devil throws things apart. His calling card is division. Where he finds unity and harmony, he creates disunity and disharmony. His first move is to introduce the division of doubt. He whispers to the woman, “Did God really tell you not to. . .?” This doubt leads to the first sin, to the sin that ushers in all other division and alienation: man from God, man and woman from one another, and each person from his own body.
He seeks to introduce that same division of doubt into our minds: Did God really tell you. . . .Can God be trusted? That initial division is the operating system for all others. The doubtful withdraw from God and soon find themselves removed from others and even alienated from themselves. The division leads to backbiting, gossip, name-calling, lust, envy, and violence, as we see in the Genesis account.
Second, Matthew refers to the Devil as the tempter. Now, to tempt is another way of creating division. It means to lure or draw someone away from the good. Notice how the tempter begins: “If you are the Son of God. . .” He puts that identity to the test, to draw Jesus away from it. As he once tempted the woman away from her confidence in God, he now seeks to draw Jesus away from his divine sonship. With each temptation, he suggests to Jesus that he accept some plan other than the Father’s; that he trust in something other than the Father.
Which is what the tempter does to us as well. Put bluntly, he asks, Is God really your Father? Does he really desire your good? Every temptation we experience is a test of our trust in the Father. The tempter suggests that we trust in something – pleasure, wealth, power – other than the Father. He casts shadows on the Father’s goodness, to suggest that he’s not on our side but in competition, that we are not really children but subjects.
Our Lord himself uses the last word: “Get away, Satan!” The Hebrew word Satan is more than a description or title. It’s the Devil’s proper name. It defines who he is, the Accuser. This is how he’s known in the book of Job. Likewise in Zechariah, where accuser is sometimes translated as adversary. Satan is the opposing counsel, the prosecution, leveling accusations at us before God. (cf. Zec 3:1-2)
What does he accuse us of? What’s the substance of this prosecutor’s case? It might be a sin we’ve committed or some stubborn vice that afflicts us. Perhaps it’s not something we did at all, but something done to us. Whatever the case, the accuser always seeks to aggravate our shame. We see this immediately with Adam and Eve. The grand promises he made beforehand quickly turn into accusations. Their shame prompts them to hide from God. The accuser has won.
In the same way, he accuses us to inflict the kind of shame that makes us hide from God. “You’re not worth his love,” he whispers. “Your sins are too great, your wounds too deep. . . .If others only knew they would reject you. . . .You’re not worth it…” He intends to set a new narrative, to make us forget that we were created out of love, that we are worth the death of God’s Son, and that Jesus forgives our sins and heals our wounds. But no matter how shamefaced we may feel, we have no need to hide. Indeed, we only receive salvation when we allow him to find us.
It’s significant that our Lord uses this name in rejecting the temptation to worship the Devil. The accuser likes to remind us of the times that we did just that – when we preferred the fallen world to Heaven, created things to the Creator, and made ourselves slaves to sin. Jeremiah refers to the Canaanite god Baal as the “shameful thing” or the “shame-god,” because that demon aggravated their shame and led them to do shameful things. (cf. Jer 3:24) Ronald Knox fittingly renders it “the worship of shame,” for that is precisely what we do when we accept the lies he tells about us.
Our Lord unmasks these three faces of evil. He frees us from doubt, distrust, and shame. By offering Himself to the Father, He heals that most profound division, our alienation from the Father. He reconciles us to the Father and to one another. By His abandonment to the Father – “not as I will, but as you will” – He gains for us the grace of filial trust even in the most trying circumstances. By His humiliating death, He reveals our true worth and frees us from shame.
*Image: Initial D: The Fool with Two Demons (detail) in a psalter, illuminations by the Master of the Ingeborg Psalter, after 1205. (Ms. 66, fol. 56) [The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA]