My best friend Dave and I both tend to be neurotic types who grapple with scruples. We both know this about each other and so, somehow, find it hilariously funny to voice aloud to each other the sorts of thoughts that pass through our own minds as we make the piddly decisions which clutter up our day.
I will, for instance, call Dave and ask if he can go to movie. Dave says he’s not sure if he should because he’s got some work to do, but maybe he can. I wheedle and cajole, offering improving advice about his need for rest and relaxation, followed by solemn sighs about my friendship and “all I’ve done for you and all I ask is just a little playtime.” Dave grins and rolls his eyes. He asks his wife. He weighs his schedule. He ponders (while I barrage him over the phone with verbiage about how I’m not really asking much and how he can still finish his work and that it’s just a couple of hours and all about the goodness of the Life Lived for Others and so forth). Finally (no thanks to me) he says, “Okay. I think I will go. In fact, it sounds like fun!”
Then, I pounce: “But… are you sure you should? I mean, what about your responsibility, Dave? What if you’re doing the wrong thing? Could God forgive such a cavalier attitude to your work!?”
Dave dissolves in laughter, as do I.
I know this all sounds rather sick and weird to the outsider. A parent doing this to his child would be guilty of mental abuse. But for Dave and I (and Dave is a past master at this queer form of humor himself), there is something curiously helpful about it. For like all good humor it gives us a sense of perspective. It is so grotesque, so over-the-top, so revoltingly manipulative that we immediately recognize that no sane or civilized person would ever do this to another… which makes it easier to recognize that we have no right to do it to ourselves.
I imagine the devil hates this form of humor, since it is, in the end, aimed at him-a creature who dislikes being laughed at. It is a sort of Screwtapian gag, a knowing nod at one of old Scratch’s favorite tactics: tempt and accuse.
Modernity doesn’t realize that temptation and accusation are two sides of the same coin. Many people actually talk as though temptation was a sort of road to liberty. A great deal of fiction portrays the devil as a glamorous urban sophisticate, offering high times (always in exchange for some turnip ghost called “your soul”) to lonely people with greasy hair and pocket protectors who live dull lives on assembly lines in widget factories. If they say yes to this offer of escape from utter drabness (and who wouldn’t?) then a dull angel shows up to scold them for being “bad” and, either voluntarily or under compulsion, they return to their drab life, soul intact (and pretty much as dreary as before). The devil jauntily says, “Drat”, returns to his happy air-conditioned hell and we are left to conclude that he is a charming Clintonesque rascal, that temptation is the road to fun and freedom, and that nagging, scolding, prunish, merciless accusation is the work of God, not the devil.
But this is, like most things associated with the devil, a lie. The reality is that the devil tempts, not to liberate, but to accuse (and, of course, get us to blame God for accusing us). For the ultimate goal of temptation is, not to put too fine a point on it, our death. The way to this goal is to separate us from the Author of Life, and the way to do that is to pin the Accuser rap on him.
But the Holy Spirit does not accuse, he convicts. What’s the difference? Conviction is always done in reverence for the our dignity as persons. Indeed, conviction of even the darkest sin is always freighted with fundamental hope. The worst sinner, convicted of sin, also is given a sort of clarion call of tremendous possibility and the promise of redemption. Accusation always aims at provoking despair: “You have always been a loser and you can never change. Even God has given up on you.” With Scrooge, those who receive the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin say, “Why show me these things if I am past all hope?” and, like that old penitent sinner, we find that what lays before us is not an endless gloomy prison sentence for our sins but rather that, best and happiest of all, the time before us is our own, to make amends in!
For the reality is that God wants our joy and liberty for us more than we do. That is why he never “tempts” to virtue as the devil must. There is no downside to our reaching our full potential as human beings in Christ and therefore nothing that needs to be done make it look good. It is good. The devil always has to bait the hook of death with the worm of temptation. But with God, what you see is what you get: he offers us life and means to give it.
So the next time you are tempted (and hear simultaneously that little voice saying, “You want that?! God could never love a creep like you who wants a thing like that!”) remember my little joke with Dave. Submission to temptation is a sin and the Holy Spirit will convict (not accuse) you to lead you back to life if you sin. But don’t fall for the still greater sin of despairing of God’s mercy because of the devil’s accusations. Lent is a season of grace, not accusation. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).