Satan has been using the same old bag of tricks to discourage and dim us since before the world began, and the Lord, knowing we would have to defend ourselves against these wiles, has shown us what’s in that black bag and how we can overcome.
In a war, a mighty military seeks intelligence information on its enemies to outwit and out-maneuver them. In politics, parties do opposition research. The scriptures reveal the psychology of temptation, the wormy ways that Satan attempts to break our hearts and our spirits.
He employed one of his most devious tricks to tempt the Savior himself.
We know that as Christ’s ministry began, he went into the bleak and barren Judean wilderness to fast and seek his Father. Satan was certainly always at the heels of Christ, nipping and growling, dogging him, hoping to destroy the Father’s plan, not just in these forty days. At the end the Savior told his apostles that, “ Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations.” 1
Who would Satan have levelled more attention toward than the pure Son of God on whose choices the plan completely hinged? All of us were hanging in the balance, every day, every moment of Jesus’ life. Our eternity was dependent on his perfect choices.
It is recorded that when Jesus had fasted forty days, at certainly a point of physical vulnerability, being hungered, the tempter came to him and said:
“If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”
“If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee.”
And a third time, “the devil takes Jesus to an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” 2
Though it is not recorded that Lucifer said specifically on the third temptation, “If thou be the Son of God,” the implication is surely there. Here Satan tells the very Creator of the world that it does not all belong to Him—another thrust at his identity.
These temptations follow patterns that are certainly played out in our lives. The first is a temptation to appetite, the second a temptation to recognition and self-image, and the third is a temptation to power, glory and greed.
However, even more telling is the theme that underlies all of them—which is an assault at the Savior’s very identity. Satan wants the Lord to question who and what He really is, the very substance and nature of His being, mission and capacities.
Should we miss this, we see that Satan inspires those who taunted and sought to humiliate the Savior while He was in agony on the cross with the same line: “Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 3
It is this dig at our very identity that Satan uses so effectively on us. If it was his best technique for assaulting Jesus, we can expect that it is a fine and devious technique to use against us because it works so well.
Truman Madsen loved the old movie Random Harvest , that tells the story of an Englishman, who after World War I, has forgotten entirely who he is. He does not know his name, his rank, his station, or his parents, and he certainly does not remember that he had been the wealthy English heir of a financial dynasty. In that confused and bewildered state he is put into an asylum. He looks hopeful and unsure at a set of parents who have come to the asylum hoping he is their son, but he isn’t. His memory and his parentage seem to be entirely lost to him.
What captivated Truman about this was how it was such a metaphor for our state here on earth. We understand we have a long and glorious personal history, living in a land of light, where we had sure understanding of who we were and who were our matchless, divine Parents. Except for those inner echoes that we are something much more, those swellings of the spirit, we have forgotten, captured by amnesia. We have forgotten not only who our Father truly is, but also who we are.
Truman liked to say, “What you are is so much greater than what you have yet done, it is incredible.”
Sometimes, we know that is true. Everything in our being shouts out a grand affirmative: Yes!
But sometimes, maybe more often for some, and maybe always for others, we have been beaten down by life, and our inner swellings ebb.
The so-called post-modern world has determined for us that man is nothing. He is but a random collection of matter and the bravest thing to do existentially is to acknowledge that nothingness with boldness. Instead of letting it press in upon you with its terrible weight, you embrace your nothingness and live life fully, knowing this is all you’ve got.
Teaching Us that We Don’t Amount to Much
Yet, even for those of us who don’t embrace this philosophy and know who we are, whose children grow up lisping from earliest speech, “I am a child of God,” Satan’s favorite temptation is to teach us that we are personally nothing. He likes to screw us to the wall telling us that we don’t amount to much.
He reminds us of our failures. He suggests that somebody like us could never succeed. He tells us that our talents are paltry. He suggests that we are not up to much. He weighs us down with the burden of every mistake, every misjudgement we’ve ever made. He tells us we are ugly, or growing ugly, that we are incompetent and untalented.
I knew someone who was turned down scores of times from graduate school and joked bitterly that he could wallpaper with his letters of rejection. We don’t need to physically wallpaper with our rejections, the slights that have flown our way. Satan would build inner walls—prison walls—with reminders of when our efforts weren’t enough. We may collect our failures like scrapbook mementos, a mental book we pull out to remind us to act in a way that is limited because that is who we really are.
Didn’t we fail at this, or that? Weren’t our efforts second rate and unacknowledged? Don’t we have to honestly say that our best talents are but a wisp in the wind? And don’t we have plenty of evidence for all of the above? (Evidence gladly supplied by the tempter, himself.) You are not much, says Lucifer to us. You have never been much.
With the veil dropped over our minds, in our amnesiac state, we believe him. Life is tough and all of us get bruised and knocked about, and we are certain that if we had done it better, if we had been really more worthy, our dreams would not have been so fully dashed.
We hear voices in our heads:
If you were a good parent, your child would not have broken your heart and gone astray.
If you were attractive or interesting, you would not be single.
If you were only more competent, you would have gotten (fill in the blank—the promotion, the calling, the recognition).
Variation: If you were only more competent, this devastating thing wouldn’t have happened to you.
If you had any ability or talent, others would notice.
If you were likeable, they would have liked you.
It goes on and on with endless variations and permutations.
The Attack Upon Our Identity
What unites these thoughts that are purposely designed to diminish and thwart us is that attack upon our basic identity. Part of this mortal experience is that we don’t remember who we are and what we can do. We do not remember that there was ever anything happy or noteworthy about us. We do not remember ourselves, and have only the dimmest sense about who we are here.
Just as Satan said to Christ, “If thou be the son of God,” he attacks our identity as well. He uses this attack to achieve several purposes.
He wants to paralyze us with discouragement so that we don’t try. Instead of using our life’s time for a greater purpose, we are trained to ask that worst question in the language, “What’s the use?” We learn to see ourselves as someone who could not be of much help or could not take on a responsibility. We may even come to see ourselves as someone so small that God is not interested in us, someone whom He ignores because we are too miniscule.
Satan wants us to believe we are far less than we are so we impose limitations on ourselves. Instead of exploring our possibilities or seeking greater spiritual knowledge like Abraham, believing we are not up to much, we don’t do much. It may seem the best way to live out our days is to do our duty quietly and then escape with a mindless activity.
Satan wants us to be fearful, play little games of avoidance where we can hide or be ever anxious and nervous about our performance.
Satan wants us to overcompensate for our loss of identity by ever seeking to prove that we are important, gathering transient acknowledgements that we count for something.
Christ did not fall for the ploy, “If thou be the son of God.” He was absolutely certain of who he was and what he came to do. Too often we fall for these parries against our very being. Satan tells us that we are empty, worthless or even despicable and we respond, “Oh yes, I see this is so.”
It is interesting, however, that God, our Father, who could have designed another kind of existence for us, designed this one. It is an experience where we constantly act with limited judgment and face the consequences of that. It is a condition, where, having forgotten all, we do not have much clue of our abilities, until they are called upon, and then in our ignorance we might be less than adequate. It is a training ground where we are young and green at some points when we wish we were experienced and polished.
It is a place where the beauty and strength of our youth is steadily diminished, so what we counted on one day as the very essence of ourselves is taken away over time. It is a place where we move from being so active we cannot think how to get it all done to wondering what to do with our time because the years have stolen our occupation or our little children or the need for us.
Oh what advantage Satan can take of these realities. How can we overcome his efforts to shred us to pieces, agreeing with him that we are banal, tasteless and forgotten? The world runs for more and more to fill this hole inside, this disappointment that we are so insignificant, so nothing.
Thwarting these Attacks
In only one way can we thwart these subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle attacks upon us from the tempter—and that is to draw close to God. He alone is in Reality. He alone sees us with clarity and has the long view of us that goes both backward and forward in time. I do not say here that we should give lip service to drawing close to him, but that we pay the price to have our whole souls yearn toward him.
From what environment do we want to gather information about the core of who we really are? From this world where we grow weary in the running and enervated by defeats great and small? Where people treat us curtly, ignore us, yell at us or treat us like an object?
Or do we want the understanding of our core to come from God? When we feel his stirrings, we are not only in awe of him, but we are also filled with hope for ourselves and who we really are.
We may run the whole world wide looking for mirrors to reflect back to us who we really are and come up empty, but only a few minutes with God’s spirit awakens our whole soul and reaffirms our identity.
I know of no substitute to fill this internal ravine about our own identity except feeling the true love of God.
I have attended our children’s patriarchal blessings and come away in awe. I thought I valued and loved them, but I was taken aback at how infinitely precious they are to him. I could feel that he adored them, counted on them, saw them as majestic eternal souls and as much more than the sometimes stumbling teenager, I then saw them to be.
The very survival of our expanded self in our own minds is dependent on our communion with God and the feelings of his love with which he will fill us. Satan and everything in the world will seek to trivialize and diminish us, to break our hearts with our smallness.
Satan may have challenged the Savior, “If thou be the Son of God,” but God in his speaking to his beloved children makes it clear whose we are and who we are.
In our scriptures, just before Christ went into the wilderness where Satan challenged his identity, He had already been told by the voice of his Father at his baptism, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” That was the voice that rang in him when the adversary tried to tempt him otherwise.
When God spoke face to face with Moses we learn: “And he saw God face to face, and he talked with him, and the glory of God was upon Moses; therefore Moses could endure his presence. And God spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?
“And behold, thou art my son.” 4
Think of it. Without God’s glory being upon him, Moses could not have endured the very presence of this magnificent being. He is Almighty, Endless, without beginning of days or end of years, and behold we are his sons and daughters.
He knows we need a constant reminder of that. He knows we need a river of his light flowing through us so we are not dried up by the blasts of this life.
If we ask, he will remind us:
You are of infinite worth whose future is beyond your imaginings.
You have not yet begun to discover who and what you are and can do.
The biggest part of you is still hidden and gradually unfolding.
Your setbacks in this life are transient and momentary.
Or as our friend, Truman Madsen always taught, “What you are is so much greater than what you have yet done, it is incredible.”
1 Luke 22:28
2 Matt. 4: 1-11
3 Matt: 27: 40
4 Moses 1: 2-4