The Cross of Christ Teaches Us. . .
And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your ass these three times? Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in thy sight, I will go back again.” And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but only the word which I bid you, that shall you speak.” NUMBERS 22:32–35
Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. MATTHEW 4:10–11
One of the strangest stories in the Old Testament recounts the mission of the prophet Balaam. A pagan king wanted to conquer the Israelites, and wanted Balaam to help him achieve this ambition by pronouncing a curse on the enemy. So he summoned Balaam.
At first Balaam refused to come, but eventually Balaam set out on his donkey to meet with the king. Although this story is found in the Book of Numbers, it is the Second Letter of Peter that gives us insight to Balaam’s motives: “Forsaking the right way. . . they have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Be’or, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness” (2 Peter 2:15–16).
Balaam was not setting out to do God’s will; he was trying to profit by the gifts that God had given him. Balaam was stopped en route by his donkey, which saw an angel barring the path. When Balaam beat his donkey, the animal protested that he was trying to save his master’s life. Finally Balaam’s eyes were opened to the angel of the Lord, who affirmed that, indeed, the donkey had saved his life. The angel told him to go along to the king: “Go. . . but only the word which I bid you, that shall you speak” (Numbers 22:35). In the end, Balaam blessed the Israelites, accomplishing God’s purposes. However, Peter’s epistle reveals that Balaam’s temptation moved him along the path to do the will of God. He did not start out intending to do good, but God intervened.
A friend once told me of the time he decided to give in to a certain temptation that he had been fighting for years. As he went to get into his car that night, he discovered that one of his car’s tires was flat. Most people would see a flat tire as a momentary inconvenience; my friend saw the flat tire as a sign from God. He stayed home that night, and from that moment on the temptation left him. God used my friend’s momentary lapse to put him on the pathway to holiness.
Scripture has many examples of God using Satan’s ploys to accomplish his own purposes. The Gospel of Matthew offers one such example. When Jesus was about to begin his ministry in Israel, he went into the desert to fast for forty days—symbolic of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert. During that time, Satan presented three types of temptations to Our Lord. Ironically, each of the particular temptations Satan chose was related to the mission that God had given to Jesus. Each of them was a perversion of Jesus’ true mission and purpose.
Bread of Life. First the evil one tempted Jesus to turn stones to bread. After all, Jesus was hungry from fasting. However, Jesus knew that his greatest hunger was not physical but relational: He had a hunger only God could satisfy.
The significance of this temptation became clearer on the night before Jesus died, when he took the bread and changed it into his own Body and Blood. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus declared. “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:48, 51).
Those who partake in the Body and Blood of Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, wrote St. Cyril of Jerusalem, become “united in body and blood with Him.” Similarly, St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) observed that after communion, “the heart of Jesus and my own—allow me to use the expression— were fused. No longer were two hearts beating but only one. My own heart had disappeared, as a drop of water is lost in the ocean.” The miracle of the Eucharist is that Our Lord transforms our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.
Source of Life. In the second temptation, Satan tempted Jesus to demonstrate his power by throwing himself off the Temple roof, so the angels would rush to his defense. Jesus recognized that his enemy had twisted Scripture to achieve his own purposes. “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” he replied firmly (Matthew 4:7). The things that tempt us most in life can lead us to discover our true calling.
As with the temptation to turn stones to bread, Satan’s temptation was a perversion of the real mission of Christ. By dying on the cross, Jesus threw himself into the hands of the Father, trusting that God would raise him on the third day.
When Franz Jaegerstaetter, a saintly Austrian who refused to fight in the Nazi army, faced certain death because of his refusal to give in to the Nazis’ wishes, Franz wondered if he were committing suicide. It was a meditation on the mission of Jesus, who went to Jerusalem knowing that they were going to kill him there, that finally convinced Franz that standing up to the evil of his day, no matter what the personal cost, was the right thing to do.
Prince of Life. Finally the Lord was tempted to bow down to Satan in order to win the world. However, just as Jesus rejected the attempts of his followers to make him king or to win the kingdom by the sword, so he rejected this bloodless solution. Jesus knew that real victory would not come easily, and that his kingdom was not an earthly one. His message was not a popular one; ultimately it led to his death on the cross. This “King of the Jews,” as the Romans named him, knew of but one way to win over the world: “. . .when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).
Those who would be powerful continue to bow to Satan in order to win the world, selling their souls for a temporary advantage. Politicians, religious, and others who promote evil in order to win—whether the prize is power, approval, or other earthly glory—may succeed for a time. But such victory is fleeting, and leaves in its wake an emptiness that is as close to hell as one can get on this earth.
Find Your Mission
Just as Satan tempted Christ with a perversion of his true mission, the things that tempt us most in life can lead us to discover our true calling. However, we will recognize God’s purpose for us only by the light of the cross. Using God’s gifts to achieve anything other than the divine plan will not bring long-term satisfaction. The path to true joy comes from placing our gifts under the control of the Holy Spirit, and allowing the cross of Christ to reveal Satan’s lies and deceptions for what they are. St. Augustine, who spent his early years tempted by the beauty of creation and even fathering an illegitimate child, later found in God the beauty he was seeking. “Too late, O ancient Beauty, have I loved Thee,” he wrote.
The Power of the Cross is a book well-suited to daily reading during Lent. The book is available here in pdf version. Daily excerpts will be reprinted in this space during Lent.