Between God and Satan

Helmut Thielicke, Between God & Satan

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Jesus Christ came to us to suffer temptation, to suffer our fate with regard to God, and to become our brother. Let us go to him in the desert to see what he had to endure, and how he had to fight, so as thus to become our brother. Here we shall learn who we are and how it stands with this our world….

The desert is our world; the tempter is our tempter; the forty days and nights are our time, and we are Jesus, for here he stands in our stead.

Who are we then, O God, who are we?

Between God and Satan

The Temptation of Jesus and the Temptability of Man


Chapter One: Bread, Temple Pinnacles, & Shining Lands in the Desert Sands; Chapter Two: The Reality of Hunger; Chapter Three: The Alluring Miracle of Display; Chapter Four: Jesus’ Kingdom of This World; Epilogue; Scripture Index; Subsection Index

From Chapter One, 11–23:

1. Vision in the Desert

These words begin a story rich in color and meaning. Against the background of the desert, mysterious, utterly isolated and infinitely remote, two figures are struggling for a huge stake. Are they gambling or are they involved in a relentless battle in this solitary place? And what is the stake?

We know the reason of the conflict. Here in the midst of the desert far from the world of men, these two are struggling for the earth and for man. And this earth is my world and yours. And this Man—is you and I. And those in conflict are God’s Son and Satan.

An hour later the conflict is decided. Beaten, discredited and conquered, one of the two figures leaves the field. In a mysterious vision later Jesus sees Satan fall from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18). The reflection of this lightning flashes on the horizon of the desert, when the devil flees. For he has indeed taken flight, and only for a season (John 12:31; Rev 20:1, 2, 10) is he permitted to remain in exile and to make the world unsafe (Rev 12:9; 20:7), that world whose secret prince he is (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and in whose atmosphere (Eph 2:2), in whose nights (Eph 6:12; Col 1:13) and days (2 Cor 11:14) he hides, and out of which he torments the disciples with rearguard actions (1 Tim 4:1; 1 Pet 5:8), striving to make their hearts fail, and seeking whom he may devour.

And his opponent in the wilderness? Does he stride from this battlefield as we would expect: with head high and renewed might, crowned as the victor, and bearing a name which henceforth and visibly is to be set above every name (Phil 2:9)?

By no means; how different is this victory from those of men! He rises to his feet, and immediately sets forth on his via dolorosa. He, too, goes forth into the world. Once again he will have to contend with the powers of evil which rise against him. He goes through this world, which is a theatre of war and a battlefield between God and Satan. By winning his first victory he has entered this world. Christ will fight for the souls of the men he meets, whether they be publicans or Pharisees, fools or wise men, rich youths or poor men, working class men or lords of industry, the hungry and thirsty or well fed and safe—he will fight for the souls of all these men alike, and he will die for all of them.

Thus does the victor in this fight take his way hence (Matt 26:46), going straight towards his cross, as though God had forsaken him (Mark 15:34).

Is he not after all really the loser—a bankrupt king who has gambled away his crown—as he sets forth on his path from the desert to the cross? Has he not won a Pyrrhic victory? He travels the path beset with pain which leads to the cross, and not the way of glory and triumph which is also the way of God (for how can God’s progress be other than triumphal?).

Perhaps this contest in the desert was after all a drawn game. Perhaps in the long run the dread opponent will prove to have won the victory and regained his power over the world. Is there any man alive in the twentieth century who does not think that all the evidence points in this direction?

But something more happens in the desert when the two go their ways: the angels came and ministered to him (Matt 4:11). He must after all have won the victory.

2. The Mystery of Temptation: Man as the god of God

We begin to feel that our own fate depends on the outcome of this struggle between Christ and the devil. And so we will try to pay due heed to what is said to us in the wilderness and to what happens to us. For our destiny is at stake: Jesus Christ who is fighting here is not only “the mirror of the divine heart” (Martin Luther), but also of the human heart (Phil 2:7), a mirror of our nakedness and vulnerability and of our poverty and imprisoned state (Matt 25:35ff). Jesus Christ’s presence in the desert and his temptation hold a message for us: Look, through suffering and conflict the Son of God has become your human brother. For he bears the burden which oppresses you and which does more to shape your destiny than anything else in the world: Jesus suffers temptation with you. He shows you how life can be borne in its most critical and terrible hour—the hour of temptation. By himself confronting the Evil One, he shows you how to recognise this dangerous crisis in your life and where to seek salvation.

How can temptation be the determining factor—and the most deadly peril—of our lives? For temptation is a deadly peril. What other possible interpretation is there of the petition (Matt 6:13): “Lead us not into temptation?”

To be in temptation means to be constantly in the situation of wanting to be untrue to God. It means being constantly on the point of freeing ourselves from God. It means living constantly in doubt of God: “How can I fulfil your commandments, you uncanny King? Let me go. Do not wise men collapse under this burden, as well as prophets and heroes? How can I change the thought in my heart (Matt 5:28), you dreadful searcher of this heart (Mark 2:8)? I am not even master of my actions and am powerless when they slip out of control! (Rom 7:19). If you were God, you could not command all this, you could not make us black and then demand that we become white! Are you then God at all? Are God’s commandments really valid (Gen 3:1)? Is not this dreadful law the fruit of evil fancies?”

Thus temptation gnaws at our hearts. It brings us almost to the point of freeing ourselves from God. We doubt his godhead and begin to remember that we are but human.

Or temptation attacks in a different way, and we say to ourselves: “How can God send me this or that? Certainly I understand why he should send me illness. That was indeed wisdom, for I needed it. Did I not need a damper? Did I not need time for reflection? Did I not need to experience pain in order to mature, and to see the face of death, in order to under- stand life, through which I stormed in ignorance of its abysses and its limitations? Certainly, I stood in need of all this and must regard it as wisely sent. And because suffering, when regarded from this angle, seems to have meaning and purpose, it may, after all, come from a wise and conscious providence; it may come from—God.”

That is how I think about God. Aided by my intelligence, I make up my mind about him. I know how God “must” act, in order to be really God. He “must,” for instance, be wise (wise in a way I can understand). He “must” act in a way that makes sense and is best for me. He “must” enrich my life with happiness and perhaps also with suffering (we clever human beings also know something about the uses of suffering!). He “must” preserve our nation, for our nation knows it is called to a mission in the world, and that God and providence can only exist when this mission reaches fulfillment. God “must” do all kinds of things if he is to be acclaimed as the true God. God “must” turn stones into bread. He “must” be able to leap from the pinnacle of the Temple, if he is to be acclaimed as God. It would appear, therefore, that it is we ourselves who set the conditions which God must satisfy in order that we may proclaim him God. We are God’s masters.

In reality, exactly the opposite is true. The real truth—which sounds astonishingly simple when expressed “theoretically”—is that, contrary to our illusions, God is our Master, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts and his ways higher than our ways (Isa 55:8f).

But although we are ready enough to concede this fact in theory, it looks very different when we meet it in everyday life, where our practice is diametrically opposed to our theory and we aspire to be the gods of God. And so we are immediately assailed by fresh doubts. For if we, who claim to be the measure of God, cannot understand his actions, we are tempted to ask: Did God really say this? Did God really do this? No—if God really existed he would act in a way more in keeping with his divinity!

3. Job: The Torture and the Hourglass of the Tempter

This doubt assails everyone who has to bear the suffering of which we have been speaking until it becomes so unendurable that it seems to us completely senseless.

The tempter struck Job with many plagues; he took away his goods, his servants, his children. He cast him down from the height of a full and pious life (oh! how easy it is to be pious when life is easy) into the horrors of naked and hungry poverty. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” ( Job 1:21). Yes; with the last of his strength Job grasps the meaning of what has befallen him; he hugs to himself the word of God which he reads out of this misfortune and clings to his consolation: “It is God who speaks here; and He can give and take away. But how could I ever have understood and respected his treatment of me if he had not also taken away, and if he had not struck me down with a bitter blow? In that case he would have remained a pious adornment of my life and his service would have been an edifying cult in my rich house, but only an adornment, the God in the Sunday niche. Certainly, I would have lived honestly, and loved my neighbors and my friends; I would have worked hard and kept on good terms with him. But for all that he would never have been the real lord of my life: he would never have been that uncannily real Lord who can give and take away in ways past finding out, and whose decisions are above our capacity for understanding (Job 42:3). In no case would he have been for me that Lord whose decisions I would have upheld unswervingly as right in all things and in all circumstances. No; he would have been and remained a Lord with whom I would have disputed and quarreled and argued in my heart” ( Job 42:4).

Job feels all this when God takes away his dearest possessions and his loved ones. And he holds fast to this pious thought, holds fast to it for a moment longer (even though doubt is already beginning to raise its voice within him) when the tempter comes again and takes away not only his property and his children, but even attempts his life and touches his bone and his flesh Job 2:5), when he touches the apple of his eye and smites him with boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head ( Job 2:7).

So he sits in the ashes of his burnt goods and scrapes his smarting, disfigured skin (Job 2:8), and clings fast once more to the voice which resounds in all this: These evil and dreadful things, too, we must receive at his hands, just as we receive good things from him ( Job 2:10). Or is it not goodness that we should have to learn through pain that everything—everything, pleasant and painful alike—comes to us at the hands and from the heart of God?

But then the stark senselessness of it comes home to him; and he can only think of the ashes and of his boils, his pitying friends and burning pains. And in the background stands the tempter and measures with the hourglass, interested to discover when the limit of endurance—the human endurance of sufferings—is reached: the sand runs on; but first Job desires to attain a maturer knowledge of God; he thinks he perceives what God desires to say to him through all the pain he has brought upon him. But the tempter puts on a superior smile. He is going to win the bet. It is clear to him that two things will work in his favour: time and pain.

He knows that the wish to become maturer through suffering can only mean that the victim is prepared to let his sufferings be “a lesson” to him, just as Job allows himself to be taught by the loss of his possessions that they belong not to him but to God and that God can take them from him, and that consequently God desires to reveal himself as Lord of life and death and property, when he intervenes so painfully in our lives.

The tempter laughs at this pious reaction. “Yes,” he thinks, “we will wait for the moment when suffering has ‘taught’ the good Job enough. That won’t take very long. The pious maxims which he utters in his misfortune, and which will be rubbed in again and again, will no longer be heard when his suffering goes on.” Aye, indeed; “when his suffering continues.” The tempter is a good psychologist; he calculates thus: Job thinks that when he has learnt enough from his suffering (e.g., that God gives and takes away and is the Lord) the suffering will cease, because it will then have fulfilled its function. For if it simply continued, he would not learn anything more and it would no longer have any “purpose.”

And so the tempter, when he proposes to attack in earnest, allows the suffering to exceed the limits of what a man can regard as reasonable. The moment at which he thinks it must stop because he has learnt enough is precisely the moment at which it does not cease; it goes on senselessly. Time is the most uncanny minister of this prince of darkness. Time saps our resistance. Not because it goes on so long, but because it is so meaningless, and because suffering which goes on and on turns into a grotesquely scornful question: “What do you say now?” “Where is your God?” (Ps 42:3). “Do you still think this suffering is sent by God? What sense do you see in it? How can it still, after all these months and years, “be for your good?” “Are you really still holding on to your piety—and for how much lon- ger?” “Curse God and die” ( Job 2:9).

Time is one method employed by the dark tempter. As time goes on, suffering appears more and more senseless and senselessness is the strongest argument against God. For what did we say? By our very nature, we and our intelligence (the proclaimer of sense) appoint ourselves the lords and judges of God. In time we cease to see any sense in his actions, let alone any higher purpose behind them. Therefore: Curse God and die!

The methods of the tempter are at once clumsy and subtle.

At bottom he does nothing but play upon man’s natural attitude to God and push it to its furthest extreme. He simply makes use of the qualities of human nature, for by nature man desires to be lord and judge of God. God’s higher thoughts must always correspond—and even adapt themselves—to the thoughts of man, which man regards as having meaning. In this the tempter does nothing else but what we saw in Job: he leads man with the aid of time—i.e., with the aid of long–continued suffering—to a point at which man can no longer see any sense in his sufferings, and certainly cannot understand how they can give him maturity and help him on his way. This is the point at which, with diabolic inevitability, his belief in God appears absurd, and he abjures God.

The tempter sees his success with Job. He sees it with the many children of men; he sees it in long wars (how full were the churches at the beginning of the last war and how empty they were at its close!); he sees it in long, incurable, and horrible diseases; he sees it in a cruel, incomprehensible death. The tempter sees all these things, and happily, with a triumphant gesture, strokes the hourglass in which he has imprisoned time.

4. The Doubter from the Beginning

His other method is pain. We all know that from our own experience. Suffering is only educative as long as we are of unclouded mind and retain the power of thought—i.e., only as long as it serves us “for reflection.” But this reflection ceases at once when purely physical pain passes a certain limit, the limit beyond which we are completely filled by it, and clench our teeth together convulsively or scream aloud, or wait—shaken by fear and horror in the hollow of painlessness (which lasts for a second) for the approach of a new wave of agonizing pain. And every misfortune and every fight, whether in a theater of war, or in the course of civilian life at home, or in a hospital or an asylum, is indeed such a pain if it brings us again and again to that limit at which we are “completely filled,” and lose even the power of questioning.

In such a situation, how can we possibly have edifying thoughts about sense or the lack of it, about the strength and maturity won through pain?

Yes, that is the tempter’s other thesis: that there is a degree of suffering at which one ceases to mature. And this pain is the other arrow in the enemy’s quiver: the pain which loses all meaning through its severity.

And therefore man, eager to bind God to him by his belief in God’s purpose—i.e., by his belief in himself—dethrones this God of his, as soon as he himself becomes nothing more than a heap of writhing pain.

Thus man is a doubting and a tempted being from the start. That is bound up with his nature as a man. For he is a fallen and a separated being and no longer the friend of God. He is so no longer, though he does not for an instant admit it even to himself, and invokes God’s name with the passionate fervor of Job, and although clouds of incense surround him like a mist which almost hides the flash of the cherub’s sword barring him from the garden in which he once felt the nearness of God.

So he must needs be a doubter from the very beginning of his journey, as indeed, from his cradle onwards, every single human being must be. He is forever Job whose belief in God is shattered; for God is not as he believed him to be. His creed was no more than a cunning system of keeping account of a divine “justice,” with a kind of moral world order which sees to it that it goes well with the pious and badly with the wicked. It was the belief that “world history is world judgment” because a just God holds this world history in his hand.

But God is not just in the accepted meaning of this belief which is now being tried and tested by being torn asunder. Yes, God is “unjust;” he puts the pious Job, impoverished and disfigured, in a heap of ashes, where he scrapes his boils. And meanwhile villains prosper, and so do scoundrels and shirkers and thrusters, and the sun of God shines—with painful “injustice” on the good and on the evil (Matt 5:45).

Yes, God is different from this belief; for this belief is belief in a purpose (e.g., in the purpose behind suffering) and God appears suddenly to have no purpose; we do not understand his ways and therefore we ask: Is God really there at all? Does God exist?

This belief is belief in the highest wisdom; and look— God is foolishness (1 Cor 1:18, 21).

This belief is belief in the glory of God and in his splendor; and look—God comes near to us despised and spat on and nailed to the tree of torment.

This belief is belief in miracles (1 Cor 1:22); and look—God is silent (Matt 12:39) and does not descend from the cross (Matt 27:40).

This belief is belief in a greatness in and above the world (1 Cor 1:22ff); and look—God is small and is an occasion of stumbling (Isa 8:14).

This belief storms forwards and seizes hold of God’s robe; and look—God comes quietly, noticed by no one, through the back door of the world, and lies in the stable of Bethlehem.

This belief is belief in the day; and look—God comes by night, and is hidden from the wise and prudent (Matt 11:25), but the Christmas shepherds—the “foolish ones”—know him (Luke 2:7ff )—and the demons (Matt 8:29) and children (Matt 21:16).

This belief is always, secretly and under cover, a belief in man himself; and look—God is God and not this human being.

Therefore this human being and all of us are doubting and tempted beings from the start. For we know that God breaks us to pieces before he raises us up. God drives us with scourges out of the temple of our self–worship and smashes the Babylonian tower of our pride before he becomes our Father. God plunges us into a sea of uncertainty about ourselves and our aimless unrest, before he gives us peace.

And we do not want anything in common with this God. We want a cheaper peace. Therefore we take the wings of the morning and flee unto the uttermost parts of the sea (Ps 139:9), flee into the drunken stupor of forgetting, in which we are no longer aware of the questioning, pursuing God, or of ourselves. We flee into the drunkenness of oblivion which we find in our work, or our daily round, or the anonymity of mass existence, or alcohol, or sex, or the ceremonial of mass life, in which, with fanatical enthusiasm, and surrounded by the noise of fanfares, we think we see the godhead above the stadium or the gigantic meeting hall.

We are doubters from the beginning: we doubt God in the same measure as we believe in ourselves; and we have unbounded belief in ourselves. We believe for example in our immortality (Gen 3:4), and that means presumably that we believe in our eternity and in the eternity of our race. And therefore we bite jubilantly into the forbidden fruit. Who can forbid us anything? Who has any right to say to us: “Thus far, and no further!?” Has God that right? Are we not of his race, and do not earth and paradise belong to us?

We believe in our equality with God (Gen 3:5) and therefore we say with the tempter, with the master of doubting, “Has God indeed spoken?” and we doubt God.

The hour of temptation is the hour in which we believe in ourselves, in which we cease to doubt ourselves, and therefore doubt God. That is our hour and the power of darkness (Luke 22:53). Thus does Holy Scripture teach of the breach of man with God….

Helmut Thielicke, Between God & Satan

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Between God and Satan: The Temptation of Jesus and the Temptability of Man
Helmut Thielicke

5″ x 8″; 130 pp.

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