The Theology of Everyday Life: Sinning in Your Heart, Part 5, "Satan and the Mechanics of Temptation"


As a psychologist, I tend to think through theological issues in terms of psychological mechanics. When I think about "temptation" and how an agent like Satan might be involved with it, I have a lot of questions. So, this post has more to do with my questions than working through any opinion I might want to share with you. After posing my questions, if you have any thoughts on the matter, I'd be happy to hear them.

For me, one of the greatest phenomenological accounts of struggling with temptation is Paul's account in Romans 7:

Romans 7:15-23:
"I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members."

Paul's Jewishness shines through this passage. We see his Christianized account of both the yezer ha-ra, the evil impulse (the "other law" he sees "at work in his body" that is "waging war against the law of [his] mind"), and the yezer ha-tov, the good impulse (his "desire to do good," the inner part of him that "delights in God's law"). But more than this, Paul gives us a remarkable phenomenological account of wrestling with sin. Who, when they read Paul's words, cannot identify with him?

What is interesting to me about Paul's account is that it perfectly describes our moral struggle without recourse to an external source of temptation. Specifically, the account does not refer to Satan as a tempting agent. Rather, Paul's account suggests that it is our moral "constitution," as it were, that causes us problems. The "law of our flesh" struggles against the "law of the Spirit."

So, I guess I wonder about what Satan adds to the picture of Romans 7. That is, it doesn't seem to me that we need to posit a supernatural agent tempting us for us to have a robust conception of how hard it is to struggle toward holiness.

Specifically, in the Garden of Eden (if we take the serpent to be Satan) and with Jesus in the wilderness we see Satan depicted as an external agent tempting Eve and Jesus from the outside. A tempting agent "on the outside" seems coherent. For example, you might be on a diet and I might wave a piece of chocolate cake in front of you saying, "Do you want a bite? It's delicious!" You might say to me, "Don't tempt me!" So, when we read the accounts of Eve's and Jesus' temptation from an external Satan it all seems very plausible. Very reasonable.

But here's the deal. None of us are really tempted like that. Snakes don't speak to us and we don't have extended conversations with Satan over coffee. No, our struggles with Satan are believed to be internal. The devil is inside us.

So, as a psychologist I ask, how might this work? How could the temptations of Satan be inside us? Well, to start we have to ask what a temptation is. First, a temptation can be simply posing a choice to someone. That is, I think I have choices A and B. So far so good. Then you point out I also could do C. And, by virtue of pointing out that I have C as an option, I might now be tempted to do C, where before C never even crossed my mind. Second, a temptation can involve increasing the attractiveness of a choice. So, you have choices A, B, and C. Using a 0-10 point rating scale (with 0 = No Pleasure, 5 = Moderate Pleasure, 10 = Extremely Pleasurable), your pre-temptation assessments have you guessing that A will give you an experience of 7, B an experience of 3, and C an experience of 6. Then I come along and start telling you how great C is. How you'd be crazy not to do C. As I talk, C looks more and more "tempting"; its rating goes up from 6 to 7 to 8...

So, as far as I can see, temptations involve one of two things: Posing choices or increasing attractiveness. Coming from an external agent, again, this makes sense. Satan presents choices to both Jesus and Eve. Satan also tries to increase the attractiveness of those choices.

But how might Satan do this if our temptations are internal events? Satan would have to be able to insert thoughts into our minds. Satan would have to either insert choices or manipulate the attractiveness of those choices. Although we speak metaphorically about "Satan whispering in our ear," nothing like this really happens. It would have to be a whispering in our minds. That is, Satan would have to be involved with some kind of thought insertion.

Let me confess that I find that suggestion highly problematic. How can I be held accountable for the contents of my mind if it is regularly manipulated by a malevolent spiritual agent? What in my mind is me and what is Satan? Some people might suggest that Satan can influence our minds but that we still have free will. That it is my freely willed choices that determine my moral fate. But, speaking as a psychologist, you just can't parse the mind that way. Will, feelings, and thoughts all intermingle and influence each other. The mind isn't a stage that the Will observes. The Will is on the stage. The Will is as much an actor as it is a Director. Thus, if Satan is in my mind I can only draw one conclusion: I'm not fully responsible for my actions. I might be partly responsible, but not fully. In sum, an external Satan make perfect sense. But an internal Satan just doesn't work, psychologically speaking.

So, as heterodox as this is, when I struggle with sin I don't tend to think of it as Satan inside my mind inserting thoughts (Plus, how could he do that, neurologically speaking?). I rather think of Paul's struggle in Romans 7. My struggle is with my hedonistic, fleshly self. My struggle is with my "nature," not a malevolent thought-inserting "tempter."

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

2 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: Sinning in Your Heart, Part 5, "Satan and the Mechanics of Temptation"”

  1. Richard,

    I love reading your material. I hope you garner a wide readership. To our detriment, society has moved away from thinking in psychological terms, in the past decade or so. Perhaps it will make a comeback.

Leave a Reply