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Defoe and the wearied tempter

Four hundred years ago one of the most famous, and one of the earliest, of English novels was published.

‘Moll Flanders’ is the self-narrated history of a lady who was ‘five times a wife, twelve years a thief, eight years a transported felon, at last grew rich and died a penitent’.

The novel was published anonymously, but the author was later identified as Daniel Defoe, who had already leapt to fame as the author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

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Defoe, a strong supporter of the English Reformation lies buried in the celebrated Bunhill Fields, close to other celebrated Dissenters such as John Bunyan and John Owen.

Rev David Clarke

Film makers enjoy the novel’s rumbustious story-lines, but Defoe intended the novel as a moral tale. Early in the unfolding story the narrator remarks that ‘the devil is an unwearied tempter’.

Mention of the devil induces scorn in our day. C.S. Lewis once wrote that ‘there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased with both errors’.

The name Satan is a Hebrew word which originally meant ‘adversary’, like a prosecuting lawyer pointing out our misdeeds; but eventually came to suggest someone enticing us to evil.

Defoe’s heroine remarked that temptation comes persistently, for he is an unwearied tempter. The New Testament records how in his early ministry Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness facing temptation. When those were successfully overcome, we read that the devil departed from him ‘for a season’. The tempter always comes back. Victory is never final while we have breath. We need constantly to be on our guard.

Temptation often comes unexpectedly. A famous scholar recorded how he had once addressed a Christian conference at Swanwick Conference Centre in Derbyshire and was elated by the experience, yet within a few hours ‘the devil and all his angels met him on the platform of Derby Midland Station’. I wonder what human form he assumed?

Shakespeare’s Macbeth was returning from the battlefield, full of confidence when he met the three witches, who planted in his mind the idea that he might be king. The temptation to murder King Duncan came, he said, ‘in the day of my success’. We can never predict when the onslaught may come.

Temptation also comes attractively. Satan can transform himself into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11;14). In the tale of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are told of the benefits they will reap in eating the forbidden fruit, but not of the penalties. Temptation focusses on the momentary thrill and satisfaction, never on the subsequent guilt, shame and pay-back.

The focus is never on the alcoholic’s ward, the divorce court or the prison cell.

The advice of Peter is worth heeding: ‘Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5; 8).

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