Teasing the toothless tiger

The New Testament is clear about Satan. He is thoroughly defeated by the Lord Jesus. That is certain. But Jesus’ people still need to be wary of him. Never centrestage but in our peripheral vision, this toothless tiger needs to be noted but teased by our relative indifference to him. Snigger, but nevertheless resist.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil… (Jas 4:7)

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. (1 Pet 5:8-9)

But how should this resistance take place? What do we need to know about Satan in order to resist him most effectively?

On two occasions, Paul’s language suggests that the adversary has strategies at work. When instructing the Ephesians to “put on the whole armour of God”, it is with the intention that “you may be able to stand against the schemes [methodeia] of the devil” (Eph 6:11). When writing to the Corinthians, the apostle explains his readiness to forgive others, “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs [noe¯mata]” (2 Cor 2:11). The first word indicates ‘methods’ and ‘stratagems’, whereas the second word speaks of ‘thoughts’ or ‘designs’.

The human wisdom that says ‘know thy enemy’ would suggest that we should therefore inquire into Satan’s methods and designs. Surely it is important to know how he works, lest we succumb to his stratagems? Surely if we know his modus operandi our resistance will become much simpler?

If this logic is followed, then the next question arises naturally: how do we find out about how Satan works? Is there a way of becoming familiar with the tactics of the devil?

At that point we run into a minor hitch and a major distraction. The minor hitch is that the Bible is not really interested in providing us with detailed information about the devil. Its main game is to tell the good news of Jesus Christ: that the Son of God has come into our world, died, risen from the dead—and all this ‘for us’, to bring us to God and give us an eternally secure home. In order to teach us this good news, the Bible touches upon all kinds of other things, but, because they are only peripheral to its message, many of these other things never come clearly into focus. Something is said, but often not enough to get a distinct picture. Given how he fascinates us in our fantasy novels and films, it may surprise many to learn that the devil is actually in this marginal category.

To give one concrete example, in his first letter John tells us “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). This is primarily a statement about the Son of God, and only secondarily about the devil. This, in a sense, summarizes the approach to the devil found in the whole of the Scriptures: we only learn about him so we can hear of his defeat. We only ‘see’ him and his darkness in the light of Christ’s victory over him. This doesn’t require a full understanding or description of him at all, so we aren’t given one. The silences of Scripture must be recognized. If we aren’t told much, then we don’t need to know much. If there is a relative silence about the devil, then we should maintain that relative silence.

At this point, the minor hitch becomes a major distraction. The relative silence of the Scriptures about the devil does not sit easily with many people. Satan is a fascinating topic and it is easy to be drawn into his fascination, in an attempt to fill in the ‘gap’ in the biblical presentation. In recent decades, an increasing number of those of more charismatic persuasion have argued that not only is it essential to know the schemes of the devil in order to resist him, but that this required knowledge can be gained by what they call ‘ministry experience’.

This refers to the experience gained from direct dealings with demons. In ‘prayer counselling’ sessions with people purportedly troubled by evil spirits, information is gained by addressing the demons and forcing them to answer the counsellor’s questions. Thus a bank of information about ‘the devil and his schemes’ can be gradually built up. Those who have this ‘ministry experience’ gain guru-like status as those who really know about the devil. And—as the charismatics are themselves recognizing more and more—they also have a tendency to become unhealthily obsessed with him.

However, this must be one of the most misguided practices to have ever arisen under the name of ‘Christianity’. One of the things that Jesus clearly said about the devil was that:

[He] has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)

How can we possibly hope to get true information—about anything, let alone about himself—out of this arch-liar? And besides, why would we want to? A long strand of Old Testament teaching forbids divination and the consultation of spirits (Deut 18:10; 1 Sam 15:23; 2 Kings 17:17; Mic 3:11; Ezek 13:23, 21:21, etc.), for “should not a people inquire of their God?” (Isa 8:19). Jesus himself refused to allow the demons to speak—even when they said true things about him (e.g. Mark 1:25, 34; 3:12)—and yet our contemporaries are urging direct engagement in order to milk these dark beings for information about the devil’s schemes. Perhaps an exorcistic formula should be invoked at this point: be gone with such unbiblical and misguided practices!

The Bible on Satan

If we are supposed to learn about the devil’s schemes, there is only one place from which we should learn them. As Isaiah put it:

To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isa 8:20)

Even though the information about Satan is secondary to the grand central message about Jesus, quite a picture of him can be built up in our peripheral vision—and it is not a pretty picture. What follows is a representative sample.

Perhaps we should begin this ‘anatomy of the devil’s schemes’ with his various names. They all say something about his ways; he is the Satan (the accuser), the devil (slanderer), the adversary, the evil one, the enemy, the tempter.

Jesus said he was “a murderer from the beginning” and “the father of lies” (John 8:44), referring back to the narrative of the fall (Gen 3:1-6). Here we see him in the form of the serpent, questioning God’s word, doubting God’s goodness, and denying that reality is the way God says it is. Here are his lies. And his lies have a specific purpose: to kill. For when Adam and Eve gave into his tempting and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, this spelled their doom (Gen 2:17), and with their sin death entered into the world (Rom 5:12).

This original story shows that Satan wields the power of death (Heb 2:14-15), not because he administers it himself but because of his role as tempter. He lured our first parents away from trusting God’s good word, and this led to their downfall. Later, he also wields the power of death because he is the accuser (Zech 3:1; cf. Rom 8:31, 33). God is the one who gives life and takes it away. But if death is the wages of sin (Rom 6:23), and if Satan can accuse a person of being a sinner, then their death can be properly expected as the consequence.

From Adam and Eve’s fall onwards, human beings have lived under the shadow of death. In such a world, Satan uses illness and disaster to trouble God’s people. This was how he tested Job (Job 1-2). Just like he asked God for permission to test Job, he also demanded to “sift like wheat” Simon Peter just before Jesus’ passion, in an attempt to make his faith fail (Luke 22:31-32). Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was a “messenger of Satan” (2 Cor 12:7). The Gospels show many people troubled with sickness and demonic affliction, such as the woman bound by Satan for eighteen years (Luke 13:16).

The Gospel accounts also raise the spectre of demon-possession. Does the devil have the power to possess people’s bodies—or other spaces, for that matter? Is this what we see in the Gospel accounts of people troubled with demons? It is interesting to notice that, even though Jesus casts out demons, the language is more often that the person is ‘with/in an unclean spirit’ (e.g. Mark 1:23)—troubled with or by this spirit.

In fairly recent times, an expansive role has been given to demons in charismatic circles. From Paul’s warning not to “give the devil a foothold” through sinful anger in the congregation (Eph 4:27 NIV), a strange teaching has been derived and has become rather widespread: that demons can gain a ‘foothold’ on the soul, even the soul of a Christian. What used to be an emotion is now spoken of with a capital letter, indicating the name of a troublesome demon (Anger, Depression, Guilt). What used to be considered as sins have received the same treatment, now transmogrified into demons (Lust, Adultery, Pride, Lies). As such demons ‘cling to the soul’, it is not said to be full-blown ‘possession’, but still some kind of demonization. Reluctant to call for ‘exorcism’, those in this camp are still clear that a person so afflicted needs to be ‘delivered’. Such teaching creates fear in people. Struggling already with some kind of illness (e.g. depression) or sin, or simply just finding life not so easy, their difficulties are overlaid with a further cause of anxiety: now they learn that their problems are caused by demons. Any ministry that creates fear, rather than abolishing it, has little reason to be called a Christian ministry. The gospel of Christ removes our fears, by making us children of God.

Day-to-day distractions

The revision of sin into demons is not what Ephesians 4:7 is about at all. In the section of this letter speaking of congre­gational relationships, Paul urges the Ephesians to watch out for unrighteous anger, since it will cause relational harm amongst the brothers and sisters. This, in turn, will allow the devil an opportunity to spread further discord within the congregation, working directly against the unity that ought to be the prevailing mood. Don’t let wrong behaviour do the devil’s work, says Paul; instead, let’s continue to work out in our practice the unity we have in Christ.

Although it is not about some kind of physical ‘clinging to the soul’ by demons, this verse does show that the devil can cause damage to Christian congregations. This is not by doing any spooky stuff, but simply by the very ordinary means of one person getting angry with another.

Despite Jesus’ rather dramatic encoun­ters with unclean spirits portrayed in the Gospels, the devil does most of his more powerful work through rather ordinary means.

In Jesus’ parable of the weeds, the devil sows the weeds (Matt 13:24-43), that is, he places his people amongst Jesus’ people. Perhaps Ananias and Sapphira are two examples (Acts 5:3), or the immoral man within the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5:1-5), or those insincere liars whose consciences are seared, who teach the doctrines of demons (1 Tim 4:1).

It is interesting to notice how ordinary those “teachings of demons” actually are. They urge abstinence from certain foods and hinder marriage (1 Tim 4:3). The devil seems to have a particular interest in destroying marriage, from his work on the first married couple (Gen 3:1-6) to the destruction of marriage through intra-marital sexual abstinence and extra-marital sexual activity (1 Cor 7:5, 6:9-10, 13-18).

Despite the ghoulish persona given to the devil in movies and myths, he usually makes himself quite attractive. He can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). Presumably in this guise, he offers what is attractive to human beings (Gen 3:5-6); all the glory of the kingdoms of this world (Luke 4:5-6), the deceitful lure of wealth (Matt 13:22), and the appeal to human pride (1 Tim 3:6).

Working to shake the faith of Christ’s people through ordinary processes of human life is a brilliant strategy. Poor old Peter was rebuked as Satan, simply for thinking like a human being (Mark 8:33). The devil works through human political, cultural, and economic systems just as easily as through false religion (Rev 13). By offering attractive and appealing ways of finding security in this world, he lures his victims to put their faith in something other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Human beings enter the snares and the slavery of the devil (2 Tim 2:26; Heb 2:14-15) in an attempt to find an answer to their fear of death and the deep anxiety that it provokes at our core.

Perhaps we can conclude this ‘anatomy’ with one significant stratagem that needs to be constantly underlined. The devil is ‘anti-word’, ‘anti-gospel’. In the parable of the sower, Jesus warned that the devil snatches away the gospel word almost as soon as it is spoken (Mark 4:15). The first temptation consisted of questioning, doubting, and denying what God had said (Gen 3:1–5). Good things which can be set apart for our good through prayer and the word of God, such as food and marriage, are denied, distorted and hindered by the “teachings of demons” (1 Tim 4:1-2). In particular, the word of the gospel whispering that the sinner is justified in Christ can be questioned, doubted, or denied (Rom 8:31-34).

What the devil can’t do

But perhaps that is enough for one day. On the other side of the ledger, it is worth listing some of the things the devil can not do. He may accuse, but this will come to nothing, for God himself is for us (Rom 8:31) and Jesus has justified us and now intercedes for us (Rom 8:33-34). Just like Jesus prayed for Peter after Satan’s demands to sift him (Luke 22:32), he also prayed for us—those who would believe through the apostles. Before he went to the cross, he prayed, not that we would be taken out of the world, but that we might be kept from ‘the evil one’ (John 17:15). Now that Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the father, he intercedes for all his people, which means that no-one (not even the devil) can accuse us any more (Rom 8:34).

If no-one can snatch us out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29), then the devil can’t either, and our salvation is secure in Christ’s work and under the Father’s protection. In the meantime, it is also of comfort to know that the devil cannot do anything to us without God’s permission. Even the terrible suffering he caused Job had to be permitted by God first (Job 1-2). The betrayal of Jesus by Satan working through Judas (Luke 22:3) likewise was according to God’s plan (Acts 2:23). If he can’t act without God’s permission, that means we can always speak to our heavenly Father to request that permission is not granted! “Deliver us from evil” refers literally to ‘the evil one’ (Matt 6:13).

The cross was the devil’s great defeat, where Christ cast him out (John 12:31). And this great victory was not through some head-to-head struggle, ‘God vs. Satan’. It was won indirectly. Jesus died as a sacrifice, bearing the just penalty for our sins. Now that Christ has died for us, Satan has no grounds to accuse us anymore, and so his power is gone! He may rage a little more at Christ’s people, knowing that his time is short (Rev 12:12), but he will be totally ineffective, because the Lord Jesus has already neutralized him.

Resistance through submission

Having surveyed much of what the Bible says in its ‘peripheral vision’ about the devil’s manner of working, we may have to admit it was an unnecessary exercise. The thing is, we don’t really need to know about the devil’s schemes, or strategies, or how he works. It may be interesting, perhaps slightly helpful, but is certainly not essential.

We don’t really need to know about his schemes and designs, whatever they might be, because we have already been equipped with superior weaponry. We are not told to know about him, to study him, to learn from him. This would be giving him too much attention. Instead, we are to know our Lord and put on the strength that he supplies. If we focus on this positive end of the equation, then the devil will simply fade away like the defeated foe that he is.

We are never called to engage with the devil (or with demons) directly. There is no call for anyone to engage in exorcism or deliverance ministries. Christian ministry is always the same. It is about the word of God and prayer. That is it. We don’t get information from the devil, we continue to believe the gospel word. We don’t speak to the devil, we speak to our heavenly Father.

We began by noting the commands to resist the devil, which bring the call to be wary of him. But notice how easy that is: if we resist, the promise is that “he will flee from you” (Jas 4:7). We should also notice that, in the same verse, the negative command to resist the devil is secondary to the positive command to “submit yourselves therefore to God”. Rather than focusing upon resisting the devil, we should be caught up with submitting ourselves to God, and the resistance will duly follow.

When Paul speaks of the need to ‘struggle’ with hostile spiritual forces, he uses a term not primarily drawn from warfare, but from athletic contests (Eph 6:12). He mixes his metaphors a little, however, because he urges his readers to put on the whole armour of God (Eph 6:11). Rather than needing to know about the strategies of the enemy, what the Christian needs to know is how good his armour is! God’s strength, truth, righteousness, gospel of peace, faith, salvation, word of God, prayer, alertness, boldness… the victory of Christ is so secure that, clothed in this armour, you will be able to stand against the devil’s schemes, no matter what form they might take.

Satan was enraged when Christ defeated him on the cross (Rev 12:12). When this toothless tiger realizes just how much Christ has protected his people, that must tease him all the more!

Resist. Stand firm. Tease on.

Comments are closed.