|Great Themes of the Bible (#13-Satan the Tempter)
"Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (1 Pet. 5:8-9).
The topic of spiritual warfare has become something of a fad in conservative churches over the past few years. A spate of literature has flooded the Christian market, and practically every challenge a believer faces is explained by some teacher as a demonic assault. Alzheimer's Disease, depression, bodily disorders of all sorts, school shootings, pornography — somebody stands ready to identify each of them with demonic activity and to call for spiritual warfare as the remedy.
Please don't mistake what I am saying here. There is such a thing as spiritual warfare all right, and the metaphor of Christians doing constant struggle with Satan and his forces is biblical. But casting the everyday experience of Christian life in terms of it is — in my opinion — both mistaken and dangerous.
Avoiding Lewis' "Equal and Opposite Errors"
It was C.S. Lewis who wrote: "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 [the devils] are equally pleased by both." I agree with him. Most of the problems believers face in this life are either the common lot of humankind in a fallen world or traceable directly to our own personal idiosyncracies, desires, and vulnerabilities.
Jesus' brother explained the origin of most of our temptations this way: "Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (Jas. 1:14-15). Doesn't Satan put some of the bait out there that appeals to our evil desires? To be sure! Yet many of the things we use to destroy ourselves were put in our environment by God himself for our enjoyment, and we pervert them by misuse and excess to our destruction.
I think we play into the devil's hands when we give him too much credit. When people are trained to think almost exclusively in terms of spiritual warfare as the explanation of their life experiences and begin to attach demonic connections to every tragedy or snare, they can fall victim to paranoia and other forms of debilitating mental illness. Frank Peretti's novels have taken the Christian public by storm and are — in his own words — fictional novels and not theology. Some teachers have taken his fictional vision of spirits at war and built whole theologies on it. One preacher has affirmed that San Francisco is ruled by a demon named Perversion. I've got news for that preacher: Perversion gets around to places other than the City by the Bay.
Fighting Satan From the Victory
Satan is the tempter, liar, and arch-enemy of our souls, but the Bible never calls us to defeat him by focusing on him and his demonic allies. The Word of God teaches us to draw our battle lines with him by standing firm in our faith and nourishing our hearts with Scripture. It counsels us to focus on the disciplines of prayer and holy living. But for anyone to become an "expert" on Satan and evil spirits borders dangerously close to occultism and — in my opinion — is not spiritually healthy.
Christians are not engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Satan and his henchmen in order to defeat them. Satan has already been defeated, and our current battle is with the residue of his evil influence that lingers in a world that has made him its prince. In the weakness of our flesh — what John describes at 1 John 2:15-17 as the "cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does" (i.e., money, sex, and power in our terms) — we are vulnerable to the many deceptions Satan has floated to our world. Jesus, you may remember, called him not only "a liar" but also "the father of lies" in John 8:44b.
Christians can't defeat Satan, any more than we can forgive our own sins. Jesus had to do both for us. And he did. In our spiritual struggles today, we are not — to use language I first heard from Matt Soper — fighting for the victory over Satan but from the victory over him. Jesus defeated Satan personally in his forty-day experience in the wilderness (cf. Matt. 4:1ff) and for us at his cross. Hear what Paul wrote on this point:
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. For a limited period of time that corresponded to the ministry of Jesus and his apostles, Satan clearly seems to have had extraordinary powers on Planet Earth. He could not only seduce through his lies and deceptions but actually overpower and possess persons — apparently against their wills because some in the grips of evil spirits were only children (cf. Mark 7:25). Since this sort of true demonic possession was independent of any choice on the part of the victim, such persons were the objects of pity rather than judgment. They were not held to be evil persons and lost; they were under the control of evil spirits — until Jesus or one of his servants with power to do so set them free as part of Jesus' proof that he had been given authority over heaven and earth (i.e., spirit beings as well as the elements of nature and its elements). That was "spiritual warfare" of the first order and is different from our struggles with temptation.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Col. 2:9-15).
Thus when Satan desired to sift Peter as wheat (Luke 22:31) and entered Judas' heart (John 13:27), neither of these were cases of demon possession in which the will of either man was in danger of being violated by Satan. They were both instances of temptation in which men willingly gave themselves over to an evil behavior because of some immediate gain they saw for themselves in betraying Jesus and disobeying God. Frightened Peter thought his betrayal was the way to save his neck from his Lord's enemies; greedy Judas saw the chance to pocket some money by delivering up the man he had begun to drift away from.
I do not fear that you and I are in danger of demonic possession today, but we certainly are in danger of being tempted to take the short-term advantage of sin over the long- term gift of God that goes with self-denial or suffering for righteousness.
A Strategy Against Temptation
If we choose to stand with Jesus in his victory over Satan and to guard ourselves against his deceptive wiles, there needs to be a strategy. Let me close by outlining one we can use effectively.
First, take Satan's enticements seriously. The fact that he can't overpower and dominate you against your will doesn't mean he can't trick you with money, sex, and power. And the very fact that he will not roar at you with his bag of tricks but will come subtly and gently may make you more vulnerable to him. Would you run in the company of a sulfur-smelling, ugly-looking, pitchfork-toting demon? Of course not! So pay attention to Paul's warning that Satan can masquerade as an "angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14), and don't be deceived by him. He won't look like a roaring lion when he approaches you. He'll come with easy money, a secret tryst, a benevolent power. Once you accept it, he has you! The money may come by insider trading. The (cyber)sex through your Internet search engine. The pride-of-life power through compensating for your own insecurities. You have to understand that Satan is on a leash since Calvary, but he isn't dead. And he hasn't given up his plan to seduce you into his hellish existence.
Second, avoid the temptations that are obvious. The devil is like a mad dog that is chained up. He is powerless to attack and harm you, when you stay out of his reach. But once you enter his sphere, you are asking to be hurt. You just don't hang out with people who do drugs. You stay away from people who are racist in their language. You don't spend time alone with someone who isn't your husband or wife. Did you hear about the lady who lost her life savings in a bogus investment scheme? She went to the Better Business Bureau after the fact, and a lady asked her, "Why didn't you call us about this before investing your money? Did you not know about our consumer protection service?" "Of course I did," she acknowledged. "But I didn't call because I was afraid you'd tell me not to do it!" That sounds like the after-the-fact response I've gotten far too many times from people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Most of us know when we're walking into harm's way.
Third, flee uninvited temptations. You remember the biblical character Joseph, don't you? He knew Potiphar's wife was trouble. He did everything he could to avoid her. Then, on the day that she set him up by sending everyone else out of the house and arranging to be alone with Joseph without his knowledge or consent, she sprang her trap. Joseph abandoned subtlety and ran from the house (Gen. 39:12b). "But he still got thrown in jail!" somebody howls. Yes, he did. But he went to jail as an innocent man whose integrity before God had been preserved. And that was better than being physically free but imprisoned now by guilt and shame. Just ask anybody here who made a choice different from his.
Fourth, resist unavoidable temptations. Sometimes you will simply be blindsided by evil. You won't have even as much a sense of caution as Joseph had around Mrs. Potiphar. You will be confronted and vulnerable before something that you know is from Satan the Tempter. You're handed an envelope with tomorrow's test inside. You're given insider information on a company's stock. You rented a video or took your date to a movie without a clue that it had that sort of scene or language in it. Somebody hurts you terribly, and you begin to plot your revenge. The devil is trying to use these situations you could not have foreseen to seduce you into evil, and you have only one escape route open: "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (Jas. 4:7b).
I've found out that Satan is vulnerable to direct confrontation. He is a bully. And, like most bullies, he retreats when you set yourself bravely and consistently against him in the company of your friend Jesus. Just saying no to the devil really works, but it's out of step with a culture that refuses to say no to anything. Take the test straight to the professor, and tell him how you got it. Refuse to take unfair advantage with stock purchases or too much change at Walgreen's. Walk out of the movie or take the video back, and ask for your money back. Call a shepherd of this church or John or me, and let's spend time praying about the unfair treatment at work or the abuse at home — and figure out how to address it redemptively.
Fifth, take preemptive strikes against Satan, temptation, and sin. How do you do that? The best single verse I know to offer in answer to that question is from Paul: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things" (Phil. 4:8). The best way to keep temptation at bay is to fill your mind, heart, and hours with virtuous things that honor God. By cultivating a taste for holiness, temptation begins to lose some of its appeal. Paul even talk about a total wardrobe that God has given his people to enable us to "stand against the devil's schemes." This armor of God includes truth and righteousness, the shield of faith and the sword of Scripture, the helmet of salvation and fervent prayer (Eph. 6:10-18).
There's a scene in the movie Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves where Robin — played by Kevin Costner — asks a young man taking aim at his target, "Can you shoot amidst distractions?" Just as the boy is about to release his arrow, Robin pokes his ear with the feathers of one of his own arrows. The boy's shot flies off-target, and everyone gets a big laugh from his wild miss.
When the laughter dies down, Marian asks Robin, "Can you?" Robin confidently raises his bow and takes aim. Just as he is about to let fly, Maid Marian leans toward him and blows coyly into his face. Robin misses the target — and nearly hits an innocent bystander.
Satan's intention for each of us is no secret. He intends to destroy your soul and have you for lunch. He is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. A church facing persecution in the first century was put on guard against him and told to resist him by standing firm in the security of the gospel. Even if there is a sense in which our temptations are feather tickles or flirtatious breath compared to what lay ahead for those saints, they can still have the same effect. Perhaps, as a matter of fact, they are the more devious because they are subtle and come to us when we are less on our guard than overt persecution would allow. They cause us to miss the mark and sin. While authentic after-the-fact repentance secures pardon, sin leaves horrible consequences and ugly scars we would be far better off never to experience. That means that we too must be ready against the enemy of our souls.
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