There is a lot of confusion about Satan, both in Christendom and in the world around us. After all, he is the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33; 2 Cor. 2:11; 1 Pet. 5:8). Too many of us ascribe Satan powers and abilities that he simply does not have. As a result, we feel tempted to blame him when we sin. In this post, I explain that we really do have free will to resist Satan and his confusing deceptions.
The claim that, “Satan made me do it,” is false and must be laid to rest if we believe God. Satan does not come to us as a horrible monster, red with horns, but in a form that we find respectable. That said, he only takes from us what we voluntarily offer him in the first place.
The Myth of Satan
The main takeaway that I want you to understand is that Satan does not match the myths assigned to him. These myths are based in fear, which only serve to increase his influence and diminish that of the church. Too many Christians unwittingly read in the “fallen angel” myth of Satan. They also provide all sorts of extra-biblical conjecture on why he rebelled against God. The source of this myth is not scripture, but the fictional poetry of Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321) and John Milton (1608–1674)—namely The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, respectively. As Paul admonishes us, “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21) that someone claims to be the truth.
A Low Satanology
As Christians, we should always maintain a high christology and low satanology. In other words, we must know that Jesus harnesses the limitless authority of God, while realizing that Satan has no actual powers. Incidentally, “the devil is in the details” (pun intended). It is God alone who is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-present), and omnibenevolent (all-good). This is why the ancient Israelites, and Jews to this day, pray the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut. 6:5).
In folk Christianity, too many of us think Satan, too, has limitless abilities to know the thoughts of humankind. We believe he can present himself anywhere in the world to destroy us through supernatural means, and that Satan can really challenge the goodness of the Father. In keeping a low satanology, we better understand that God permits him to tempt us, but never beyond our ability to overcome it (1 Cor. 10:13). Although Satan may walk around “as a roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8), this movement conveys a sense of boundaries. God does not “move,” but exists. The tetragrammaton YHWH alludes to his presence and the phrase, “I Am Who I Am” (Exod. 3:14).
Rulers and Authorities
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul of Tarsus wrote,
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12).
In other words, the spiritual warfare for us Christians does not involve combat in the way nations fight against other nations. We are not to have a literal standing army that is ready to oppose the soldiers of other religions and the unbelieving world through physical warfare. Instead, our opponents are those who govern us, who may persecute the church at any time the political winds blow.
We should not too readily identify ourselves with a political party, nor be so sure that an opposite view represents the kingdom of Satan. We must remember that God made all humankind in his image, and that whatever government or political system derives from a darker source than ourselves: Satan. In keeping with a low satanology, we realize that Satan does not form puppet governments that do his bidding.
A Form of Godliness
In any cultural or political agenda, no self-respecting leader presents it in a way that sounds evil. The exact opposite happens: the vast majority of politicians offer their viewpoints for the “greater good,” never to intentionally commit an evil deed. For example, the dismembering of a human fetus in his/her mother’s womb is both “women’s liberation” and “pro-choice.” Likewise, the error-prone deliberations that sentence a criminal to the death penalty is “justice.” Satan may exercise his influence in these matters, but merely as an advisor—never as a dictator. This is why we human beings always rebrand our evil deeds as “good,” because we want to believe our works are always noble and beneficial. This has to do with our image of God (Latin: imago Dei), which Satan corrupts to make our sins appear to be acts of kindness.
On “Spiritual Attacks”
Sometimes, we hear church leaders say “rulers and authorities” describe a hierarchy of Satan with his hordes of demons. In this view, Satan dispatches one or more of his demons to target an individual Christian through a “spiritual attack.” Oftentimes, they extol the near superhuman virtues of the Christian who experiences this “spiritual attack,” and Satan’s apparent effort to bring down someone so powerful and influential. Problem is, none of this is scriptural.
The phrase “spiritual attack” occurs nowhere in scripture, and never does God exercise such a high degree of favoritism toward us (Rom. 2:11). Paul explicitly downplayed his own rights as an apostle (1 Cor. 9), and always pointed to the resurrection power of Jesus Christ as the downfall of Satan (Col. 1:16; 2:14-15). In fact, the only context a “spiritual attack” occurs is us taking on the evils of the world on the offensive, rather than the defensive (again, Eph. 6:12).
Do not be Afraid
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:37–39).
God controls these rulers and authorities because he made them. Therefore, they cannot tear us away from his unconditional love for us. The dictator may ship us to concentration camps; congress may draft us into the military; the revenue agent may seize our homes; and the police may arrest us on false charges. However, they cannot kill our spirits and remove us from the hand of God.
This is why Jesus taught us, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Keep in mind that “do not be afraid” or “fear not” is the most repeated command in scripture. Fear is what causes us to meet Satan, to doubt God, to fall into temptation, and to harm ourselves and others. True spiritual warfare is a battle for the mind, which is the first line of defense for the heart and, ultimately, the soul.
So when an individual says they are undergoing a “spiritual attack,” they first surrender the mind for the sake of the heart. However, this is really to induce fear and the role of Satan as some kind of boogeyman or external tormentor — to use the language of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. It is the mind where God provides the power to overcome evil and temptation. This the proactive exercise of faith and discipleship. To this end, Paul writes,
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:13:17).
New Revised Standard Version. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989.