There’s two realities relating to Satan that have to do with everyday life at a front-lines church like ours:
1. We are, at any given moment, engaged in real, tangible, spiritual warfare – pushing back on incoming darkness with all our might and like our lives depend on it. And many times, we’re exhausted from the effort it takes.
2. We have a population that tends to spiritualize far more than, in my estimation, it should be spiritualized. Things like blaming the devil for every temptation or every failure and assuming God has an opinion on every decision we make.
Full disclosure: I recognize that, as a Western male raised in rural, liturgical churches and left to my own devices, I wouldn’t know the spiritual realm if it bit me on the nose. However, sitting on the floors of alcohol rehab clinics, amidst cockroaches in trailer parks and under bridges with the homeless folks injecting heroin between their toes has opened up worlds to me I never knew (or wanted to know) existed.
I fully understand where the need to spiritualize things comes from. No seminary class could ever prepare me for the brokenness I’ve seen in the darkest places of the human heart – feeling dark spiritual energy come off of a person for the first time or recognizing people purposely sent to do damage to your Christian community. In the throes of such terrible realities, in a place so far from shalom, the human heart wants to place blame at the feet of something – anything, or anyone. Satan makes a convenient corkboard for all our posting all of our brokenness.
And to be sure, he does his part. One of my favorite books ever (in a sick, SVU-is-awesome, sort of way) is CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. It really opened my eyes to the realities of a conscious force of evil that is as crafty and intelligent as possible. Sometimes I’m tempted to hope that’s not true – to buy the theory that maybe Satan is truly just a human conception, a convenient place to lay blame given to us by the Zoroastrians. But if I believe Scripture is inspired and I believe that Jesus spoke truth, then I cannot simply brush it away. I do, however, think that the forces of evil may be much more complex than Jesus shares with us in Scripture – simply to keep our heads from exploding. And regardless of what you think the forces of evil manifest as, we must take them seriously.
I think there are two main mistakes that the Church (and I) make:
- Giving Satan too much credit by attributing to him all sorts of terrible life realities that we (or our environment) has brought on ourselves. One thing I’m famous for saying around here is that “We give the devil far too much credit – we’re perfectly capable of screwing everything up ourselves.” And I believe that. I don’t think the forces of evil are interested in ganging up to pop your tire on your way to work when you should have changed it 6 months ago, or giving you lung cancer after you’ve smoked for 30 years. Not only should we own that, but we shouldn’t give evil the credit for it.
- Ignoring Satan’s menacing techniques because we (almost) don’t believe in the spiritual realm. It’s less messy, right? Takes less mental stamina? I think many of us want to believe that the forces of evil are just something that affect under-educated people. But they don’t – Jesus spent most of His time pointing out the effects of evil in the upper classes, although you know they were just as present in the lower classes of society.