Monday, August 17, 2015

Have We Made Satan Too Powerful?

Below is a quote from a book on small groups I am reading:
When Satan fights against you and your family, who will stand with you in the battle? Who will encourage you to keep going? Who will love you despite your mess ups and messiness? Who will care enough for you to hold you accountable to the spiritual disciplines you want to pursue? It's unlikely that the person next to you in your small group will do these things unless your group is what [one author] calls a "fellowship of the heart."*
While I agree with the point he is making about the need for small groups to be the kinds of relationships and fellowships that stand aligned like a phalanx of Spartans when the throes of life creep, or the armies of the enemy avail, I do not agree with the contention that it is Satan. My guess is that you have heard the same theological understanding of Satan used in a number of settings, and I'm convinced that it is incorrect. I think more often than not, it is a heavy handed way to try and imply that what we are doing is of utmost importance to the world.

You've likely heard someone say something along the lines of "I just feel like Satan is really testing me right now." Perhaps even the more cliche "Satan was/is tempting me..." In a different manner, we sometimes say things like "I just think Satan knows that [this church event] will bring so many people to Jesus that he is trying to make it not happen!" Sometimes even going as far as "Satan knows how to trip us up. He knows exactly how we are most likely to sin." I am simply not convinced that this is the biblical model.

To begin, Satan is not discussed very much in the Bible. Satan, as an individual person, is only mentioned around 50 times in the Bible, and the only book to use the name more than 10 times is Job (nope, not even Revelation goes above 7). I am not denying that Satan can tempt us individually, Scripture certainly displays him doing so (1 Chr 21:9; Job; The Temptation of Christ, Acts 5). But what I think is more common, in the theology of Paul, and even of Jesus, is that it is our own brokenness that tempts us to turn from God more than it is Satan (to name a few: Matt 5-7; 25; Mark 9:42; Luke 12:39; Gal 5). Further, Paul seems to believe that the constant, and perpetual temptation come from the servants of Satan rather than Satan himself (2 Cor 12:7).

Again, I am not denying that Satan can tempt or be directly involved in the lives of men and women. But we must understand that Satan, as an angel (even a fallen one; cf. Job 1), is a created being. He is not divine, in the way that the Trinity is divine, (i.e. he may be "divine" but he is not the Divine, I'm not really sure what the proper description of divinity with regards to angelic beings is). In this way, Satan cannot be all-knowing, all-powerful, or even all-present. In fact, I believe that part of the Temptation of Christ was to see if Christ believed Satan when he said he was able to give him the kingdoms of the world. Because Satan is not as powerful as we seem to make him out to be, it is important to be careful in how we talk about him and his power over the world. It is in the way that we talk that education happens and if we are not careful, we make Satan out to be more powerful than God.

I want to conclude by being as clear as possible on my views:
  1. I think that Satan can tempt us. I think that Satan has more important things to worry about than our VBS's, Small Groups, and even our families more often than not. This sounds harsh, but if we can acknowledge that Satan cannot be everywhere at once, then I believe what I've said. What makes (y)our VBS so important? In the same way that we've grown accustomed to an individualized Gospel, we've grown accustomed to an individualized temptation narrative.
  2. I think Satan's followers can tempt us. This means both the metaphysical followers and the human followers of Satan. Paul is quite clear that there are men and women who follow the deceiver (1 Cor 5), and Jesus, in Mark 9, tells us that we can put the stumbling blocks in front of others. Further, we cannot deny that a key piece of the ministry of both Jesus and his early Church followers was exorcism. If this is the case, it is certainly true that the demonic can in fact torment us, and will do so. However, every demon is not Satan.
  3. I think that more often than not, it is our own broken nature which tempts us. Paul is pretty clear that the struggle we each have with regards to sin is one that is the tension between flesh and Spirit. Yes, our struggle is not against the enemies of flesh and blood (Eph 6), but our struggle internally is against the desires of our metaphysical flesh, and the Spirit which we can invite to guide us (Gal 5).
In this way, I think that Satan is concerned with the Church, but he is likely not concerned with your church. He may be, but, in my mind, it is dangerous to assume so. When we get so worried about what Satan is planning to do with/to our churches, we often are overlooking what it is that we are doing to our churches.

Another caveat is that I don't think it's wrong to talk about the enemy having plans. My guess is that in the same way that the President is not involved in every single battle, but leaves the calls to his generals, lieutenants, etc. so too does the devil worry only about the big picture. Perhaps this is what you mean when you say that Satan is doing __________. But we need to be careful. Too much talk along those lines trains us to think of Satan as God's equal.

What do you think?

*Mack, Michael C. Small Group Vital Signs. Houston, TX: Touch, 2012.

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