According to the Scriptures, the one thing we see about the devil is that he seeks to be raised up and exalted to the level of God. Whereas God tells Adam he will die if he eats of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the serpent says the opposite to Eve. In the story of Job, Satan believes he can correctly see inside the heart of Job rather than God and accuses Job of being righteous only because of God’s blessings to him. When he tempts Jesus to give him authority over the world, he asks for Jesus to worship him. Jesus says he saw Satan falling from heaven and refers to him as the ruler of the world that is being driven out.
How did Satan accomplish his kingdom built on insecure foundations? By misleading truths. Certainly, Adam and Eve did not die right when they ate of the tree, but they sealed their fate for death. Certainly, Job had blessed God because of his blessings, but that was not everything that determined Job’s faithfulness to God. Certainly, Satan had an authority over the world that he could have given to Jesus, but it was kingdom that had feet of clay. Satan’s attempts at empire are built upon misleading truths: things that are true when one looks at the surface of it, but when one looks closer, the implications one might derive from these truths are false in a particularly egregious way: they fundamentally cut against God’s purposes and people’s relationship with God. Misleading truths build an empire by trying to build on a foundation other than that laid by God.
It is important to remember, however, that there are many partial, incomplete truths that can sometimes make us believe false things. Job’s sufferings made him believe some things about God that were not entirely accurate, but he did not deny and curse God. Many Protestant theologies profess beliefs such as sola fide that lead people to the conclusion that we only need a forensic righteousness from Christ through our faith rather than also an emerging, actual righteousness through Christ and the Spirit that comes through our sanctification (on this, see the blog post of Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, here). In the midst of personal sufferings through some difficult circumstances, I felt as if God had become absent when in fact God was holding back His protection so that I could come to understand some deeper truths through suffering. Not all truths that lead us to believe something false are misleading truths; one might say they mislead us at a cognitive, propositional level, but they do not mislead us in in what is most critical in regards to our faith, service, and love directed towards God, which is the ultimate grounds by which we come to have our errors corrected and reliably know truths about God. We can call such truths incomplete truths, as they allow our imaginations to draw wrong conclusions, but they don’t *fundamentally* mislead us.
We can come to understand that misleading truths are incomplete truths that are paired with temptation, such that the temptation provides a further sense of truth by association with and extended from the incomplete truth. In other words, misleading truths are the fusion of incomplete truths at a cognitive level with temptation at the level of motivations, where our motivations allow us to fill in the gaps with something that would set us in opposition to God.
As a consequence, it is our desires, not simply our less emotive form of cognitions, that merit the greatest attention and concern within the Church. Certainly, what we believe is important, but it isn’t until our hearts as the center of motivations are open to the truth that we can grow to know truth reliably. However, this concern for motivations need not be in a sense of harsh judgment towards those who have the wrong desires, but a patient, teaching spirit that is directed towards helping people to not see the world simply through the lens of what they most immediately want or desire, but fostering an independence of our sense of truth from our desires. While we can never entirely extricate the two from each other, because it is what we desire, including our desires to be safe from our fears, that determines what it is we will seek to learn and understand, we can teach the disconnection between truth and the imagination of our achievement of our desires or of our lack of achievement of them. It is here, at the level of imagination of the way things will be, that our sense of truth becomes constrained and we are vulnerable to being mislead, as our desires make us tempted to think we know the future and resistant to receiving the future as it arrives.
Is it any wonder that James 4.1-10 connects avoiding the pleasures of the world with resisting the devil in the same discourse? The devil misleads us because our desires make us vulnerable to the incomplete truths that allow us to legitimize the pursuit of whatever it is we want without concern for its goodness. A heart full of passion for what we desire makes us vulnerable and susceptible to turning incomplete truths into misleading truths.