Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
“The Devil made me do it.” A famous catchphrase popularized by the actor Flip Wilson, it has become the source of a theological understanding that suggests that the Devil has this pervasive power over people so as to abrogate their own independent choices and to get them to do something they shouldn’t otherwise. Listening to a recent sermon from one of my former professors, Ben Witherington, he tells the story of a student who borrowed a professor’s car, crashed it, and came back to the professor, blaming the devil for turning the steering wheel. The devil is an easy go-to scapegoat when it comes to deflecting personal responsibility for one’s behaviors. It is also an easy go-to explanation when we deal with people who we think are morally contemptuous, much like the Wisdom of Solomon thought the unrighteousness of the Gentile world is attributed to the power of the devil (Wis. 2.24). Sometimes, we as Christians might say they have a demon upon then to deal with our discomfort from the perception of egregious moral violations, which is only a stone’s throw away from what the Pharisees did to Jesus.1 In other cases, people oftentimes explain intrusive or self-deprecating thoughts they have to the devil. The various ways we try to appeal to Satan to explain problems in life is diverse and manifold, representing the way the devil has sometimes been raised to a quasi-god status in terms of his power.
However, when it comes to the Scriptures, Satan is never portrayed as having powers over the human mind and heart. Whereas God alone can test and see the heart, Satan is powerless when it comes to understanding having direct power over the human heart. When he accuses Job before God, the devil suggests Job has not cursed God because of how much Job has been blessed. Even though Job brings complaints before God that God comes to correct in an indirect way, Job never goes so far as to deny His relationship and dependence upon God. Satan is decisively wrong about Job’s heart, even though he thinks he knows Job’s true character. One of the underlying themes of the story of Job is the inability of others except God to truly know the hearts of people under suffering, as both Satan and Job’s friends are deeply wrong and mistaken about Job’s character.
In the story of the serpent in the garden and in the narrative of Jesus’ temptations, the power to tempt is not attributed to the ability of the devil to get inside your heart. Rather, the devil relies upon the desires laid up in our hearts and goads and seduces us towards them in such a way that it causes us to lose our sense of important truths and sense of goodness. Eve loses track of the truth about God’s commands. Jesus, by contrast, is tempted by the devil through Scripture to take power and demonstrate his authority, but Jesus’ continues to hold true to the knowledge of the Scriptures. The devil works not through the heart, but through “misleading truths,” which are truths framed in such a way that leads us to deny other important truths, that tempt people at the places where our hearts are vulnerable. One of the greatest sources of vulnerability is the fear of death that makes us tempted to do anything we can to stave off perceived threats, direct or indirect, to our life and well-being (Hebrews 2.14-15).
Satan tempts you and attacks you at your vulnerabilities. He doesn’t create them; he cannot. He is no god. If there are places of vulnerabilities in your life, it is because the vulnerability resides in your heart, whether it is the strong desires to go towards sin or the self-deprecating thoughts that compel you to wrongly devalue yourself. Sometimes people might feel like they have no control over their desires or their self-deprecations, in which case it can make sense to them to blame the devil, but even this is a reflection of one’s natural condition that the devil takes advantage of. Certainly, perhaps the temptations by the devil can make us subliminally think and say things that we are not conscious thinking or trying to say, but when someone blatantly crosses a deep moral boundary, that is a result of one’s moral susceptibility as a reflection of how one has lived life. Or, when we feel the heavy burdens in our life that we have little use or value, the devil may be pressing you there, but you need to seek help from those who can help you to reorganize the inner workings of your self-esteem. Even if one feels powerless, the solution to resisting the devil when he has a strong foothold is not to blame devil, but it is to seek the help and guidance for personal formation, either of moral formation to address one’s sins or mental formation to strengthen one’s sense of being beloved, Resisting the devil, as James talks about it, is not letting him take advantage of the vulnerabilities of your heart’s desires, but it is a whole other ball game when one has allowed the devil a strong foothold in one’s life.
However, it is important to go further in describing the work of Satan as he is described in the Scriptures. When Satan tempts or degrades us and we are giving into it, we are not simply giving in to our own weaknesses. Satan has tempted us to commit ourselves to a way of thinking about ourselves, others, and the world around us that blinds us to deeper, more important truths and goodness. When Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that He would die on the cross, Jesus calls Peter Satan because Peter’s human concerns that make him want Jesus not to die leads Peter to resist the very teacher Peter had just confessed that to be the Son of the living God. When Satan’s craftiness is effective, it can cause us to blindly resist God’s truth and purposes, even when we do recognize God and His good work. Much as Eve overlooked God’s commands at the temptation, Peter forgot Jesus’ authority as his heart was tempted by Satan. It leads us to be desirous and/or zealous for certain “truths” and certain “goods” that causes us to resist any possibility of something being different than we so passionately attached to.
One of the tricks of the devil is to convince us he doesn’t exist. But the other trick of the devil is to fool us as to how he actually works. As we overstate and overestimate his power, we miss and overlook the way his power does work. We can construct our various mythologies about Satan and the demons that we then use to derisively judge, much like some did under Second Temple Judaism. Yet, at the end of the day, the power of the devil is only so much as humans are vulnerable and give in to his power to believe his “misleading truths,” yet his kingdom cannot last because it is God who has the power to put His instruction in heart for us to deeply remember all the divine truths and goods altogether, to set people free in Jesus from the kingdom of the devil, and through the Spirit cultivate new desires of the heart that increasingly inoculates us to the wiles of the devil. Satan does not have the power of God, and so the devil’s power is only as we have been made vulnerable to him, through our own ignoring of our moral responsibility and through the devaluations and traumas that are inflicted on us from others.