The Devil in the Details

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The Christian is engaged in a three-front war. The Bible, replete with martial language, bears this out. The great evil trinity against which we fight is the world, the flesh, and the Devil. In our day we have made friends with the world, and we have reduced our flesh down to a few psychological crossed wires. We have lost sight of these two battlefields precisely because we have lost sight of the third. In other words, we miss that we are at war with the world and our flesh because the Devil has defeated us in battle — we have forgotten that he exists.

C.S. Lewis, in the preface to his great work The Screwtape Letters, posits this nugget of wisdom: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” As wise as Lewis and this particular quote may be, I do have a quibble. No doubt the Devil is able to accomplish a great deal of mischief among those who see him as some sort of evil god, those with a morbid interest in him and his minions. That said, I would suggest that he is able to cause far greater damage among those who give him no thought at all. That is to say, both the materialist and the magician are bad, but the materialist is worse. 

We have much the same problem within the Christian subculture, and for much the same reasons. On one side of the spectrum are the extreme wing of the charismatic movement. These folks claim to see a demon behind every bush. They don’t catch colds; they are under attack by the sniffle demon. They don’t have wandering eyes, but are at war with the lust demon. Often those in this camp are looking for demons behind every bush, because they can prove quite useful for excusing our sin — as Flip Wilson used to say, “The Devil made me do it.”

This is not the danger we face in Reformed circles. We are on the other side of the spectrum. Unlike the materialist, we do indeed believe in the demonic realm. The Bible, after all, talks about such things. But we tend to believe that demons exited the human stage at the same time that miracles ceased. Demons exist, we are willing to confess, but they have been sitting on the celestial sidelines since the apostolic age. What drives this, I’m afraid, is less a careful exegetical study of the matter, and more an embracing of the modernist worldview. We look down our noses at our brothers who pay attention to the spiritual realm not because we find such to be unbiblical, but because we find it unsophisticated. We think Martin Luther’s habit of shouting at the Devil, of throwing his ink well at him, is a sign that Martin was on the psychological brink, when perhaps we ought instead to conclude that he exhibited here the same wisdom that led him to declare, “Here I stand!” It may be that Luther mined the truth that our God is a mighty fortress from the same source where he discerned that this world is with devils filled, namely, the Bible.

That we rarely give the Devil a thought, let alone his due, ought to confirm for us this important spiritual reality — that the Devil is sitting on our shoulder, whispering folly into our ears. He is active not only in the dark corners of Africa, but in the dark corners of our hearts and minds. If we would seek first the kingdom of God, we will have to come to grips with the reality that he is trying to stop us.

His forces, we ought also to remember, are not only arrayed in the political and cultural battlefields. He does not have his hand in the Democratic National Committee only, nor does he work his magic only in Hollywood. He is also about the business of growing in us his diabolical fruit. He is at work when we are filled with envy, malice, fear, selfishness. He is waging war when he encourages us to spend our energies not pursuing the kingdom, but pursuing personal peace and affluence. He is practicing his dark magic when he encourages us to defend not the honor of Christ, but our own reputation and dignity. He is at work in the details of our lives, how we speak to our children, how we listen to our spouse. And sadly, he is winning great victories. 

The war between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman is not the exact same thing as the culture war. They intersect, but they are not one. Instead, the war between the seed and the serpent is the same thing as our war with the world, the flesh, and the Devil. May God give us the grace to win great victories in the little battles we fight each day. May He grant us the eyes to see the epoch-changing battles in our very ordinary lives. 

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