In my undergrad days, I along with a team of other students made weekly visits to a juvenile detention center in order to talk about the Lord with the incarcerated young men and women. It was there that I met a young man who had openly and eagerly aligned himself with the malevolent being whom Scripture refers to as Satan. Like most people, this young man was a lot bigger than I was (and am). We were sitting across from each other, and he kindly leaned his hulking torso toward me so we could look eye to eye. He was politely disinterested in what I and the other Christian college students had to say about Jesus and the Bible, but I was utterly fascinated with his story.
He talked nonchalantly about having been part of a group of self-identified Satan worshipers. He talked about scarring his arms and how he and his friends used to run through fire. It wasn’t his thing anymore, but I wanted to know why it ever had been. He didn’t seem bothered at all that devil worship was a significant part of his past. I thought, surely I can shake some good Christian sense into him! After all, I’m a Bible major!
So I asked him what I thought was a bombshell of a question, something that would shock and awe him back to reality and help him see how horrible his past had been. I asked him, “Didn’t you realize that Satan hates you?” His reply was simple, and tinged with just a little of the condescending tone I deserved to hear in my naivete: He said, with a slightly pitying smile, and a glint in his eye which suggested fond memories resurfacing, “Yeah, we knew Satan hated us. But he gave us power.”
In our culture, we’re going to see more of this kind of thing, more overt invitations to demonic powers. Having been taught that there is no knowable truth in life, we are absolutely starving for spiritual sustenance, aching to feel a power which exists beyond the empirically provable, a transcendent power whose immanent and undeniable presence will rebuke as profoundly ignorant the dogma that we are just biological machines. Sometimes we’re so desperate for spiritual substance, we reach out for it in what we know are the most dangerous of places, and we don’t care what, or who, grabs back. But even if we’re not reaching recklessly into the spiritual dark, even if we’re not seeking anything demonic at all, our lives may already have the devil’s fingerprints all over them.
Some of you readers may have personally encountered blatant demonic activity, perhaps even seeing someone who’s demon possessed. It’s terrifying, and we’ll likely see more of the kind. But if and when we do observe what is obviously the work of demons, we must not make the mistake of thinking that we’re observing something fundamentally new among us. It will be simply a more blatant version of what’s already been here, of who has already been very active among us.
Some of us may be involved in certain relationships, whether romantic relationships or what we want to think of as friendship, or the closest thing we can find to it, – relationships about which someone might ask us the same kind of question I asked the former Satanist: “Why are you giving yourself to someone who hates you?” And we might respond with a bit of condescension, a sarcastic smile that signals the stupidity of the question. It’s essentially the same reason the former Satanist gave. Power. These relationships make me feel, if even for a little while, powerful. We pursue them because our hearts are thinking, “I want to be wanted. I want to feel significant. I let myself be used, so that I won’t feel useless. I want so badly to feel strong, to feel powerful, like I’m something someone wants, and even if I know that this sense of strength won’t last, I’m so desperate for it that I will hurt people, including myself, to have it.” This desire to hurt in order to have power is sublimely Satanic.
In James 4, the brother of our Lord writes: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The implications are frightening. If the devil has to flee from them, it means that he was already there among them. Here’s how his readers should have recognized the Evil One’s presence: Back in chapter 3, James writes: “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.”
I imagine that some of us are guilty of some selfish ambition from time to time? A bit of bitterness, too, perhaps? James tells us that to participate in these things is to delve into the demonic. Our passage is just one of many such warnings in Scripture. See 1 Peter 5 for another famous one. And in Matthew 6, Jesus even teaches us to make awareness of the devil a regular part of our prayer. We are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Even if it’s more properly, “Deliver us from evil”, we cannot separate the evil in this world from the active, ongoing work of the Evil One. Clearly, the Lord wants his people to be aware of his and their Enemy. James has taken his brother Jesus, his master, very seriously – so seriously, it’s as if he’s screaming at his readers to do the same.
Look at how James 4 begins, and notice how harsh the author sounds. He calls his Christian audience adulterers, murderers, double-minded, and too dense to remember that friendship with the world is enmity with God. But here’s the really disturbing thing about his language – he’s not slandering them. He’s not even exaggerating. These believers are berating each other, acting in all kinds of hateful ways toward one another. In agreement with James, the Apostle John puts it this way in 1 John 3 – “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer …”
Many of us would probably be shocked, horrified, if we witnessed a true instance of demonic possession. And it is terrifying to see someone suddenly possessed of a strength we know that person doesn’t have, or speaking in a voice we know is not natural, looking about with frantic eyes because it’s actually someone else who’s using those eyes to see. That’s the stuff of true terror. But James wants us to have the same reaction to Satan’s more subtle presence among us – the thoughts and words and actions which are every bit as Satanic as full-on demon possession, and which in a sense are even more typically Satanic.
Our casual attitude regarding these sins demonstrates the devil’s acumen and activity in convincing us to ignore some of his most insidious work. Why are we so even keeled when it comes to coveting? Why so calm when we and others lie, gossip, curse one another, when we have bitterness against and are envious of one another? Why such a “meh” attitude toward arrogance, pride? Why so willing to blast others for their sin or errant beliefs but so quick to detonate when someone’s critique steps on ours? The devil has done his work well. And in general, why do we participate so frequently in these hellish affections and activities? Power. We think they make us, or reveal us to be, powerful.
James tells us in chapter 4 that real spiritual power is found not in reviling one another, but in resisting the temptation to do so, in renouncing the power we think sin gives us. Resistance is difficult, it takes strength, it takes God’s strength, and that is precisely why it scares Satan so much when he sees it. Satan knows the fearful things (Psalm 130) which God did in order to forgive sinners. Satan tried to keep Jesus from the cross. In Matthew 4, he offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if he will just bow down and worship him. But Jesus, of course, wouldn’t do it. Sin had to be dealt with; had to be punished, and he would take it for his people. He came not to bow to Satan, but to beat him. Satan went 0 for 3 in his attempts to lure Jesus away from his dreadful, holy work, and after he recognized defeat, Satan fled.
What was it that caused Satan to flee from Jesus? Jesus’ relationship to the word of his almighty Father, to Scripture. And it’s not just that Jesus quoted Scripture. Satan quotes Scripture in that same passage – Psalm 91, twisted and misapplied of course – but the Lord Jesus not only knew what Scripture said, he believed it and he did what it told him to do. From James 1, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so be self-deceived. Do what it says.” Jesus’ citation of Scripture helped, revealing the abundance of his holy heart, but it was in his submission to Scripture that Satan saw his defeat. As James writes in chapter 4, “But God gives more grace, therefore it says ‘He resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
Our pride pleases Satan, but our submission to Scripture panics him. Satan recognizes in Christian submission the work of someone else, the holy presence and power of the one before whom the demons shriek in terror (James 2), the one who so soundly defeated him in the wilderness, on the cross and in the resurrection. Satan flees the scene of a humble, repentant, self-denying, Scripture-heeding, Christ-loving community of God’s people. It doesn’t mean he stops attacking God’s people. If anything, his outward attacks may increase in obvious violence. But that’s just it. At that point, Satan’s attacks come from outside the community, and no longer from within. And there is real victory, real power, in that kind of internal integrity and freedom (Psalm 133, 2 Corinthians 4).
As God’s people humble themselves, submitting themselves to him, the footholds which Satan has gained among them crumble. He has nowhere left to stand, so he runs.
Earlier we thought about the question – why would we give ourselves emotionally, physically, to someone who hates us? Let’s flip that question around, and apply it to the Lord: Why would we not give ourselves to someone who loves his people so perfectly? Why would we not trust his take on how severe the sin in our lives really is, and embrace the abundant grace that he pours out upon those who draw near to him? Why would we not give ourselves completely to Christ? That’s where the truest and the greatest power, strength, and personal significance are found. “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, and he will exalt you.”