The Devil’s in the Details

The Bible is a book filled with wisdom, comfort, mystery, and conflict.  The source of wisdom and comfort is none other than God.  Mystery arises where knowledge is incomplete: the unknown piques our fear as much as our curiosity.  But conflict essentially has a single source—Satan.

Just who Satan may be is quite unclear, at least it is to me.  There is no concise or encyclopedic study of the origin of the devil in scripture.  Some have pieced together a patchwork pedigree that places him as a fallen angel, one who led a rebellion against God, but for whatever reason was not crushed by the Almighty for his treason against Heaven’s kingdom. Some have tried to make the devil something of a freedom fighter, a rebel against God’s “tyranny” in Heaven.  Again, there is no accepted evidence to support that, nor would I ever suggest that such might be true.

In all of pop culture, the question of the devil has never been framed more succinctly than by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in their song, “Sympathy for the Devil.”  While reciting a litany of atrocities wrought by humankind under the devil’s influence, the “man of wealth and taste” continues to taunt his listener with, 

“…Pleased to meet you

 Hope you guess my name

 But what’s puzzling you

Is the nature of my game…”

I don’t claim to have any great insight into Satan’s origin, but I do know a few things about him, based on comments and accounts in the Bible.  In John 8.44, Jesus relates, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  Perhaps he was harkening back to the Garden, when Eve was deceived by the Serpent’s subtle subversion of reality in Genesis 3:

 1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

2  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3  but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”

4  But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

I have long been fascinated by this story.  Satan, apparently in the guise of a serpent, uses a simple suggestion hinged on a single word to introduce humankind to the dark side—“You will not surely die.”  It was a simple contradiction of a divine directive, with an explanation of why that mean old God didn’t want his creation to partake.

I have often wondered why he didn’t tell her to eat of the tree of life first….that would have made them more like God than what would become the burden and  heartbreak of knowing evil. 

But that is the devil’s game.

As I have related before, C.S. Lewis suggested that the devil is incapable of creative activity, but that his power is in contorting and distorting God’s truth into something else.  He called this abstraction.  So much of human experience is potentially perverted from the beauty of its original divine conception by that devilish abstraction.  Sex is a good example.  Between loving, bonded mates, it is a beautiful expression of love and should strengthen that bond over time.  As practiced and praised by so much of society today, sex is no more than a bodily function, an itch to be scratched and forgotten until the next itch comes along.  But meaningless sex compared to real shared intimacy that includes sex is like fast food compared to a sumptuous feast.  The burger may fill you up as may the banquet, but the banquet will be far more memorable and satisfying.

This limitation on creative activity is evident in the book of Job, where God and Satan are locked in what can only be considered a game, with Job as pawn.  God draws attention to Job as an upright man with no equal in righteousness in all the earth.  Satan sneers and says anyone would revere God as long as God hedges him in and protects him from life’s cruel realities.  God tells him to do his worst, but to spare Job’s life.  Satan obliges, and Job is then tossed into the theological crucible of trying to understand why God would allow such things to happen to him.  With the help of his so-called friends, Job ponders his estate, ultimately wins an audience with God, and is subsequently schooled in humility.

 In the scene in Matthew 4 where Satan tempts Jesus at the end of his 40-day sojourn in the wilderness following his baptism as recorded in chapter 3, the devil approaches him with all of the things that would divert the attention of mere mortals.  He tempted Jesus to show his power over nature by turning stones to bread while in a weakened state of hunger.  He tempted his pride again by challenging Jesus to throw himself from the “pinnacle of the Temple” in order to call down a host of heavenly angels to protect him.  In the third temptation, Satan offers him all the kingdoms of the earth in exchange for his worship.

Now, if Jesus’ mission were to ultimately reach all of humankind with the establishment of an earthly kingdom, then this last offer would have moved the process along without the physical pain and suffering that he would have to endure.  But this would be wrong on two counts: Satan was not worthy of worship, and demanding that the Son of God bow down before him was the ultimate expression of prideful arrogance.  Second, had Jesus accepted the offer, then that would have taken away all possibility of free will for Jesus’ followers.  They would have been coerced into service, a conquered people.  But Jesus wants his followers to come to him out of love and respect for what he teaches and what he can offer, not the least of which being rest for weary souls.

 Notice that in the case of Job as with Jesus, Satan made nothing appear ex nihilo.  He used existing devices and forces to do his bidding.  A great wind killed Job’s children, not an army of demons.  Marauders took Job’s herds, not monsters conjured for that purpose and for the terror they might invoke.

Similarly, the power of Satan today is in twisting words to wring the truth from them.  From the time of Eve, inserting a barely noticeable negative into what God ordained remains a most effective strategy.  This can be expanded to many different levels: perverting promised liberty with the chains of interpolated law.  Using silence to effectively prohibit anything not specifically addressed.  Keeping the apparent, perceived letter of the law without exercising the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness.  Painting a God of mercy as petty, vengeful and cruel.

There is an old saying that “The devil is in the details.”  That is truer than we usually imagine.  By inserting his craft into the finest of grain, the devil’s abstraction is practically imperceptible, especially to those who are too close to an issue.  It is only when we step back away from those details and view the larger scene that we see the distortion.  The Pharisees were sticklers for detail in tithing down to the smallest quantity of herbs.  But by ignoring justice and mercy, their strict adherence to detail was meaningless.  Their religion was honed to the letter of the law, but their hearts were empty of the love and compassion that God has demanded from the beginning.  In a sense, his image was not found in them.  By planting the notion that the visible demonstration of faithfulness was more important than internalizing it, the devil won that round.

But in the wider landscape view, the rules remain the same, no matter the age, and no matter the devil’s cheats. Through the diligent exercise and cultivation of our faith and by means of God’s own grace, we can win the game.  It is grace that tips the odds in our favor.  And in the end, the devil will be shown for the loser he is.

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