When Christians don’t understand something, we usually will not tolerate “I don’t know” as an explanation. So instead of “I don’t know” we often say “It’s the devil.”
It can be used as the explanation of why a child wakes up with screams in the night and disrupts our much-desired sleep, the bad weather during an outdoor wedding, the inconvenient breakdown of an automobile right before an important meeting, or even our lost keys. When we don’t understand something, or if something goes wrong and interferes with an especially important event, Satan and his minions are frequently blamed. Our history in discerning satanic causes, however, is not good.
I have great respect for the Puritans but the Salem witch trials in 1692 were not among their finest moments. In the months preceding the trials, there were reports of ghosts, people vanishing only to reappear somewhere else, a bevy of shrieking girls, some levitation, lots of finger-pointing, and folks who were making noises like cats and dogs. In response, most people neither investigated the claims nor tolerated uncertainty in their explanation. Yes, Increase Mather, a local minister, sounded a note of caution and encouraged people to consider the evidence carefully, but no one said, “Can’t we all just agree that some things are weird and then get on with the work of speaking and applying the gospel to our community?” Instead, they craved explanations. So they agreed that Satan had run amok and there were dangerous witches in their midst.
This, certainly, is not to minimize the activity of Satan. There are some things we know about how he works, and there are many things we know about how to take our stand against him.
Here are a few things we know. We know that angry and divisive people bear Satan’s image. Though this resemblance might be temporary, it is real. Angry and divisive people follow the devil’s murderous ways (John 8:44, Jam. 4:1-7). We also know that he is eager to disrupt the proclamation of Christ to the nations (1 Th. 2:18). After this, we can’t be sure. For example, although the Apostle Paul had a thorn in the flesh that was from Satan, we cannot say that all physical afflictions are satanic. Even Paul knew there were other reasons for his affliction, too.
Our real expertise comes in how we take our stand against him. In Ephesians 6, Paul identifies various features of our battle garments. This vivid imagery is not tacked on to his letter but it is a summary of it. In other words, all of Ephesians instructs us how to take a stand against Satan. When we live in Christ and him crucified, we are doing spiritual battle (1:3-14). When we confess our lies and speak the truth, we are doing spiritual battle (Eph. 4:25-27). When church members repent of anger, gossip or any divisive sins, we are doing spiritual battle (Eph. 4:26-27).
There are many things we don’t know and don’t have to know. As the book of Job indicates, Satan may indeed be messing with our lives, but we don’t have to know the details. In God’s words to Job, Job is taught that God is God and Job is to trust him (Job 38-42). There is no word about Satan’s specific strategies, but there is a clear word about how to stand firm.
So, when there is any doubt about the causes for unusual events, we focus on what we know in Christ and we walk humbly before our God. This is the way of wisdom.