For a long time when I heard the word “Satan” or “devil,” I had a very grade-B horror movie image come to mind. Isn’t that typically how we imagine this Prince of Darkness? Hard to take seriously, tough to see as a real threat, someone you are more inclined to see as a bunch of smoke and mirrors, an illusion that may have been scary at one point, but is much less believable in the 21st century? It can be challenging to give serious consideration to the idea of a red man with pointy ears ruling a sulfurous and fiery cavern under the earth.
So let’s not. Scratch that picture. Those pictures don’t make for good movies, and they don’t make for good reality either. Consider this instead. What if the Enemy, what if Satan was much more like the really scary movies, the ones that make you sleep with the light on? What if you threw out the idea of ghosts and goblins and opted instead for a picture much more realistic, but much more threatening, much more intentional?
You can thank a guy named Dante who wrote The Divine Comedy for coming up with the modern picture/image we have of the devil. The Bible itself doesn’t have much to say when it comes to the appearance of the Enemy, but he shows up in Scripture at the beginning, the very beginning, in Genesis. Are you familiar with the tree, the fruit, the snake and the bite that changed it all? And while that may mark one of his longer cameos on the pages of Scripture, his story doesn’t end there.
We learn lots about him simply by reading what other people say about him. His name itself is quite telling. Satan means “accuser”. If he has one aim, it is to accuse you, to accuse me and to accuse God. The apostle Peter refers to the devil as a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.
Jesus had some strong words to describe the Enemy and those who listen to his voice: “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!” (John 8:44-45 NIV).
In the Bible, there’s not one mention of a tail. Not one reference to a pointy goatee and eyebrows. Interesting. It is easy not to take that storybook image seriously, but much harder to dismiss the idea of someone out there is has made me his target, who’s objective is to deceive me, accuse me and destroy me.
C.S. Lewis, one of Christianity’s greatest modern thinkers said this, “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.” I think that for far too long we have let the image of Halloween costumes with red plastic masks and rounded off pitchforks define the image we have of Satan. We dismiss him as childish, outdated and no longer relevant. We start to, as Lewis suggests, disbelieve.
And this can be dangerous. We’ve all seen the movies where the telling music, the darkened rooms, and the oblivious soon-to-be victim falls prey to the manipulative and strategic moves of the villain. The longer we act like there is no Enemy, there is no threat, there is nothing to be concerned about, the more prone we are to be caught-off guard, to be lured unknowingly into Satan’s traps.
In 6th century BC a Chinese treatise was written called The Art of War. It is considered to be one of the oldest books on military strategy, and one of the more famous quotes it is credited with is, “know your enemy”. I think the proverb could apply to us as well. We need to know our Enemy. We first need to be willing to acknowledge he exists. Then we need to learn how he works. What are his tactics? What is he known for doing? What has he done in the past, and how is that a predictor for how he will act in the future? Where are you vulnerable? Where do you need protection? How well do you know the Enemy? It may be that you need to take another look, and live a little bit more alert of his workings and his intentions.
We need to be motivated in finding the balance between the two errors Lewis refers to—to disbelieve, and to over credit. We can’t walk around like there is a boogey man around every corner, but neither can we live clueless to the Enemy’s goal for our lives. It is a delicate balance, but it is something we need to care enough about to find, otherwise we lose. Too little attention to the Enemy makes us more susceptible to his plans for us, too much attention and we live more focused on him than on Christ, distracted from the purpose God has for us. The idea is to learn to live aware of a real and dangerous Enemy, but not to live in fear. To live with Satan’s objective in mind, but not to live paralyzed. To live with an understanding of the spiritual realm at work around us, but not to live dominated by the drama. Live like you know your Enemy.
Here are some questions for you to think about:
- What kind of picture comes to your mind when you hear the word “Satan?”
- Do you take that representation of him seriously? Why or why not?
- When you start to view the Enemy the way Scripture describes him (for example, John 8:43-45 and 1 Peter 5:8), how does that change the way you perceive him?
- How would “knowing your Enemy” change the way you live?