Satan

A sermon I had to give recently on the Book of Job gave me cause to think again about the role of Satan in God’s universe. Satan, after all, was the angel who by asking God “Does Job serve God for nothing?” set in progress God’s permission for the horrible disasters with which Job and his family became afflicted.

Satan’s name when translated is “the Adversary”. He is sometimes referred to as the Tempter or the Devil—“one who leads astray”, to entice mankind into sin or “missing the mark”. In the New Testament letters of Jude and Revelation, he is described as a rebellious angel, determined to create mayhem among mortals, and destined to eternal punishment at the end of the age. The Puritan John Milton, writing in the seventeenth century, develops this concept in great detail in his great poem: “Paradise Lost”.

Throughout the Bible, we find stories of how its leading figures were in one way or another tested. Adam and Eve were led astray by the snake in the Garden of Eden. Abraham was tested (by God) to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice. Joseph was tested by slavery and imprisonment. David was tempted on a number of occasions, and sometimes fell. Job was put to the test, and Zechariah reports Joshua the High Priest being opposed by Satan. In the New Testament, Jesus himself is tempted by Satan, as is St. Peter, and the disability of many whom Jesus healed was attributed to Satan’s work.

Yet in the Book of Job, the picture is different. Satan is not so much God’s enemy, as he is God’s Quality Control Manager. The conversation between God and Satan is quite cordial. In this way, Job’s sufferings have nothing to do with punishment, and everything to do with testing his loyalty and his faith in God’s ultimate goodness. After all, in the world we know, we have teachers who are continually testing their students, to make sure that they have understood their lessons. Often these tests are ‘multiple choice’—a correct answer is mixed in with a number of plausible but incorrect alternatives. Sometimes also they are ‘surprise tests’—as we often find in the incidents of life. We have Quality Control Managers in the automobile industry, who deliberately take a perfectly good car off the production line, and run it at speed into a concrete wall. This is not because of any hatred of cars, or wish to undermine their manufacturer. The aim is to ensure that the car, besides being able to take people from A to B, will do this in safety, so that if there is an accident the driver and passengers will have maximum protection, from seat belts and airbags, as well as from energy absorbing design, to keep them from injury and harm. In the case of Job, then, Satan is God’s obedient servant, bent on ensuring the quality and loyalty of those whom God calls into his service.

Needless to say, these two views of the place of temptation in this world create two very different views of what Christianity is, and how Christians should live.

On the one hand is a religion of doom and gloom, based on the threat of hell fire and punishment, where God is by no means Almighty, and mankind is brought in to save the situation by fighting valiantly against the evil in the world—not so much the evil within oneself, as the perceived evils of others who drink, smoke, gamble, fornicate or use drugs, fail to attend church, belong to the wrong religion, or fail to observe the Sabbath. A great amount of this view came over to North America with the Pilgrim Fathers, and colours the views of the ‘religious right’ today.

We find the other view in the letter of James. “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into manifold temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience … that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing.” God is at work even in our trials. As Joseph told his brothers who sold him into slavery “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good… I was sent before you to preserve life.”

If they are rightly understood, therefore, we can ‘ace’ life’s trials with the same satisfaction as a student enjoys when he is able to ‘ace’ a difficult test, and after that enjoy the teacher’s commendation of ‘Well done.’ Satan sets the tests. Our joy, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to pass them with flying colours.

– Anglican Messenger, 2006*
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