Originally published on johnpavlovitz.com
Sometimes words are windows.
You happen upon them and they immediately show you something that you weren’t expecting to see.
This week, one such window came in the form of a casual friend’s status update. He’s a Christian who relayed with great joy how he had triumphed over adversity that day, which he chalked up to spiritual warfare.
The Devil, he said quite matter-of-factly, had tried to derail his pilgrim’s progress by giving him a flat tire on the way to work and he spoke with righteous defiance of his absolute refusal to be defeated by his vicious adversary.
My friend reported how he basically replaced the tire and continued merrily on with his day, thus thwarting Satan’s ineffective evil scheme.
I’m so used to hearing my fellow Christians speak in these terms that it’s almost become white noise, but on this particular day, seeing it show up in my news feed unexpectedly just made the claim seem jarring and rather silly.
With complete confidence, my friend had essentially bestowed upon the Devil the power of altering physical things in an attempt to do spiritual damage to him. Without using the exact words in his post, he implied that the Prince of Darkness had either strategically placed a nail in the road or manipulated the air pressure from within his tires, or supernaturally performed some other form of mechanical chicanery to actually facilitate the flat and disable his vehicle.
I’m not sure I can buy this.
If you can, please know that I’m not saying that you’re wrong, and I’m not trying to dismiss my friend’s assessment of his misfortune that morning. I’m just saying that as a man of God and someone who has been alive for nearly half a century, I find it really tough to swallow.
It all feels a bit too convenient, and more than a bit too familiar.
Many followers of Jesus use spiritual warfare as a go-to explanation for all kinds of things; lousy circumstances, bad news, painful experiences, their own moral failures.
If it stinks or it stings or it sucks, well it must be Lucifer.
The refrigerator stops working? It isn’t because it’s over twelve years old, it’s because of The Devil.
A teenager gets busted for selling drugs at school? It’s not simply a bad and selfish choice intended to procure fast cash; it’s Satan’s minions.
The video gets locked up at Sundays’ church service, blowing the cool set-up for the pastor’s message? It’s not mechanical failure or user error, it’s spiritual warfare.
Your Atheist boss doesn’t like you? It isn’t the fact that your work ethic stinks and that you’re a consistently toxic presence in the office, it’s “the Enemy” using your boss like a puppet to destroy you.
What all this armchair theological speculation can end up doing is over-spiritualizing our lives so that we no longer live them with any sort of pragmatism or common sense. It can distract us by glossing over really difficult questions about the problem of Evil and the darkness of our own hearts, and about the clear cause-and-effect of us being terrible, mean, or irresponsible human beings.
Instead of forcing us to take a hard look at the way we live, we can use the Devil as a scapegoat and pass the buck to him.
I’m not sure we Christians should be in the regular business of deciphering evil or interpreting our circumstances to find the demonic. I’m also not sure that Scripture expects us to either. It certainly doesn’t make it very easy.
The Bible is very muddy when it comes to the Devil and Hell, and about just how all of the supernatural battling really works when the rubber meets the narrow road. The idea of Hell is barely a blip in the Old Testament as well as the Apostle Paul’s various New Testament letters. The Devil or Satan or the Accuser or the Enemy pops in and out in its 66 books in many forms, but without anything close to a uniform set of rules and often not clearly referring to the same entity at all for that matter.
What we Christians do have in Scripture is a confusing, sprawling, nebulous explanation of evil and just how much it is able to affect us, especially from outside of ourselves. We don’t really have a clear picture of how our physical world is affected by supernatural forces, good or evil.
That is to say, other than the dramatic set-up for the ancient Book of Job, there’s not hard direct evidence that Satan is into automobile tampering or video machine sabotage or office manager possession.
Ultimately, when it comes to the pain and difficulty of this life, it’s really impossible to ever truly understand just how it all works, and in that way, my friend’s status update got one thing indisputably correct: It’s all about the choices we make.
It’s not our job as Christians to analyze what and precisely how supernatural forces are at work in our infinite moment to moment experiences, but to respond to each and every circumstance in a way that affirms our faith perspective.
Whether we believe that the Devil did it or is trying to make us do it, or that God is testing us or allowing us to experience suffering to teach us, or whether it is just really rotten luck, shouldn’t really matter all that much.
Maybe it’s Satan messing with you.
Maybe it’s God trying to toughen you up.
Maybe it’s just a rusty nail in the road and a choice.
As followers of Jesus, the only sure spiritual warfare that you and I are going through at any given moment, is the continual internal fight to respond to all things in a way that most resembles him.