Satan: A blog post by The Rev Christopher Page

Satan: A blog post by The Rev  Christopher Page

by Christopher Page, incumbent St Philip, Oak Bay

This post was first published on Christopher's blog "In a Spacious Place" October 3. Used here by permission. 

"Acknowledging “sin” does not mean I see myself as bad, or broken. I simply acknowledge that I sometimes live below the beauty and love for which I know I was created and which we celebrate in the service of baptism."

I was challenged recently to consider some of the words used in our baptismal liturgy, particularly the series of questions that starts:

Celebrant: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? 

The Celebrant goes on to ask:

Celebrant: Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

Celebrant: Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

These are challenging words.  I usually seek to explain these questions in the following way:

1. Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness” – There are mysterious destructive cosmic forces that come into play in the universe and that have a harmful impact on human  communities and individuals. These forces work in opposition to the light, goodness, and truth of God. Traditional Christian language speaks of these forces as “Satan.”

In Jewish and Christian tradition, as destructive as this cosmic force may be, it is not equal to the force and power of love and is ultimately defeated by the self-giving power of sacrifice (cf. death and resurrection). However, we ignore this reality at our peril and are never well-served when it is denied.

nb: I tried to deal with this mysterious topic in a bit more detail in my book Shadow Dancing: Living with the Dark Side The Temptations of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew Toronto: Augsburg Fortress, 2009. (see excerpt at the end of this post).

2. Evil powers of this world” seems to me simply a statement of fact. There is a power of group-think that at times overwhelms individual conscience and creates a situation in which individuals participate in behaviour which in the cold light of day, they would probably choose to avoid. I give a personal example of this in the chapter from my book quoted below.

3.“Sinful desires that draw you from the love of God” seems to me again a realistic assessment of a reality most of us experience. There is a destructive self-centered power at work in most peoples’ lives from time to time which seeks to undermine the energy of life and love.

The sad truth is, I can be selfish, self-centered, petty, and vicious. And, as long as I live in this frail mortal frame, I will never be totally free of these dark tendencies in my being. In Christian language we call the actions that flow from this shadow side of my nature “sin.” Acknowledging “sin” does not mean I see myself as bad, or broken. I simply acknowledge that I sometimes live below the beauty and love for which I know I was created and which we celebrate in the service of baptism.

Enshrined in the service of baptism is the awareness that there are times when life is a struggle. (nb: “Israel” at the root of our faith, means “to struggle with God”). There will be moments when life seems like a battle between the forces of good and the powers of evil. In baptism candidates and/or family members are committing themselves to show up for the struggle, not to back away when the going gets tough. It is similar to the oft-repeated refrain in the marriage service where the couple makes their commitment, “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…”

Baptism acknowledges the dark and difficult side of life, while at the same time, celebrating the light and beauty that we see so clearly in children. To collapse this tension is to diminish the power of the Gospel and lose sight of the true and deep mystery of the sometimes conflicted human condition.

Is important to be conscious of language. But, there is a deep shadow side to the cosmic/human condition. In the baptismal service, we express as a community, and a family, that it is our intention/hope/aim to move towards the light and away from those dark destructive forces that work in opposition to God in whatever form they may manifest.

I feel anxious about the risk of creating a milquetoast Gospel that lacks the depth and power to deal honestly with the realities that we all face at times if we water down all references to Satan, evil and sin. A bowdlerized sacred text may lack the guts to speak to the deepest and most painful dimensions of the human experience.  We are doomed to act out of those dark dimensions of life that we ignore, deny or repress.

The service of baptism is deeply rooted in Christian tradition, and I feel squeamish about simply remaking the ritual entirely to suit a comfortable modern twenty-first century sensibility. The language of our faith needs to challenge us deeply to acknowledge the reality that humans struggle with dark forces. At the same time, the service of baptism needs to celebrate the luminous beauty, light and love that are our true nature as beings created in the image of God. In Christian faith we hold this tension, confidence in the goodness and light of God that we see embodied in Jesus.

**********

from, Shadow Dancing: Living with the Dark Side The Temptations of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. Toronto: Augsburg Fortress, 2009.

There are three words used in the New Testament to refer to a mysterious figure that is closely connected to evil.

He is called diabolos thirty-eight times, satanas thirty-six times and the peiradzotwice.

Matthew uses all three words in his account of Jesus’ temptations.  In this story the devil is referred to six times. In those six references he is called the “diabolos” four times, and “peiradzo,” and “satanas” one time each.

The Greek word peiradzo simply means, “one who tempts, or tests.”  Satanaswhich is a Greek transliteration of the word used in the Hebrew Scriptures, means “adversary,” or “that which causes you to go astray, or to turn aside.”  Diabolos means “false accuser” or “slanderer.”

The use of these words in the bible is complex. Some of the complexity can be seen in the Hebrew Scriptures in Numbers chapter twenty-two in the story of Balaam. Balaam was a wizard summoned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the troops of Israel.  Balaam consulted God who refused to allow him to go to Balak. Finally, after Balaam persisted, God granted permission demanding that Balaam only speak the words given by God.  As Balaam began his journey to meet the King of Moab, God became angry and the writer of Numbers says,

the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as Balaam’s satanas. (Number 22:22)

The word satanas here refers to an “angel of the Lord.”  What the writer is saying is that the “angel of the Lord” tried to get in Balaam’s way. The angel of the Lord is trying to turn Balaam aside from his chosen path.

The same thing happens in the Gospels in the story in which Peter confesses faith in Christ as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)  Immediately after Peter’s bold declaration of faith, Jesus explains that being Messiah means he must suffer and die.  Peter cannot accept this vision of the Messiah and tries to persuade Jesus that it does not need to be this way.  Jesus turns to Peter and says,

Get behind me, satanas! (Matthew 16:23)

It is curious that all English translations use a capital “S” when they translate the word satanas. In the original, there is no capital “S”. Jesus is simply recognizing, as the word satanas indicates, that Peter is an obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s will. Peter is trying to lead Jesus astray, trying to get him to turn aside from the way he knows God has laid out for him.

So, in the Hebrew Scriptures an angel of the Lord can be satanas. While in the New Testament satanas can be another human being. In the New Testament the word always carries with it the negative overtones of any force that is attempting to drive us away from God’s purpose for our lives. And we probably are aware that there are forces all around us that are working contrary to God’s purposes.

Diabolos is the word most commonly used in the New Testament to describe this force that is working against God’s purposes. It expresses an aspect of this force that is particularly important.

Diabolos consists of two Greek words, “dia” which means through, and “ballo” meaning “to throw.”  So, literally the word means to “throw through.” If you throw a ball through a window, you probably will separate that window into many fragments. So diabolos is any force in life that tends towards fragmentation, division, and separation.

I was a child in the privileged era when, as long as you went to school most days, and were home in time for supper, you were pretty much free to roam the rest of the day wherever you chose. When I was ten years old, where I chose to roam took me to a gang of boys, quite a bit older than I who hung out in a park near my home. This group’s reason for existence consisted in three things: being tough, smoking, and stealing stuff. The third thing was the most important. It did not really matter what you stole; you just had to take something that did not belong to you. Shoplifting was a kind of rite of passage in this primitive male bonding circle.

Under normal circumstances, in the cold light of day, even at the age of ten, I had enough brains to figure out that shoplifting was not the way I really wanted to make my mark in life. But then there was this issue of belonging, and being tough. And I was not the biggest kid in the gang and I was certainly the youngest. So measuring up in the “tough guy” department took quite a bit of work.  There was something about the energy of this group that caught me up and swept me along.

So, one day, I found myself downtown, in the venerable old Hudson’s Bay store. There I was needing to make my mark in life. I must have been the most nervous little thief to ever launch a life of crime. I was probably a magnet for every store detective in a ten-mile radius. So, sure enough, as I headed out the door with my booty in my pocket, a hand descended upon my shoulder and I found myself escorted to the offices of the security personnel.

Now, you could call it peer pressure. Or you could say, “the devil made me do it.” But looking back now, I have a strong sense that in that gang of guys with whom I had chosen to associate, diabolos was at work. There was a kind of destructive force in our midst when we got together that caused things to happen that would not have happened if any one of us had been left on our own. And these things that happened had the same effect as throwing a stone through a window. Our escapades caused brokenness and fragmentation. I became increasingly separated from my family. I became cut off from my healthier friends, from my school, and from those influences that might have brought life and light into my life. But, most important of all, I became cut off from myself, from my own better instincts, from whatever wisdom might have existed in the depth of my being.

This is the power of diabolos. It is the power that separates us from ourselves, that cuts us off from community, breaks down human bonds, leaving separation and fragmentation in its path wherever it is found. We all know what this force feels like. We can sense it in our being. We recognize those times when we see a response coming out of our mouths that we know is going to cause a tear in the fabric of life. We know those actions that draw us towards that which is destructive and deadly, that which is going to create separation in place of unity.

My days of crime were short-lived, but they were exciting. I felt I was living on the edge in touch with some primordial energy and power. Diabolos loves drama. It thrives on intensity and adrenalin. Diablos is the shadow side of community, creating units of connection that are built around the violence of conformity and dishonesty. It likes to divide the world into good guys and bad guys and cherish the rush of being part of the group with power to decide who is in and who is out. But Diabolos destroys community and creates situations in which people respond to life from a small place of competition and conflict. Diabolos always works against the establishment of the peaceful kingdom of harmony and love that Jesus came to establish here on earth.

This is the most important thing about diabolos; it always works contrary to God’s purposes.  Like satanas diablos is an obstacle; it always works against the flourishing of true human qualities and the prospering of deeply connected human relationships.

Jesus described his mission in John 10:16, saying,

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

That is Jesus’ desire – “one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus came to restore unity, to the human community. He came to overcome the power of diabolos, to mend the brokenness and fragmentation that has overtaken so much of the human enterprise. Jesus came to bring healing and wholeness.

Paul understood this perfectly and said that since Jesus came,

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Jesus came to bring the hostile forces of the world together in unity. The writer of Ephesians says of Jesus that

he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  (Ephesians 2:14-16)

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by diabolos he was being tempted to revert to a worldview of good guys and bad guys, a worldview in which we know who belongs because they are like us; they talk like us, act like us and think like us. And we know who does not belong because they are different. Diabolos drives apart. Jesus draws together. Diabolos creates division, separation, and classification. Jesus breaks down the dividing barrier.  In Jesus the two become one, distinctions are overcome and the original unity of all creation is restored.

We are called to live in the light of this mission for which Jesus died. We are called to be a force for reconciliation and to resist the temptation to divide and separate. We are to be a force for healing, as we walk in the victory Jesus has won over all the forces that might ever oppose the work of God’s kingdom here on earth.  The world finds it easy to divide. Separation seems to be the natural default position for most human beings. Those who follow Jesus are committed to going against this force of diabolos. We are committed to the restoration of that original human unity in which creation came into being. We are committed to being a sign of reconciliation in the midst of the brokenness and fragmentation of the world.