My junior year of college, I waited for a friend in the library.
He burst in the door five minutes late, stumbled to my table, and slumped into the seat across from me. “Man,” he sighed, “man, take a look at this.” He dug a crumpled paper out of his bookbag and shoved it across the table.
I looked at the bright red D scrawled at the top of the test and the slew of red marks slashed through his answers. Unsurprised since I’d been there the night he’d blown off studying, I cringed in sympathy nevertheless. “Ouch.”
“I know,” he muttered, and ran a hand through his curly hair until it stood up. Then he straightened and smiled. “It’s okay, though. If Satan thinks throwing a D at me is going to get me down, he’s wrong. I’m still on fire for Jesus.”
Satan didn’t throw anything at you, I wanted to say. Your professor did, because you chose not to study when you knew a test was coming.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised. In certain places, this philosophy is prominent: Satan is responsible for all the bad stuff and everything that doesn’t happen how it should. Deaths? Satan. Sin? Satan. Traffic jams? Satan. Bad grades, hangnails, hitting the snooze button too much? Satan, Satan, Satan.
This way of thinking has bothered me for ages for two primary reasons: 1) it relieves humans of responsibility and agency for their own actions and 2) it reduces Satan in some cases to a merry mischief-maker, the Dark Lord of Inconveniences.
It’s important to note that Satan certainly isn’t a non-player in the lives of Christians. The Bible tells us he is the father of lies. Maybe most importantly, the Bible tells us he is the source of many temptations: we see him at his work not only in the Garden back in Genesis, but in the Gospels where he tries to tempt Christ into sin. Satan is a master manipulator, and he seeks always to draw people away from Christ. His job is to appeal to our sinful nature, and to empower the sinful, fleshly part of us.
But Satan cannot make decisions for us. He presents us with the opportunity and temptation to sin always – but he cannot force our hand. He might, for example, tempt a student not to study for a test. But he cannot prevent a student from choosing to study. And though Satan might tempt us to anger and impatience through a traffic jam, God permits us the opportunity to use that same traffic jam for prayer, praise, or reflection. Satan is certainly powerful and strong with a knowledge of all our weak spots, but as Christians we are free of his power through Christ; the Bible guarantees us that there is always a way out of his temptations.
We certainly can’t pretend that Satan doesn’t exist. He does, and he is very much at work. But where he is at work God is also, and it is only God who is sovereign. If we’re not careful, our tendency to blame hangnails on Satan can serve as a way for us to avoid responsibility for our own choices and our own capitulation to sin. And our tendency to view Satan as dark lord of hangnails and traffic jams means that we can forget what he really is: the great tempter who weaponizes our ability to choose, who exploits our sinful nature, and who strives always to drive a wedge between us and God.