Many readers will fondly recognize this as the signature catch-phrase of ‘Geraldine Jones,’ one of the personas of Flip Wilson the popular 1970s TV comedian. It made us laugh the way Geraldine would casually throw out this lame excuse to justify her most outrageous behaviors. Of course, she didn’t invent this way of side-stepping personal responsibility – “passing the buck” is as old as sin itself (Genesis 3:12-13). That’s probably why we find the line funny – it’s called “guilty recognition!”
But a not-so-funny aspect of the “devil made me do it” joke is the way it trivializes the mortal danger the devil poses. In our modern ‘sophisticated’ culture the devil (also known as Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, The Prince of Darkness, etc.) just doesn’t get much respect anymore. We’ve made him into a comical character in red tights, equipped with pitchfork, an evil leer, horns and a barbed tail. Or perhaps he’s portrayed as a bestial creature with bulging ‘six pack abs’ and glowing eyeballs. Whether silly or menacing, however, such portrayals reduce Satan to a fictional character fabricated for our entertainment, and not someone or something we need to take seriously. And that’s probably just fine with the real Satan – it makes his job easier when we reduce him to a cartoon villain.
According to pollsters, a rather large fraction of modern American Christians don’t believe Satan is an actual being. Rather, he is commonly viewed as a personification or symbol of evil tendencies. In truth, we have no idea of what form Satan takes. But numerous references in scripture make it clear that Satan is not just an ‘idea’ but something or someone that exercises a willful opposition to God. Though we lack the knowledge (and vocabulary) to describe him/it, this active/conscious force is a cunning adversary.
We also tend to trivialize Satan’s activities. On the cosmic scale of things, Satan probably doesn’t expend much effort on tempting us to be ‘naughty.’ Quite frankly, he doesn’t need to bother, since we do a very capable job of generating the impulses towards greed, lust, hatred, sloth and all the rest of the conventional vices from our own self-centered natures! No, it seems unlikely that Satan wastes much of his energy on such small fish when there are much bigger ones to fry! You see, Satan’s real target is not getting us to misbehave as an end in itself, but rather as a means to attack God. Now make no mistake, scripture is very clear that the devil is not an evil deity equivalent in power to God (that false belief is called ‘dualism’), but rather a rebellious creature that nonetheless remains subject to God’s almighty rule. Why God tolerates Satan’s activities (and all other forms of evil) is a question for which we simply don’t have a fully satisfactory answer (though Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 provides some tantalizing clues). But scripture also insists that such tolerance will end with the return of Christ.
Though inferior in every way, Satan poses a very real threat to God’s creation because he attacks at the point of God’s greatest vulnerability – His uncompromising love for the creatures He made in His own image. God lovingly gave us self-awareness and free will, and Satan exploits this with THE BIG LIE – the delusion that human happiness and self-fulfillment can be found outside of God. This is the seductive idea that was whispered in the ear of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:5). It is the essence of how Satan tempted Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). And it is the lie that he has trained ‘enlightened’ society to repeat today: “Don’t take God’s words too seriously – trust in your own discernment and do what seems right to you.” When Satan can convince us to buy into that delusion, then “human nature” takes care of the rest of his dirty work. Thus, “the great deceiver” twists God’s great gift of intellect into the great lie of self-sufficiency that we use to damn ourselves.
Thanks be to God that in the death and resurrection of His Son, He has rescued us from this fatal delusion and that in the clarity of His Word and the power of His Holy Spirit He gives us the resources to resist Satan’s lies.