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Talk Two: Talk of the Devil
In Lent, we think of the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, where, we are told, he was tempted, or tested, by the devil.
Talk of the devil raises a subject that is not much discussed in Church or polite society. The reality is that many of us do not believe in the devil and those of us who do are frightened of what will be said about us if we admit to it.
Clergy especially also worry, understandably, about those who believe in the devil too much and who take an unhealthy interest in the subject. There are also those who like to make a big a drama out of their belief in the devil. Popular films about the devil and the supernatural do a lot of damage, though not necessarily in the way you might imagine. One of the unexpected damaging consequences is that it results in church leaders being less willing to talk about the devil. We don't want to be associated with this sort of thing. The truth is that it's just a whole lot easier not to talk about the devil at all.
The trouble is, however, for clergy particularly, avoiding talk of the devil is not always as easy as it might seem. One of the few things New Testament scholars agree on is that Jesus was himself an exorcist. That is, he freed people from demonic possession.
The normal way we often deal with this is simply to read what the Bible says and then just not to comment on it. If pressed, however, many, if not most, will say that the devil is a vivid way of describing the power of evil in the world. It is the personification of evil for dramatic effect. And so while we don't believe literally in the devil nowadays, we can still can learn from the vivid portrayal of evil using this dramatic device.
Personally, I do believe in the devil. I don't want to spend a lot of time in talking about him. I actually think that to be quite dangerous. But I think it is even more dangerous to deny his existence.
The Bible describes both a spiritual and a physical dimension to the world we live in. God remains all-powerful; there is no suggestion in the Bible that the devil in any way rivals God. But that does not mean that the devil has no power at all. When, for example, the devil offers our Lord 'all the kingdoms of this world' if he will worship him, the Lord does not reply that they are not the devil’s to offer. In fact, the New Testament works on the assumption that the devil's power is real and to be taken seriously.
If there is one thing that Christians and non-Christians alike cling to, it is the idea of free-will. It is like a small child holding on to a teddy bear. It comforts us. We like to think we are in control of our lives and are able to make our own decisions, that we are free to choose what we do and do not believe.
I think God lets us think this if it makes us happy, but after a moment's thought, surely we can see that the idea of free will is fraught with difficulties? The choices we make are influenced by so many factors outside our control. Even the most basic, everyday choices we make, are influenced by external forces. As far as the New Testament is concerned we are slaves to sin and death. We are all addicts. It is only in Christ that we can find true freedom.
However, even coming to Christ is not something we can do on our own. Our minds, St Paul tells us, are blinded by the devil so that on our own we can't understand the Gospel. Christ can save us, but before that we need God to shine his light into our lives so we can see Christ and turn to him.
Of course, we prefer to believe that there is no devil and that we are free decide for ourselves whether we follow Christ or not. It plays to our pride and arrogance, but I think I prefer to trust my salvation to God rather than relying on myself and hoping that I am right in thinking there is no power of evil out there.
Evil is both personal and real. But the good news is that God is greater than evil and in Christ has defeated it.