First Peter ends with a series of parting instructions regarding mutual love, hospitality, humility, stewardship of spiritual gifts, and accepting the authority of church elders. The passage concludes with a warning about their adversary the devil and a reminder about the suffering that their brothers and sisters in Christ are enduring all over the world.
Two Christian teachers, vastly different from each other in background and theology, have made statements about Satan and the demonic that resonate with me. If you wanted me to express my theology of the demonic, I would say that I find myself in creative tension with these two statements.
The first is from Eugene Lowry, a preeminent professor of preaching, whom I heard deliver a series of lectures at my seminary in the 1980s. In discussing the passage about Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), he commented, “I don’t believe in the devil…and I wish he would leave me alone!”
The other is from C. Peter Wagner, a church-growth expert from the charismatic tradition. In one of his presentations on spiritual gifts and church growth, he comments, “I don’t believe there’s a demon under every rock, but if there’s a demon under my rock, I want to know about it.”
There are some important truths in there that help me navigate biblical passages that talk about the devil. First, when people say “the devil,” they might mean any number of things, and sometimes those beliefs come from questionable sources or erroneous interpretations. I reserve the right not to believe everything that people mean when they say “the devil.” When it comes to Satan and the demonic, I reserve the right to say, “It’s complicated.”
Furthermore, I reserve the right not to become obsessed with all the spooky stuff in the Bible. It’s all I can do to love God with my whole being and love my neighbor as myself. I don’t know if I have the mental or theological bandwidth to account for demons under every rock. Actually, I do know: it’s not going to happen.
Finally, I reserve the right to acknowledge that evil exists in the world and sometimes skews my priorities, outlook, and behaviors in ways that I don’t understand. If I’m not careful, this evil will devour me, so I should always be on my guard.
How can we resist this evil that constantly stalks us? The writer of 1 Peter urges us to lean into stay alert and lean into humility, discipline, and trust in God.
• What are the dangers of looking for demons “under every rock”? How can such an outlook keep us from accepting responsibility for our actions? How can it prevent us from addressing systemic evils such as racism or economic inequality?
• What is the devil’s proper place in our understanding of why there is evil and suffering in the world—and what we can do about it?
• How much of the struggle against evil is an internal struggle against temptation? How much of it is an external struggle against entrenched systems of oppression?
• How do discipline, alertness, resistance, and steadfastness contribute to a healthy Christian life?
Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.
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