"Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth."
— Proverbs 4:5
One of the devil’s go-to gambits is keeping us stupid. What’s especially insidious about this ploy, however, is that the kind of stupid the devil wants for us doesn’t really have anything to do with intellect. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There’s no God’” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1). Clearly, the biblical kind of foolishness is not the same as unintelligence, as you and I likely know plenty of intelligent atheists and unbelievers of all kinds.
No, the atheist isn’t always a fool in his mind but is instead a fool in his heart. And it’s not simply those who intellectually discount the existence of God who carry this kind of atheistic foolishness around in their hearts. When we engage in the biblical kind of foolishness—choosing sin over obedience—we engage in a practical kind of atheism. We give our hearts to someone or something else. We say with our heart that there is no God worthy of our allegiance, no God worthy of the glory we are denying him, no God who will hold us accountable. Behavior problems are belief problems.
So the justifications we offer for ourselves and our sins are usually pretty sophisticated, or at the least, pretty wordy. We have convinced ourselves that we are right, despite the word from God to the contrary. Others have misread it. We have the real facts. It doesn’t apply to us or to this circumstance specifically. We are the exception for whatever reason. We have to live “our truth.”
Paul says to Timothy that people who believe this way do not have real “knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25) and need to “come to their senses” (v. 26). That latter phrasing is a tip-off to how drunk we can be even on our own intellect and still be ignorant of our ignorance. Paul has no problem attributing this nonsense way of living to “the trap of the devil” (v. 26).
The trap is subtle. What Satan continues to do today is what he originally did in the garden: substituting a version of rival facts in place of the real thing. Every sinful decision you and I make begins with the satanic question, “Did God really say . . . ?”
Satan has come with his own spin on the facts. “You won’t die. You can become like God. You will know new things and see like him.”
These lies appealed to Adam and Eve, we reckon, because they deflected from reality. Satan is not just a master of deception but also a master of deflection. He does not outright say, “Disobey!” No, he distracts. He demurs. He redirects. “What about this?” he says. “What about that? Have you looked at it this way? What if this and what about that?” He makes the trap look like an endless field of possibilities, a playground of sorts that he suggests God wants to deny you.
Make no mistake. What the devil is after is your allegiance to him by way of your allegiance to yourself, but he rarely starts with that. He starts by reframing your relationship with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called mankind’s original sin “going behind the given Word of God and procuring his own knowledge of God.”
In Matthew 16:23, Jesus calls Peter “Satan” not because Peter outright renounced his loyalty to his Master but because he positioned his disbelief (in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection) as concern for him. Think of the harsh words Jesus had for and about his family after they’d treated him like a crazy or reckless person. Think of the harsh words he had for his disciples whenever they suggested self-protection or self-fulfillment was the order of the day. “You are a hindrance to me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns,” Jesus goes on to say to Peter. In other words, “You want me to believe this is about your relationship with me, but it’s really about your concerns about yourself.”
Peter was deflecting. But the truth is centering.
One way the devil deflects us from the truth is by appealing to our senses of virtue, righteousness, or justice. Truth feels cold sometimes, hard. We long for the truth, but sometimes the truth convicts us or just proves too others-oriented.
It is interesting that in 2 Corinthians 2:10–11 Paul refers to unforgiveness as a scheme of Satan. The devil knows that forgiving each other serves the magnification of God, which is the thing Satan hates the most, so he appeals to our sense of justice. “You will just let this guy off scot-free? He doesn’t deserve forgiveness. After what he’s done? He’ll just keep on doing it then, since you’re giving him permission. Go ahead, be a doormat. See how far that gets you.”
It makes sense. Forgiving people do get taken advantage of. But unforgiving people, Paul says in verse 11, get taken advantage of by Satan!
So there we stand, wronged as all get-out. We’ve been unjustly treated. We hurt. We want things to be made right. We want justice. And the devil comes along to fester our wounds for us, to offer us sips of his bitter brew. He urges coldness, harshness, vengeance. “What’s right is right.”
He is trying to reframe the law of God for his own ends, to make himself god vicariously through you.
But the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” The Lord says, “You all have sinned, thus you must all forgive. If the debt has been settled by Christ on the cross, what do you mean by extracting further payment? Is the cross of Christ that cheap to you?”
It is that cheap to Satan. He wants your eyes off the cross, because where your sin and mine has been conquered, so has he.