The Devil Is In the Details

When people think about spiritual warfare they usually picture a scene from The Exorcist or a miniature Satan on someone's shoulder (pitchfork, horns, and red cape included) urging them to do something bad. Even Christians—who should know better than to picture Satan as a sort of fallen Jiminy Cricket with hooves—think of the demonic as something spectacularly evil and easy to spot.

Scripture gives us a different, more subtle picture of demonic forces. Without neglecting more visible interactions between spiritual evil and the material world, the Bible paints spiritual warfare as being waged not by people possessed, but by lies believed. John calls Satan "the deceiver of the whole world" in Revelation 12:9. Jesus calls the Devil the "Father of lies" in John 8:44. Paul explains that Satan takes advantage of our circumstances to tempt us to sin (1 Corinthians 7:5), and that any kind of sinful anger can "give the Devil a foothold" (Ephesians 4:26-27). In other words, spiritual warfare looks like fighting lies and sin more often than it looks like fighting pain and poltergeists.

We put ourselves at risk when we forget that the Devil really is in the details. Spiritual warfare works in subtle inclinations towards selfishness, putting myself first, putting my feelings and preferences above others'. When I am wronged, spiritual warfare happens on the battlefield of my heart: will I lean into self-pity and selfish anger? The demonic is there, tempting me to turn my back on Christ crucified so that I can harbor my bitterness. That subtle move is the first domino to fall, and only leads to increasing anger, division, frustration, and pain.

Paul commands us to put on the armor of God so that we can stand against these schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). He counsels the church at Corinth to forgive one another so that they "may not be outwitted by Satan, for we are not ignorant of his designs" (2 Corinthians 2:10-11). To fight spiritual warfare, then, is to be aware of the subtlety of Satan's designs in the details of our lives.

Christians throughout history have been more acquainted with the schemes of Satan than we are. They mined their hearts and their Bibles for the devil in the details, and we can learn much from them today. In particular, Thomas Brooks wrote a book called "Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices." In it he works through the different subtle devices of Satan and the overcoming power of God's remedies. Careful reading brings significant reward—I was amazed at how many subtle thoughts of my 21st century heart were written down by this 17th century pastor.

You can access the entire book online here, using links from an overall outline of the book to get to the individual sections. To whet your appetite, here are a few examples.

Brooks says that often Satan will tempt us by calling our attention to how bad things happen to good people, for example when obedient Christians suffer. There are remedies to this device of Satan, though. He tells us that when you wonder if obedience is worth the discomfort it can bring, you must fix your eyes on the Cross, where we see how God handles the suffering of those who are obedient to Him: by turning it into an amazing good. "All afflictions suffered by Christians turn to their profit," says Brooks. Obedience, despite any suffering it brings, will always work for good for those who love God.

Later on, he points out a different kind of Satanic device: discouragement. Brooks says that Satan will work to discourage and frustrate you by magnifying your sins and failings. In other words, he makes your sin large and Jesus small. But Brooks offers more remedies. We must remind ourselves that Jesus did not come for the healthy, but for the sick. It is in the saving of sinners that he receives glory, and he will not fail to give himself glory by saving sinners like us to the uttermost. He tells the story of a woman who dealt with spiraling thoughts of discouragement by saying out loud, "Reason not with me, Satan, I am but a weak woman; if thou hast anything to say, say it to my Christ; he is my advocate, my strength, and my redeemer, and he shall plead for me."

There are many more, and all are helpful because they point us to truth and Jesus, while Satan points us to confusion and self. To find life and peace and joy, we must remember that the Devil is in the details, and fight spiritual warfare with precious remedies that bring rest to the soul from Jesus.

"When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see him there, who made an end to all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died my guilt soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied to look on him and pardon me"

– Before The Throne of God Above