Resist the Devil

James 4:7, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

The Temptation

The rain dribbled down the window and the unseasonably cold day could still be felt inside as I sat at the table of my favorite little neighborhood diner. It was September, although it felt more like February. More importantly, it was Moving Day. Back at our house, the movers—oblivious to our sentimental feelings—were efficiently packing up our life as we knew it. We were moving from Memphis to Cincinnati. Oh, sure, we were excited about the move: the Lord had many times over confirmed to us that Cincinnati was where he wanted us to be. However, now that the day had actually come, it was impossible not to feel a little unsettled inside.

Over the crackling old speaker came the wistful voice of some by-gone female entertainer, singing over and over again the refrain, ‘These are the good old days …’ Could it be true? Were our best days now about to end and darker ones to begin? As I sank deeper into the darkness of my self pity, I looked down at my table. Various community businesses had paid to have their company’s name and services laminated onto the top of the table, making a patchwork of propaganda on which to eat my pancakes. Suddenly one ad in particular caught my eye. Some homebuilder, who was obviously a Christian, had paid for the following words to be pasted onto the tabletop years ago:

‘Through wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established’ (Prov. 24:3).

I don’t know if the weather actually changed or not, but suddenly I felt as if things were a little bit sunnier in that diner. Of course we had enjoyed our life in Memphis. Of course we had many loved ones there. But is that what makes a house strong? Is that what makes its happiness secure?

No; above all else, it is divine wisdom which makes a home truly blessed and makes its foundations firm. What surer foundation could we possibly build our future happiness on than the guidance of our precious Savior? Certainly the winds will come, and the storms will blow, but who can shake the house that is built on the sure foundation of Jesus?

Everything else is just sand.

The Resistance

Somehow the idea of ‘resisting the devil’ used to elude me as a powerful exhortation to any specific action. This is perhaps because the whole concept seemed to be completely supernatural and beyond my ability even to apprehend. I could see the importance, but not the application, of the admonition.

Certainly, if we are being attacked by the devil, we want to know how to protect ourselves! But how is such a defense to be mounted against a cunning invisible, undetectable foe? How do we even know whether it is the devil that is attacking? Could it not be one of his lesser minions, one of his human servants, or even just the uprising of my own wicked inclinations? How do I resist something, or someone, whom I cannot even identify or perceive?

Having prayerfully pursued some enlightenment on this admonition from James, I am still convinced that there is much that I do not know but desperately need to learn. Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out in the 1976 preface to his commentary on Ephesians 6:10–13 (in which he unapologetically devotes a whole volume of twenty-six sermons exclusively to these four verses concerning spiritual warfare):

My contention is that the same warning and exhortation are urgently needed today, and perhaps more so than at any time since they were originally written … Our age is one that has largely ceased to believe in the supernatural at all … even in the church, and among those who claim to believe in a supernatural realm, there is evident and increasing forgetfulness of what the Apostle Paul teaches here—indeed an open denial of it.

However, while I confess my generation’s general disdain for all things supernatural, I must also share with you that, in my opinion, the admonition to ‘resist the devil’ is not primarily an invitation to a concerted study of the paranormal. I do, however, think that James’ admonition is a bugle call, a rallying cry, in our battle against the real forces of Satan. And from fighting the fear of an unknown future in a new home and city to repelling the daily temptations to discouragement or unfaithfulness in any part of my life, I have come to realize that there are at least two vital ingredients in the recipe for resisting the devil.

The Enemy

First, I do not believe that James is saying that we must know for certain whether it is Satan himself against whom we are fighting, in one of his direct assaults upon the saints of God, or whether it is one of his lesser ministers, sent to do damage to our spiritual welfare and vitality. This is simply a distraction from the real and crucial question: is this desire—whether from without or within—towards something that is godly or ungodly? It is enough to know that any spirit that is not of God is of the devil and is antichrist (1 John 4:3, 6).

This is why Job was able to successfully resist the direct attacks by Satan on his family, his possessions and even his own body. Job did not—could not—know of the heavenly conversation to which we are privy in the first two chapters of his story; he had no way of knowing that his hardships were the offensive manoeuvrings of Satan himself. But he could recognize the ungodly spirit that encouraged him to ‘curse God, and die’, even when the words were spoken by his own wife. Therefore he replied (and in doing so successfully resisted the temptation of the devil), ‘Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ (Job 2:10).

Likewise, Jesus successfully resisted the devil, even when his temptations came in the disguise of the apostles’ own words. Remember Jesus’ response to Peter, after his attempt to discourage Jesus from going to the cross? ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (Matt. 16:23), the exact same words that he had earlier used in the wilderness temptations when speaking to the devil himself (Matt. 4:10). Again, when the ‘sons of thunder’, James and John, encouraged vengeance on the inhospitable Samaritans, Jesus replied, ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of’ (Luke 9:55, NKJV). It was not necessary to identify the presence of Satan, but simply to identify his teaching, his motivations, his worldview.

The imperative from James to ‘resist the devil’ does not therefore mean that we have to waste any time or effort exploring the spiritual world—which is beyond our ability to fully comprehend anyway—in order to discover the face of our adversary. We can simply rest assured that any spirit, any thought or any word that is contrary to the godly life is an assault—directly or indirectly—by Satan upon our sanctification. This truth brings the battleground down from the invisible and ethereal to the practical and graspable.

The Confidence

Second, I submit that the essential component of any successful resistance against Satan as our assailant is this: a thorough, true-to-the-core trust in God. I am not saying that other things are not important—Bible reading, prayer, good habits or godly friends. However, none of these can, alone, give us the victory in a hand-to-hand combat with real, head-turning temptations.

It is often observed (and rightly so) that Jesus used the Bible to face the devil in the wilderness, by quoting God’s Word to Satan. But so did Eve, in the Garden of Eden! ‘And the woman said to the serpent … God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die”’ (Gen. 3:2–3). Jesus quoted the Word of God and triumphed over the test; Eve tried to quote God’s words and fell prey to the tempter. What made the difference?

Jesus had an indestructible confidence in the God whom he quoted. Eve was simply repeating, with a hollow fealty, the instructions that had been given her.

In order to consistently, jubilantly gain victory over the temptations that will be constantly launched at us throughout the course of our lives, we must be nurturing a hearty, personal trust in the God whom we are trying to follow. Jesus committed himself, without hesitation, into the hands of his Father every time temptation invited him off-course. Our default mode, our automatic response, must also be to confidently rest in the truth of what God has told us—about himself, about ourselves and about the world around us. We will never overcome the real temptations of life with a shallow allegiance to our parents God, our pastor’s God or our church’s God. It must be a trust born out of a personal, poignant intimacy with our heavenly Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.

This is an especially daunting directive during those times when we do not understand what God is doing, or allowing, in our lives. Yet even then we must throw ourselves, with carefree abandon, into the sanctuary of our Saviour. What necessary courage is demanded of us, to without qualification or reservation declare like Job, ‘Though he slay me, I will hope in him’ (Job 13:15)!

I read in the news not long ago about a shepherd who was watching over his flock of sheep in a small village in Turkey. Suddenly, without explanation, one of the sheep turned from the delightful field into which this shepherd had led it, jumped headlong over a cliff and broke its neck. To make matters worse, a group of the remaining sheep, with lemming-like stupidity, followed this leader to their own deaths as well. Before the shepherd could stop them, over $100,000 worth of sheep had been destroyed!

I cannot help but wonder what was going through the minds of those sheep. To leave the safety and provision of solid ground, to go bounding over a cliff in search of deeper satisfaction! On the other hand, maybe it was the same thing that was going through my mind as I sat in that Memphis diner several years ago. You know, somehow I think that Jesus was not paying us a compliment when he called us his ‘sheep’. He was not referring to how warm and fluffy we are, but rather to how simple and in need of a shepherd we are.

The demise of those sheep did not begin when their hooves left the ground and went airborne at the edge of the cliff. That was just the evidence that they had already been defeated. The real battle commenced the moment they began to wonder if there was something better, something more fulfilling, something worth pursuing, outside of where the shepherd was leading them. Likewise, there was an authentic, spiritual skirmish taking place that day as I ate my pancakes and struggled with the seeming uncertainty of my situation.

Have you been stealing glances towards the cliff yourself? Thankfully, our shepherd knows his sheep, and his rod and staff prudently preserve them. But I wonder how many trips to the edge he may allow in order for us to learn our lesson?

James tells us that when we resist the devil, he will flee from us. From Eve’s sad example we learn that this requires more than just an unconvincing repetition of God’s commandments. But it is encouraging to know that, as we hurl ourselves, without reservation, into the hands of our Savior, all the tricks in Satan’s bag lose their potency and he himself must give up in defeat when he finds us resting confidently in the fist of God.

Editors Note: This is an excerpt from Justin’s book, Grow: The Command to Ever-Expanding Joy. Pick up a copy of Justin’s book here.

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