2.19 The Devil is a Figure for Our Own Sinfulness; There is No External Devil

2.19 The devil is a common figure for our own sinfulness; sin and temptation comes from within. The real arena of spiritual conflict is the human heart; there is no external devil in the commonly accepted sense.

The fact that the Lord Jesus really conquered the devil should mean for us that in our struggles against sin, victory is ultimately certain.

Battle For The Mind, Not Blaming Others

If we grasp this, we will battle daily for control of the mind, we will strive to fill our mind with God's word, we will do our daily readings, we will be cynical of our motivations, we will examine ourselves, we will appreciate the latent liability to sin which we and all men have by nature. We won't take the weakness of others towards us so personally; we will see it is their 'devil'. Belief in a personal devil is so popular, because it takes the focus away from our own struggle with our innermost nature and thoughts. Yet whilst we don't believe in a personal devil, we can create the same thing in essence; we can create an external devil such as TV or Catholicism, and feel that our entire spiritual endeavour must be directed to doing battle with these things, rather than focusing on our own desperation.A lack of focus on personal sinfulness and the need for personal cleansing and growth, with the humility this will bring forth, can so easily give place to a focus instead upon something external to us as the real enemy (1). Realizing who ‘the devil’ really is inspires us to more concretely fight against him. Albert Camus in his novel The Rebel develops the theme that “man is never greater than when he is in revolt, when he commits himself totally to the struggle against an unjust power, ready to sacrifice his own life to liberate the oppressed”. Once we have the enemy clearly defined, we can rise up to that same struggle and challenge. Truly, man is never greater when he’s in the one and only true revolt worth making, and sacrificing life for the ultimate cause.

We should not blame our nature for our moral failures in the way that orthodox Christians blame an external devil. We must hang our head over every sin we commit and every act of righteousness which we omit. In this we will find the basis for a true appreciation of grace, a true motivation for works of humble response, a true flame of praise within us, a realistic basis for a genuine humility. Dorothy Sayers in Begin Here correctly observes: " It is true that man is dominated by his psychological make-up, but only in the sense that an artist is dominated by his material" . We really can achieve some measure of self control; it cannot be that God is angry with us simply because we are human. It cannot be that our nature forces us to sin in a way which we can never counteract. If this were true, the anger of God would have been against His own spotless Son, who fully shared our nature. The Lord shared our nature and yet didn't commit sin, and in this He is our ever beckoning example and inspiration. The question 'What would Jesus do…?' in this or that situation has all the more inspirational power once we accept that the Lord Jesus, tempted just as we are, managed to put the devil to death within Him, triumphing over it in the cross, even though He bore our nature. People parrot offphrases like ''I'm a sinner" , 'going to heaven', 'satan', without the faintest idea what they are really saying. And we can do just the same- we can speak of 'Sin' with no real idea what we ought to feel and understand by this.

The Swiss psychiatrist Paul Tournier wrote an incisive and brilliant study, Violence et puissance- in English translation, The Violence Within (2). From wide experience of practicing psychotherapy and investigating the causes of various neuroses, Tournier discerned that within each person there is a huge battle between the right and the wrong, good and evil, temptation and resistance to temptation. This battle goes on constantly, over even the most insignificant things- e.g. the choice to take an instant dislike to another person, to get angry and aggressive because we feel a person in a restaurant is somehow laughing at us, etc. Most people on earth wouldn’t agree with the religious / theological conclusions we have reached- that the devil refers not to a ‘fallen Angel’ or supernatural being but rather to our own internal temptations which battle with us, as Peter says, like a roaring lion. Yet in practice, a psychiatric analysis of human beings reveals that indeed, like it or not, the ‘violence within’ is not only very real, but a fundamental part of our moment by moment spiritual experience. I mean that our Biblical / theological conclusions about the devil are actually confirmed by psychotherapy and psychiatric analysis of people. Our conclusions are true in practical experience, even if people don't want to accept the way we express them Biblically because they have a tradition of believing that the real problem is the supposed violence from without, supposedly perpetrated by a supernatural 'devil'. And here doctrine comes to have a biting practical relevance- for if we truly perceive and believe that in fact ‘the devil’ and its power has been vanquished in Jesus, if we survey the wondrous cross and see there the power of the devil finally slaughtered in the perfect mind of the Lord Jesus as He hung there, and that ultimate victory of victories shared with us who are in Him… the source, the root cause, of so much neurosis and dysfunction, is revealed to us as powerless. For we who have given in and do give in to temptation, who submit to ‘the violence within’ all too often, who are at times beaten in the fight, have been saved from the power of that defeat by grace and forgiveness, and are counted by the God of all grace as being ‘in Christ’. Thus the whole thing becomes what Frederick Buechner calledThe Magnificent Defeat.The Lord Jesus was the one who overcame that ‘violence within’ moment by moment, as well as in the more accentuated and obvious scenes of ‘the violence within’ which we see in the wilderness temptations and on the cross. And by grace, we are counted as in Him. No wonder that to achieve this He had to share human nature, to have ‘the violence within’, in order to overcome it. Perfectly and seamlessly, to my mind at least, one true aspect of Biblical interpretation thus leads to another, and becomes the basis for a transformed life in practice. In all this we see the matchless, surpassing beauty of how God works with humanity towards our salvation.


It would be fair to say that the Biblical devil refers to our self-talk- the very opposite of the external devil idea. Jesus pinpointed the crucial importance of self-talk in His parable of the rich fool, who said to himself that he had many goods, and discussed with his own “soul” the need for greater barns etc. (Lk. 12:17-19). If we at least realize that our self-talk is potentially our greatest adversary [‘satan’], then we will find the strength to move towards genuine spiritual mindedness, bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. Paul’s wording here suggests that naturally our “every thought” is not obedient to Christ; and this is his way of speaking about ‘the devil’.

Dt. 15:9 has Moses warning Israel: “Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart”. The Hebrew for ‘thought’ really means ‘word’- the idea is to ensure that you don’t have a self-talk that says… that because the year of release was coming up soon, therefore you would not lend your brother anything, knowing thatyou had to forgive him the debt in the year of release. Here we have the OT equivalent of the New Testament ‘devil’. We can control our self-talk, but we must be aware that it takes place. Moses is basically saying: ‘Beware of your own self talk; see how you speak to yourself in unfinished sentences like “The year of release is at hand…”, resulting in you ‘finishing the sentence’ by unkind deeds’.

Perceiving the reality and power of our own self-talk is one outcome of truly comprehending who the devil is. Ps. 36:1 warns: " Sin speaks to the wicked man in his heart" (Heb.). The path of Cain involved reviling what he did not understand (Jude 10,11). He didn't understand, or didn't let himself understand, the principles of sacrifice, and so he reviled his brother and God's commands, he became a true child of the Biblical devil- because he didn't understand.

Our self-talk actually defines where we go in our relationships. If we have a certain ‘self-talk’ opinion of someone and yet speak and act nicely to them, sooner or later we won’t be able to keep up the act any longer. I remember underlining a phrase of Soren Kierkegaard, quite stunned by how intensely true it was, and how much truth is compacted by him into so few words: “An unconscious relationship is more powerful than a conscious one”. This says it all. What you say to yourself about your wife, how you analyze to yourself the actions of your child… this has the real power, far beyond any forms of words and outward behaviour we may show. Yet sadly, this world thinks that how you say things is all important; it’s a running away from the importance and crucial value of the real self within. And it’s yet another reason why self-talk is crucial to true, real living and spiritual development. And this is all an outflow from a clear grasp of the fact that the real satan is the adversary of our own internal thoughts, and not some external devil or some guy who fell off the 99th floor back in the Garden of Eden.


(1) These thoughts are well developed in David Levin, Legalism And Faith (21),Tidings, 9/2000 p. 329.

(2) Paul Tournier, The Violence Within, translated by Edwin Hudson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978).

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