STUDY TEN: SATAN AND SUFFERING

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020

It is very clear in the Bible that Satan is involved in human suffering.

We have seen his deception of Eve in Eden in Section C in Study 4. There, Satan clearly played a significant role in the beginning of sin and suffering. The same is obvious in Job’s suffering, where Satan accused Job of having fake faith and targeted Job with a massive amount of suffering. (Job chapters 1 & 2; and this study on Job.)

But we need to be very careful here that we do not give Satan more significance than we are permitted to do.

His purpose is obvious: destruction. In both of the above his intention is to destroy in some way whatever God has approved.

His method is clear: deception. In Eden, he deceived Eve. In Job’s story, he thought he could deceive God. To both Eve and to God he told lies.

Jesus summed him up accurately:

He was a murderer from the beginning…
When he lies, he speaks his native language (John 8:44).

His various names indicate his nature, as we have seen briefly in this study. See also this study .

But even though he is powerful, he is a created being. He is not autonomous. He is not all-powerful. He is not God. He is under the sovereign authority of our Almighty God, limited by God and accountable to God.

 

A. WHAT WE ARE NOT PERMITTED TO DO

It would be very easy to make Satan the scapegoat, to blame him for all the suffering that is in the world. But the Bible does not permit us to do that. God does not allow us to avoid our own responsibility, and put it all on Satan. It would also be very easy, having blamed Satan for everything, to also focus on Satan, to make him the centre of our thoughts and the determining influence in our lives. Such focus on, and fear of evil, dominates in some animistic religions.

A.1 We are not permitted to escape blame by blaming Satan
The existence of suffering on this earth is the result of our human decision. Instead of listening to the word of God, Eve listened to the serpent, and was deceived. Instead of listening to the word of God, Adam listened to his wife, and disobeyed God.

While there is and will be judgement from God upon Satan for what he has done, that is not our business. God holds us, in our forefather Adam, responsible for human suffering. God had set the boundary that excluded suffering. We blatantly disregarded and overstepped that boundary.

How do these passages express this truth that Adam is responsible?
Genesis 2:17

Genesis 3:17 – 19

Romans 5:12 – 21

 

1Corinthians 15:20 – 22

 

The forbidden fruit could still be hanging on the tree, and ‘evil’ could be just a word, not something we actually know and experience. We did not have to eat it. We chose to eat it. In choosing to eat it – we brought evil into the world. It was, after all, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Our choice to rebel against God, who is good, plummeted us into the presence and the experience of evil.

A.2 Although Satan is involved, we are not permitted to focus on Satan
When we read through the book of Job, we find a very interesting fact. In chapters 1 and 2 we, the readers, are told of Satan’s involvement in Job’s suffering. However, beyond these two chapters, Satan is not mentioned. Job does not mention him. The three friends and Elihu do not mention him. God does not mention him. Not one of Job’s advisors suggests that Satan has done it. They are busy blaming Job. And God, who knows the truth about Satan’s involvement, does not say anything about him to Job. God is busy revealing his power and sovereign authority to Job. It seems that Satan is ultimately irrelevant. It certainly was not at all necessary for Job to know about him. God had ample time and opportunity to explain Satan’s accusation and scorn to Job; but he did not say a word about it.

And this seeming irrelevance of Satan characterizes the Old Testament generally. In the Old Testament, when suffering happens it is the result of human sin (either one’s own sin, or that of others), or God’s judgment/punishment on human sin (either general, extending from Genesis 3, 6 – 9, and 11, or particular, applied to a specific person or nation). This is true even in Genesis 3, where Satan’s involvement is actually mentioned.

A.3 We are not permitted to escape into a kind of dualism
We have seen in the second study that God is all-powerful and sovereign, and that he is the only God. Satan is not another ‘God’. God and Satan, although enemies, are not equal enemies. Satan is a created being, obsessed with an insatiable craving to be God, or at least to have the power, authority and honour that is God’s. But he is not, and never will be, God.

He is a creature: God is the Creator.
He is darkness: God is light.
He is the deceiver: God is truth.
He is the destroyer: God is the Maker and Sustainer.
He is finite: God is infinite.
His power is limited: God’s is all-powerful.

And here we face the question: is God helpless in the face of Satan’s quest for power? Is God unable to curb and control Satan? Is God actually all-powerful as the Bible claims, or is the truth that Satan can actually outwit God?

There are three options:

Either, God and Satan are equally powerful, equally authoritative.

Or, God is less powerful and authoritative, and Satan is out of control, doing whatever he pleases.

Or, God is more powerful than Satan, and Satan’s actions are in some way permitted and at the same time limited by God. (See Job chapters 1 and 2)

If the first is true, then there is no certainty about the outcome of any suffering, and no certainty about the final outcome. In addition, we would not know which of these two powers to pray to. We would, most likely, end up like the animists and attempt to somehow placate the evil power to somehow ward off the evil he is intent on doing.

If the second is true, then ultimately we are in a terrible state, with no hope of ever being released from suffering. Prayer to God would be useless. As would prayer to the sadistic, deceptive Satan.

If the third is true, then we have to conclude that God, in his unlimited wisdom, permitted Satan to initiate the Genesis 3 entrance of suffering, just as he permitted, and limited, Satan to attack Job. Both hope and prayer are realistic.

And again, the book of Job is instructive.

Read these verses from Job. How do they express the truth that Satan is less than God, limited by God?
1:6,7; 2:1,2

1:12; 2:6

 

From these verses, how does the book of Job affirm that God accepts ultimate responsibility for Job’s suffering?
1:20 - 22

2:3

2:10

42:7, 8

 

[See this study for discussion of the sovereignty of God, suffering and prayer.]

Having identified these three things that the Bible does not permit us to do when we think about Satan’s role in suffering, we will now look at what the New Testament teaches us about it.

 

B. WHAT THE NEW TESTAMENT REVEALS

The New Testament is very much aware of the existence of Satan, and has much more to say about his role in suffering. Yet we again learn here the same two truths that were evident in the limited references of the Old Testament.

God is in control in the issue of suffering, not Satan.
God holds us accountable for our choices that cause suffering, not Satan.

 

B.1 In the Gospels and Acts
It is quite clear that Satan knew that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was also the powerful, divine, Son of God.

B.1.1 The temptation of Jesus
When putting pressure on Jesus, Satan introduced his temptations by saying ‘If you are the Son of God’ (Matthew 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9). The ‘if’ is not the ‘if’ of uncertainty, but the ‘if’ of certainty, referring to an already known fact. In English we would probably say ‘since’. ‘Since you are the Son of God …’ ‘On the basis of the fact that you are the Son of God …’ (There are two Greek words translated ‘if’. One, ean, refers of uncertainty; the other, ei, refers to a pre-existing fact. If this is true, (and it is), then ...).

The ‘suffering’ that Satan caused Jesus in these temptations was not physical suffering. It was mental and emotional pressure – pressure to establish his kingdom in a way far easier than the God-planned way of substitutionary, sacrificial death. This pressure, this suffering, cut right to the heart of Jesus’ identity and Jesus’ purpose, challenging him to choose between what he could do because of his divine power, and what he should do because of his submission to the will of God. [This is actually much the same as the choice Adam and Eve had to make: a choice between what they could do because of their personal freedom at that time, and what they should do because of God’s will for them.]

B.1.2 Demons submit to Jesus’ authority
This fact that Jesus is the authoritative Son of God, was also known by Satan’s associates, the evil spirits, or ‘demons’, as they are sometimes called.

How do these verses reveal that the evil spirits recognized Jesus’ divine identity, and his authority over them?
Mark 1:23 – 28

Mark 3:11, 12

Mark 5:6 – 13

While Satan in his arrogance confronted and challenged the human Jesus, using the fact that he was the Son of God to intensify the pressure, the evil spirits feared him because he was the Son of God, and knew they were subject to his authority. At Jesus’ command they have to stop the suffering they were causing to people. They had no option but to do so.

B.1.3 Jesus affirms that some suffering is caused by Satan
When we read many of the accounts of Jesus casting out demons it is clear that these evil spirits caused physical suffering. We read of the following:

• Inability to speak (Matthew 9:32)
• Blindness (Matthew 12:22)
• Deafness (Mark 9:25)
• Self-harm (Mark 5:1 – 5)
• Terrible suffering (Matthew 15:22)
• Seizures/convulsions (Matthew 17:15; Luke 9:39)

There is one incident in which Jesus says that the suffering caused by a spirit was actually caused by Satan.

Luke describes a particular sufferer as ‘… a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years’ (Luke 13:11). Jesus refers to her as ‘… this woman … whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years …’ (Luke 13:16).

And here we have to make an interpretive choice:

Is it only in this case that the suffering inflicted by an evil spirit is also the work of Satan?

Or, is what is true of this case, also true of all cases? That in every case where evil spirits have caused human suffering, this is actually the work of Satan?

Is there anything in the New Testament to help us here?

Read Matthew 12:22 – 29. Answer these questions:
[1] What did Jesus do in verse 22?

[2] How do verses 25 – 26 indicate that driving out a demon is driving out Satan?

[3] Who is Jesus referring to with the phrase ‘strong man’ in verse 29?

[4] Suggest what Jesus means by ‘strong man’s house’ (verse 29)?

 

This incident and conversation make it clear that whenever Jesus drove out an evil spirit (demon) he was exercising his power and authority over Satan. Satan is ‘the strong man’; the evil spirits are his ‘house’ or ‘household’. What they do they do at Satan’s bidding and under Satan’s authority. The fact that Jesus overpowers the demons means that he has already overpowered Satan. He is the ‘stronger man’ referred to in Luke’s account of this conversation (Luke 11:14 – 22).

B.1.4 Satan and spiritual suffering
In addition to physical suffering and mental torment caused by Satan and his demons, Jesus indicated that Satan is also responsible for keeping people in spiritual bondage and deception.

Consider these two parables. What does each teach about Satan’s interference in the work of Christ’s kingdom?
The parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3 – 9; 18 – 23; Mark 4:13 – 20; Luke 8:11 – 15).

 

The parable of the weeds (Matthew 13:24 – 30; 37 – 43).

 

 

In these two parables Jesus made clear reference to the activity of Satan in opposition to Christ and his kingdom:

When the Gospel is proclaimed, Satan (‘the evil one’) snatches away the message as soon as they hear it (Mark’s account). It does not remain in the hearer’s heart. His purpose is reported in Luke’s account: ‘so that they may not believe and be saved.

Satan, ‘the enemy’, plants his ‘sons’ in the world, alongside the ‘sons of the kingdom’. The impact of this is confusion between the ‘sons of the evil one’ and the ‘sons of the kingdom’, because often they appear quite similar.

B.1.5 In Acts
There are a few incidents in Acts where Satan and his ‘house’ (the evil spirits) are reported to have interfered in human lives.

From these verses, identify the kind of human suffering caused by Satan (or by evil spirits)
Acts 5:3

Acts 5:16

Acts 16:16 – 18

Acts 19:12

Acts 19:13 – 16

Acts 26:18

 

B.2 In the New Testament letters and Revelation
In the rest of the New Testament we find scattered references to the suffering inflicted by Satan and his ‘house’. This suffering includes physical ailments, persecution, deception and false teaching that seeks to lead people away from the truth.

B.2.1 Accusation
The name ‘Satan’ means ‘the accuser’. It identifies him as an adversary or opponent who stands against a person in the presence of the judge, accusing them, insisting on their guilt. The name ‘the devil’, similarly means the accuser, the slanderer.

This is what Satan did to Job in the presence of God and the angels (Job 1 & 2). When God on two occasions affirmed Job as a person of genuine faith, Satan immediately accused Job of having fake faith, that gave an outward appearance of integrity but was just a cover-up for a self-centred purpose of gaining and maintaining God’s good gifts. [We also note that both Job’s wife and his three friends joined Satan in these accusations – see this study on The Devil’s Advocates.]

This is probably one of the most common ways in which Satan attacks us as believers, not just to God, but in the inner recesses of our own hearts and minds. By his accusations Satan seeks to undermine the acquittal that is the permanent possession of all who, through faith, are reconciled to God by the death of his Son. By his accusations, he disturbs believers, wrecking any assurance of salvation they might have, undermining their peace, questioning their relationship with God. He causes intense emotional, mental and spiritual suffering with his insistence on guilt. The joy and peace which are God’s intended result of the Gospel are gone. Only fear and uncertainty remain.

Paul uses the concept of justification to teach us what is achieved by the death of Christ for all who believe in him. Whenever we see any of these words – righteousness, justification, justify, justified – in Paul’s letters, they are speaking of the declaration of legal acquittal, of legal innocence, the ‘not guilty’ declaration, affirmed by God, the just Judge, about every individual who believes in Jesus Christ.

It is on the basis of this acquittal that ‘we have peace with God’ and that ‘there is now no condemnation’ (Romans 5:1; 8:1).

But Satan comes along with his accusations. He points out our sins, and deems us ‘guilty’. And Satan is correct: we do have sins, we are personally guilty. But that is not the only thing that is true. There is a bigger truth, a deep mystery, that because of his great love for us God, in strict justice, has provided a way for the guilty to be deemed innocent, for the accused to be declared not guilty. Satan’s accusations disparage and deny the power and the legality of the death of Christ as our substitute under the wrath and the judgement of God. As Paul asks in Romans 8:33, 34 – who does the devil, or anyone, think he is to accuse those whom God has justified on the basis of the death of Christ?

What do these verses say about the devil as the accuser of believers?
Romans 8:31 – 34

 

Revelation 12:10

 

[If you are being hounded by accusations and feeling overwhelmed by guilt, go to this study .]

 

B.2:2 Deception
In the previous study we looked at the suffering caused by the content of false teaching. The New Testament clearly connects false teaching with deception generated by Satan. By these deceptions Satan leads people away from God’s truth.

What do these texts tell us about Satan’s deceptions?
2Corinthians 19:4, 5

 

2Corinthians 11:13 – 15

2Thessalonians 2:3

2Thessalonians 2:9 – 12

 

1Timothy 4:1, 2

Revelation 13:13, 14

 

Part of the devil’s deception is in his methods – he is cunning, subtle; he lays traps.

How do these texts refer to the methods used by the devil?
2Corinthians 11:3

Ephesians 6:11

Colossians 2:4

1Timothy 3:7

2Timothy 2:24 – 26

 

B.2.3 Physical suffering and interference
A limited number of verses identify Satan as a cause of physical suffering, and also as one who interferes in the ministry of Christ’s kingdom.

In these texts, what did Satan do?
2Corinthians 12:7, 8

1Thessalonians 2:18

 

B.2.4 Persecution
Other verses identify Satan as the cause of the persecution (including martyrdom) of believers. He is actively involved in deliberate and determined war against the saints. In this his purpose is the destruction of the church.

How do these texts describe this persecution as the work of Satan and his associates?
Romans 8:35 – 39

 

1Peter 5:8 – 10

 

Revelation 2:10

Revelation 2:13

Revelation 12:17 – 13:1a

Revelation 13:7 – 10

Revelation 17:3 – 6



C. CAN CHRISTIANS SURVIVE SATAN’S OPPOSITION AND ATTACKS?

Before we leave this study on Satan’s involvement in suffering, it is important to take a few moments to look at what the Bible says about the outcome. Here the question is: Can Satan successfully recapture a person who has been redeemed by the blood of Christ? Can Satan again enslave a person who has been rescued from his dark kingdom and placed by God in the kingdom of his Son? Can Satan sever us from God’s love?

The clear and short answer to this is ‘No!’ But it is a question that has many secondary questions attached to it, and these secondary questions can make the answer long and complicated.

C.1 The example of Job
Satan was absolutely sure that if Job suffered enough he would curse God and die. Even Job’s wife did not expect him to keep hold of his faith in God in his extreme circumstances. But God knew otherwise. God knew, and affirmed, that Job’s faith was genuine. God did not have any doubts about it. No matter what amount of suffering was unleashed upon Job, God knew that Job’s faith would endure, because that is what genuine faith does. See this study on Job about Faith Under Pressure.

C.2 The example of Peter
Simon Peter, in contrast to Judas, was a man of genuine faith. It was he who boldly confessed ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:16). It was he who defended Jesus with his sword, when the mob came to arrest him. Yet it was also he who denied Jesus three times when under pressure at the time of Jesus’ mock trial. Jesus understood this as an attempt by Satan to get Peter on to his side.

Jesus said: ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail …’ (Luke 22:31, 32).

And we know that Peter, despite his failures under the pressure of the moment, had a deep God-given faith that endured beyond the pressure and beyond the superficial failures.

C.3 The promises of Jesus
In John 10, John reported that Jesus identified himself as ‘the good shepherd’. This chapter is filled with strong assurance, even in the presence of those who would harm and destroy the ‘sheep’.

How do these verses from John 10 assure us that Jesus prevents the evil one from ever succeeding, in a final way, in his attempts to wrench us away from Jesus?
4 & 5

8 & 9

11 – 13

27 & 28

29

C.4 The teaching of the apostles
The apostles were convinced that genuine believers, although attacked and even killed by Satan and his schemes, cannot be reclaimed by Satan. Satan cannot undo what Christ has accomplished.

Read these texts. How do the apostles express this confidence?
Romans 8:31 – 39

 

2Thessalonians 3:3

1John 5:18

 

From the perspective of our responsibility as believers to stand against the evil one, the key element in that stand, in that resistance, is the truth content of the Gospel. It is God’s truth that is our protection and our defense. It is the truth contained in the Gospel that is powerful. As Paul teaches ‘the gospel is the power of God …’ And it is knowing and believing this powerful truth that will protect us, particularly against the accusations and deceptions of the evil one.

Consider this concept in these verses:
2Corinthians 10:3 – 5

 

Ephesians 6:10 – 17 (where every aspect of the ‘armour’ refers to the truth content of the Gospel) (See Study 13 How Should we Live?  and this study  for extended discussion.)

 

 

2Thessalonians 2:23 – 26

 

1Peter 5:8 & 9 (note ‘standing firm in the faith’, that is, in the truth content of the Gospel,)