How to Resist the Devil

Read: James 4:7-8

For many people the Devil is nothing more than a cartoon character. But we have a real and terrible enemy in Satan. Let’s learn today how to fight against him.

How do we go about resisting the devil? To Jesus Christ and his apostles, that was a vitally important question. Our Lord had to resist the devil repeatedly. Do you remember him saying on more than one occasion, “Get away from me, Satan. Get behind me, Satan”? His followers learned about that from him. Paul tried to equip his fellow Christians to “stand against the wiles of the devil.” Peter urged them, “Resist him, steadfast in the faith” (1 Peter 5:9). And James, the brother of the Lord, gave to the church this command with a promise: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (v. 7).

I’m struck as I read those words at how naturally they arise. The New Testament writers do not argue for the existence of Satan; they assume it. It apparently did not occur to them that their readers would be unaware of a spiritual conflict. When they said, “Resist the devil,” they were sure that Christians everywhere would know what they meant.

These days we aren’t so sure, are we? Many moderns dismiss all talk about the devil as crude superstition. Even among some who profess faith in Christ, this is an area of dim uncertainty. Many aren’t sure that there is an “evil one,” a personal enemy of God and his purposes. They are ready to explain the spiritual warfare described in the New Testament in psychological terms as if this alleged “enemy” were imaginary. For them, serious talk about resisting the devil makes no sense and holds no interest.

Why this marked difference between the biblical perspective and the outlook of our age? Are we more enlightened now about these things? Do we penetrate more deeply into the nature of evil in our world, so that we can account for it better and oppose it more successfully? Has the devil accommodatingly gone away because many no longer believe that he exists? That’s one way for accounting for what has happened.

But there’s another possibility. We should remember that these denials of Satan’s being and work are based on no evidence whatever. Nothing has been discovered or demonstrated to disprove the New Testament witness. It’s not a case of fact against fiction, modern knowledge against ancient ignorance. It’s a matter of basic perspective, especially of whether or not God’s revelation gives us clues to the working of evil in this world. Finally, we will either take the Bible’s view or some other view – on faith.

That, you see, is the heart of the issue. God’s self-disclosure in Christ opened up a new world of awareness for all who received it. As Christians believed the word about God’s kingly rule in Jesus Christ, they realized also that another kingdom opposes it. The kingdom of darkness was as real for them as the kingdom of light. They were no more inclined to doubt the devil’s existence than to doubt God’s. The Word of God had opened their eyes to a warfare which to unbelieving minds was invisible. It’s possible that our skepticism today arises not from new learning but from a loss of spiritual vitality. We may think ourselves discerning when we are only dull.

Before we dismiss the words of Jesus and his apostles, let’s give them a fair hearing. Let’s try to look at the reality of evil through their eyes. According to them, Satan, the tempter, the devil, is above all else anti-God. Though a creature, he has defied God’s rule and established a kingdom of misrule. His only design is to thwart God’s design, to abolish his authority, and if it were possible, to take his place. He opposes human beings and seeks to destroy them because they are made in God’s image. His malice is especially directed against Christians because they belong to God and serve his purpose. They threaten his kingdom. His aim is to turn them away from God, either by scaring them off or by luring them to join him in rebellion. And the more a man or woman, a group or ministry is identified with Jesus Christ and committed to his purpose, the more each will be opposed by the devil and his emissaries.

Draw Near to God

Resisting the devil means standing against his attacks, refusing to give in to his advances. How are believers to do that? First and fundamentally, writes James, they are to draw near to God. Isn’t that a rich phrase, a provocative image? God’s children are to approach him, move toward him, live in his fellowship. They are to meet every pressure to abandon the Lord with fresh purpose to draw near to him and walk with him.

When James writes about resisting the devil and drawing near to God, he has just been discussing pride and humility. Listen, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (v. 6,7).

A proud refusal to submit to God makes the devil what he is. Milton imagines him muttering defiantly, “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” Pride means denying our creatureliness, pretending to be on our own and wanting nothing to do with the One who made us. It means thinking and willing and acting as though God does not exist, as though we were lords in our own right.

Humility is just the opposite. It’s a thankful sense of dependence upon God, a joy in being his, a trustful surrender to his will. Whereas every stirring of pride is a step away from God (“I don’t need you, God. I don’t want you. I’ll make it on my own”), every hint of humility is a move in God’s direction. It means coming close to him and opening our lives to him.

In that relationship with God through Christ, trusting him, yielding to him, celebrating his grace, we find our strength against the powers of evil. That’s why the apostle Paul urges his fellow Christians to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” and to “put on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:10,11) for the Christian warfare. So here’s the word: whenever you’re tempted to turn away from God and vainly go your own way, move toward him instead, calling on him for help, availing yourself of his strength. That is your first line of defense—be strong in the Lord!

Stand in Faith

One of Satan’s major objectives is to intimidate God’s people, to scare them off from discipleship and witness. Sometimes he does that by stirring up persecution. So it was with Jesus, with the beleaguered Christian community in the first century, and with the martyrs in every age. The devil threatens us with dire consequences if we follow Christ. Peter describes him as “a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” He knows what we’re most afraid of and how to play on our fears.

Peter writes, “Resist him, steadfast in the faith.” And Paul urges us to take the shield of faith that we may be able to quench the devil’s fiery darts. Faith is the antidote to fear.

In one sense, the devil is a bluffer, a fake. He tries to make us think he is more dangerous than he really is. He’s like one of those fish in the deep sea who puff themselves up to giant size whenever a potential enemy is near. They look like destroyers but they are really balloons. Satan may be a roaring lion, but because of Christ, he is a chained one. We are more than conquerors through him that loved us. Luther sang in his greatest hymn, “Though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”

Long ago when the Israelites had wandered for years in the wilderness, they sent twelve spies to look over the promised land. Ten of them came back thoroughly frightened. They had seen mountains of difficulty, walled cities, and giants in the land before whom they seemed like grasshoppers. Caleb and Joshua, the other two, came back telling instead what a good and favored land it was and how the inhabitants could be easily overcome. “They will be bread for us,” (Numbers 14:9) was their report.

Caleb and Joshua saw the same cities and the same giants, but they also saw the Lord. When we keep our eyes on him, when we have him in our thoughts, when we know that he is at our side, we won’t quail at the devil’s blusterings. We won’t turn and run. We’ll say, “God is for us. Who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). “Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Wield the Word

If faith is our strong defense, the weapon by which we press the battle is the Word of God. Here, as always, Jesus himself is our Lord and leader. He knew how to resist the devil. He did it by quoting the Scriptures. He overcame the Evil One “by the word of his testimony.” When he was tempted in the midst of great hunger to take matters into his own hand and turn stones into bread, he refused, saying, “It is written. Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). When he was tempted to win the crowd by a spectacular display, putting himself at risk for God to intervene, he replied with another text: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matthew 4:7). And when Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them if only he would compromise and go the devil’s way, Jesus responded with the scriptures again, “It is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve’” (Matthew 4:10).

In each case, the tempter’s suggestions seemed reasonable. Who could quarrel with the objectives proposed: bread for the hungry, followers by the thousands, a world at Jesus’ feet? The snare was this: the goals were to be reached not in God way but in some other way. It really didn’t matter which other road was taken so long as it wasn’t the way of the Lord.

How was Jesus aware of what was happening in these temptations? How was he able to detect and resist the devil’s blandishments? Because he knew what God’s way was. He knew what pleased the Lord of the universe and what did not. He had a mind and conscience formed by the Word of God.

Sometimes we fail to see (or else forget) how that came about. How did Jesus learn the Scriptures? Did he know them automatically from infancy because he was God incarnate? No. In the mystery of his stooping love he became a real human baby. Though with a mind unclouded by sin, he learned as the rest of us learn. He listened to the reading and teaching of the scriptures in synagogue and temple. He read the Word for himself, pondered it, committed it to memory. That was his weapon against the tempter. Paul calls it “the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God” (Eph. 6:17).

The quoting of Scripture is not, of course, a magical formula. Even the devil, we are told, can cite biblical texts for his purpose. The Word of God must be first listened to, believed, and internalized if it’s to be an effective weapon in our hands. But only God knows what evils we are kept from and what victories we win because we cherish God’s Word and keep it in our hearts. When Satan tempts you through the advertising world to believe that happiness is found in what you can buy, answer him with the word of Jesus. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things that he possesses” (Luke 12:15). When he tempts you to fee1 that marriage vows are trifling and it matters little if you “play around,” hurl back this command of the Lord, “Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you. Bind them about your neck. Write them on the tablet of your heart” (Proverbs 3:3). And when the tempter would have you believe that God has abandoned you, turn him back with this great promise, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

That’s how to resist the devil. Draw near to God in humility; keep your eyes on him in faith; fill your mind and heart daily with his truth. Will that resistance be effective? Listen to James, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” Did you hear that? The ruler of the kingdom of darkness, the god of the present age, the dragon, the roaring lion, the great destroyer, he will turn tail and run before you. Why? Because you are so formidable? No, but because you stand in Christ, because you invoke his mighty name, because you are more than a conqueror through him that loved us.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson was the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson wrote extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and authored many books. Dr. Brownson died April 1, 2022.

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