Is the devil to blame for our sin and suffering?
This is a common question and one that is often mishandled. Satan is blamed for everything evil and while there is a certain sense in which that is true, it fails to take into consideration all the other issues like our own personal responsibilities for our own actions. It’s too easy for us to blame the devil and excuse ourselves, as the comic, Flip Wilson, used to say, “The devil made me do it.” People are inclined to blame the devil in order to remove their guilt, justify their actions, and ignore their responsibility and the things God wants to teach them through their suffering. This has been true from the very beginning as we see so clearly with Eve’s answer in blaming the serpent when faced with her sin in the garden. Adam too had his scapegoat in blaming Eve and even the Lord, i.e., “the woman made me do it, the one you gave me.” Certainly, as the deceiver and liar, Satan instigated the temptation, but Eve responded with negative volition, unbelief, and disobedience, and Adam failed to stay true to his responsibility as the leader in his family.
Today, regardless of the various external sources of temptation (Satan and the world), the final source is our own sinful nature or the lusts of self-centered desires of our own hearts (Jam. 1:14-15). In Christ, by virtue of the finished work and victory of the Savior, we are victors; He has provided everything we need to defeat sin and Satan (1 John 4:4; 5:4-5; Rev. 3:21; Rom. 6:1-14; Col. 2:6-15; 3:1f; Heb. 2:14-15; Eph. 6:10f).
However, having said all this, it is equally true that through the world system and the demonic hosts that Satan controls (John 12:31; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; 6:12) we are constantly faced with the power and activity of Satan in more ways than we can possibly imagine. As Paul warns, our battle is not only with the flesh and blood, but with supernatural powers that are constantly in operation in the sons of disobedience and against the body of Christ (Eph. 2:1-3; 6:10-13f; 1 Pet. 5:8; Jam. 4:7).
When Satan can attack us he will and only God knows how much of what we face is the direct result of the devil’s onslaughts. At the same time, much of our suffering is the direct result of our own self-induced misery, sometimes as a product of our ignorance, or unbelief, or indifference, or a combination of all of the above. So Scripture tells us to resist the devil and he will flee from us, to put on the whole armor of God, to be controlled by means of the Spirit, to have Word-filled lives, to walk circumspectly and in wisdom, and to be on alert because of the activity of Satan who is constantly on the prowl.
But there are two things we should not assume:
(1) That everything evil that happens to us is the result of direct Satanic attack. Though he is indirectly involved, some of what happens is simply the result of life in a fallen world. For instance, take cancer and other degenerative diseases; probably more than anything else these are the result of Satan’s involvement through a world merchandising system that has promoted an unhealthy diet (highly-processed foods, foods that have lost much of their food value due to depleted soils, pesticides, preservatives, chemicals, high fat and sugar diets, etc.).
(2) We should not assume that all our suffering is the product of our own sin or indifference to the Lord. There are many reasons for suffering. (See the study “Why Christians Suffer” on our web site under the “Spiritual Life” category). Job was a righteous man who walked with God, yet for His own purposes and for Job’s spiritual growth (all testing is ultimately designed for our growth), God allowed Satan to attack him. Paul too was a godly, spirit-filled man, yet he experience a thorn in the flesh which he defined as a messenger of Satan. It was an affliction God used as a tool in Paul’s life to teach him some important spiritual lessons (2 Cor. 12). The Lord healed all kinds of illness, but a careful study of the NT shows us that only a small portion of these illnesses were actually attributed to Satan or demonic causes. The same can be said of the writings of the Apostle Paul. He spoke of Trophimus who was sick, but he never even suggested this was the product of direct Satanic attack. Timothy may have been experiencing some kind of stomach difficulty, but Paul’s advice was simply to take a little wine for his problem. No mention of Satan or demons.
A general reading of the epistles puts the emphasis not on the demonic, but on our own responsibility to appropriate our assets in Christ. So while we need to acknowledge Satan’s constant activity, nefarious ways, and be on alert, our primary focus needs to be, not on Satan, but on the Lord and our responsibility to grow in Christ. It is often a cop out, pure and simple, for us to blame the devil when what is needed is honest to God personal examination and confession that we might be restored to fellowship, learn the spiritual lessons need, and be made like Him as a part of the process of growth and maturity in Christ. What takes more faith and character? To live through the suffering or to simply be miraculously healed without having to truly think through and trust the Savior for spiritual change?