Sin and Our Dialogue With the Devil

A. J. Swoboda  and Ken Wytsma
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God created the world with just a few words. Likewise, Satan marred the whole world with just a few words.

Somewhere along the way—Scripture doesn’t specify when— one of God’s greatest angels, Lucifer, rebelled against Him. Also known as Satan, Lucifer is a created being. He is not an eternal being. There was a time when Satan was not. As with the rest of creation, God made Lucifer.

Because Satan is a created being, his finitude limits his powers. He does not have the power and authority that God does. For instance, Satan is not omnipresent as God is—he is not everywhere all the time. Satan is not omniscient—he has no foreknowledge of all events that are to come. He is not all-powerful. In fact, he is bound to submit to God’s final word, as evidenced by his conversation with God in the first chapter of Job. Yet while Satan lacks God’s eternal qualities, he has rational power to subvert God’s works.

Satan’s Way With Words

Still, how does the devil get his work done? More than anything, he uses words. In fact, it is through words that the devil does his “finest” work. He is so good at using words that he is called Satan, meaning “accuser.” Not only does the devil use to destroy what God uses to create—words—but he is literally named for what he does with them.

So just as God created the world with words, the devil manipulates the world with words. Some of God’s first words of instruction to Adam and Eve have to do with food: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:16–17). Adam and Eve were free to eat from any tree except one.

Enter Satan, pouncing on Eve. The very first words out of the snake’s mouth in Genesis are framed as a deconstructive question: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). The devil’s work in the world—his destructive activity of stealing, robbing, and confusing—begins with words, specifically with a cynical question. In a tricky and maligning way, the very good word of God that made the world is being questioned. God begins a creative kingdom with words, whereas the devil begins a destructive kingdom with words.

“Did God really say . . . ?” the devil asks. The big problem in the garden is that God’s word is quickly forgotten and replaced with Satan’s question. This is immediately reflected in Eve’s attempt to explain God’s command to Satan during her temptation:

“But God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die” (Gen. 3:3). Eve, in that critical moment, reveals humanity’s vexing and perennial problem: an inability to remember what God actually said. Of course, God never once commanded Adam or Eve not to touch the tree. Rather, God commanded them not to eat from the tree. Eve added to God’s word, indicating that she had forgotten it.

The problem is not just that she forgot a line verbatim or did not commit it to memory. The passage reveals that she perhaps never understood the heart of it, or didn’t understand why it was important to fully obey God’s command. It’s when we don’t understand or trust God’s heart, beautiful design, and goodness that we begin to question His commands and then subsequently disobey.

Beware the Master of Manipulation

The devil is a wordsmith and a master of spin. Making things more challenging, the devil actually speaks truth at times. Later in Scripture, when Satan tempts Jesus in the desert, we find that he has a working knowledge of the Bible. He quotes Scripture to Jesus. Satan knows the truth, but he misuses it with evil motives— to manipulate and control rather than to set people free. Satan knows how to take God’s good and creative word and then use it for his own purposes.

Once Satan’s word is obeyed in the garden, the relationships there begin to fall apart. Adam and Eve blame each other for what has happened. The breakdown in human relationships becomes more and more pronounced as the Genesis narrative continues. Within even a few chapters, we see the first instance of murder and the subjugation of women in the practice of polygamy.

In an article titled “What Is Meant By ‘Telling the Truth’?”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer framed Satan’s use of the truth like this:

There is a truth which is of Satan. Its essence is that under the semblance of truth it denies everything that is real. It lives upon hatred of the real and of the world which is created and loved by God. . . . God’s truth judges created things out of love, and Satan’s truth judges them out of envy and hatred. God’s truth has become flesh in the world and is alive in the real, but Satan’s truth is the death of all reality.

The fall of humankind didn’t begin by eating the wrong fruit, but by an uncritical dialogue with the devil.

To show the evolving picture of a humanity spiraling farther and farther away from Eden, the biblical text employs the image of “going east.” After they are cast out from the garden, Adam and Eve go to the “east side of the Garden of Eden” (Gen. 3:24). Cain, the child of Adam and Eve, is sent farther east to the land of Nod after murdering his brother Abel (Gen. 4:16). Then humanity travels even farther east to the land of Shinar, where they build the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1–4). East, east, and farther east. Humanity wanders away from the land God had established. It is not until God invites Abram to go the Promised Land that the return west begins.

The lesson? Listening to the words of Satan displaces humanity from the will of God.

As those in the world listen to the word of Satan—a habit begun with Adam and Eve—human relationships fall apart. Conversation becomes increasingly difficult. This is seen in the story of Babel. As humanity gives in to full-fledged idolatry and attempts to build a tower to heaven, God curses them with a divided tongue. Listening to Satan leads to idolatry and the breakdown of relationships, further leading to the breakdown of civil, human discourse. It’s a tragic cycle.

For Further Reading:

Redeeming How We Talk

by Ken Wytsma and A. J. Swoboda

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