Do you know who Satan is? In our day, that question might strike your ears as cultic. “Satan . . . like, as a real being, with a name and everything?” Yes. Our secularized culture says Satan is make-believe. At worst, he’s an idea that gets in the way of our taking responsibility for poor decisions. At best, he’s a nebulous, invisible cloud that pre-modern thinkers attached a name to, but we know better now. In his incisive book Live No Lies, John Mark Comer notes, “people who believe in ancient ideas like the devil or, for that matter, Jesus himself are looked at with contempt and treated with the same intellectual incredulity as those who believe in trolls.” Be candid with yourself. Do you believe that Satan is real?
Get this: if you don’t, he loves that; I mean, he really loves it. The best case scenario for a lord of evil is that the whole world would disbelieve in him. Then he could do whatever he wanted while people misdiagnosed the problems in their lives and ran circles around themselves. He could sit back and watch the whole world burn up in flames, smiling at the smoke. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what he wants: complete destruction. But let me hit pause on that for the moment.
Jesus titled Satan without mincing words. And in doing that, he told us what Satan’s modus operandi (MO) is, his consistent way of operating. But to grasp Jesus’s title of Satan, we need to first talk about lies.
Lying is an ancient evil. It’s the dark art of calling white black and black white. And it’s one of the most dangerous behaviors because it doesn’t often shout; it whispers. When you turn towards it, it’s already too late. A lie is essentially a false portrayal of reality. “Lies are unreality,” in other words. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, he calls a lie “a thing which was not.” That makes it seem as if lies are easy to spot. After all, who would really be stumped by someone calling black white and white black? It turns out that lies are a bit more complicated than that. The most potent lies lock arms with a particular truth and try to court it through a person’s mind. If the courtship succeeds, it ends in marriage, and the person emerges legitimately confused about the way things truly are. Lies are less often blatant falsehoods (though there are plenty of those) and more often sly counterfeits.
Another way to think of lies is to call them mental maps. Lies take us places, just as truth does. We’re always moving. We have to be. Just as some sharks will die if they don’t constantly swim, moving oxygen-rich water over their gills, we would die if we were utterly stagnant. We might feel stagnant sometimes, like a stick stuck in the mire, but we’re not. We’re always moving. And lies are mental maps of reality that tell us to move in the wrong direction. They give us a footpath that ends in self-centeredness. In The Book of Giving, I define love as self-giving. And because the person who is truth (John 14:6) gave himself for us, we can say that lies bend us inwardly, towards self-taking. Lies are always in some way self-serving. What makes them tricky is that the mental map covers that up. It reworks the topography so that we think we’re heading towards an attractive destination. But in reality, if we would peel away the top layer of the map, we’d see the true contour lines beneath. We’d see that the lie isn’t leading us into a lush valley; it’s leading us to a cliff edge. So, one way to understand lies is to see them as mental maps that lead us towards self-centeredness and death. In contrast, truth is a mental map of reality that leads us towards self-giving and life. Jesus, who is the truth, gave himself and then received Spirit-infused life for eternity. Truth is self-giving that leads to life; lying is self-taking that leads to death. Is that contrast stark enough for you?
Jesus’s Title for Satan
Now we’re able to see the depth of Jesus’s title for Satan. Are you ready? It’s concise but chilling: the father of lies. That’s his language in John 8:44. “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” The word translated as “character” is very important. It’s a word often translated in other contexts as “oneself.” Jesus is saying that lying is part of Satan’s self. It’s an integral marker of who he is, not simply what he does occasionally. Jesus calls him the father of lies because every lie, every little act of deception the world has ever known, traces its dark lineage back to him. This marker of the devil’s identity is utterly critical. The moment we forget it is the moment we forget him. As the father of lies, at war with the person of truth (Jesus Christ), Satan has an identity that blends seamlessly into his strategy. What is that strategy? There are several different ways we could explain this, but I’ve found Comer’s portrayal (which traces back to the early church) clear and helpful. Here it is in visual form.
Satan proclaims lies that play to disordered desires that are normalized in a fallen world. Simple enough? Lies, we noted, are deceiving mental maps that don’t portray reality as it is, and they ultimately lead to death. “Disordered desires” means that we have certain desires that should be prioritized, and others that should be downplayed, and still others that should be battled. Satan’s lies target desires that should either be lower on our priority list or absent altogether. Here’s an example.
One of Satan’s longest-standing lies is that I have priority. I should be thinking of mebefore I think of others. This “black” contrasts starkly with the “white” of God’s commands throughout Scripture, especially Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” I remember reading a book to my daughter years ago—for the fourth time that night. She asked for a fifth reading, and I said no. Why? Because I didn’t want to read it again, and in that moment I believed the lie that life is about me, at least some of it. “I deserve a break from this, right? Shouldn’t my reading preferences get an ounce of attention?” Satan’s lie played to the disordered desire of my own reading preferences. But those preferences and the priority of self are normalized in our world. The world says, “Hey, you gave this kid four readings of a book with no coherence and a haphazard rhyme scheme. You deserve a break. Your daughter isn’t the only person in the world who has value.” Do you see how it works? Lies, disordered desires, and then normalization. In a matter of seconds, I made a toddler cry because I wasn’t willing to give her another two minutes of my time. What an embarrassment!
Satan won that round. But I learned my lesson. Guilt can be an effective teacher. Everytime after that I made sure I reminded myself that bedtime reading isn’t about me; it’s about them. For those precious minutes, I front the truth that my kids are more significant than I am. I give them priority. That’s not normalized in our world. But that’s an encouragement to me. Jesus can never be normalized in a world constantly bent on itself. This is a small-scale example of what happens all over the world, in every human’s life, at every second of the day.
This is Satan’s MO: lies, disordered desires, normalization. It’s a strategy so simple and so easily employed that we’re able to pass it off as a character flaw on our part. “Whoops. I made the wrong decision.” True as that may be, you weren’t the only one involved. Lies are pervasive, especially the great lie. Think about it: Could I have treated my daughter that way if I truly believed that God was sitting on the opposite side of the room in the other bed? I don’t think so. The great lie was behind the more subtle lies drifting through my head. This is the way it is in our world. Truth and deception are as pervasive as air molecules. Lies are drifting around you right now. At this very moment. But so is the truth. The tragedy is that we’re mostly ignorant of all this. It’s worth remembering. Every day.
Like this article? Check out the related resources. And keep your eyes peeled for The Great Lie, coming this fall. What you just read is a little excerpt!
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