“And do not give the devil a foothold.” (Eph. 4:27, NIV)
Be forewarned. This article is going to ask all of us to do something that sounds impossible. Especially something that sounds impossible right now. By now, we’re referring to where we sit stunned and sickened in the aftermath of a mass shooting at a Nashville Christian elementary school that murdered three adults and three 9-year-olds.
Before we get to this article’s near-impossible request, let’s take a moment to focus in on the deepest, darkest layer of this tragedy: Behind the carnage is the work of that smirking slanderer and slaughterer which the Bible calls the “Devil.”
Maybe as you’ve reflected on the Nashville shooting, you’ve mainly been focusing on the fact that the shooter identified as transgender, and you’re concerned about trans hostility toward Christian convictions, or, conversely, about a cultural blowback against the trans community. Or perhaps, your main concern has been with the gun debate—either fearing that Republicans are too protective of high-capacity guns or that Democrats are too restrictive of them.
Please, at least for a moment, pause and look past all that. Look more deeply. Consider the agent of evil that Scripture describes as our ultimate enemy.
What about the Devil and Demons?
The Word of God is full of surprises. One of the biggest is the presentation of an entirely different world of existence known as the spiritual world. Many people naively think that the only “real” world is the one that they can observe with their five senses; but Scripture teaches that there is another reality that is just as real. This world is invisible, where the Holy Spirit, Satan, angels, and demons operate and exercise their influence on people.
Satan (or the Devil) is a real being. He is the enemy of God, the deceiver of human beings. He is referred to in the Bible by many names such as the Devil (1 Peter 5:8), the tempter (1 Thes. 3:5), the wicked one (Matt. 13:19), the enemy (Matt. 13:39), and the deceiver (Rev. 12:9). In the beginning, he led Adam and Eve into sin because he is the enemy of both God and humanity. He seeks to accuse and condemn God’s people (Job 1:6–12; 2:1–7; Zech. 3:1). He encourages evil and sin (Luke 4:1–13), and he roams around like a lion looking for people to devour (1 Peter 5:8).
“In the beginning, the Devil led Adam and Eve into sin because he is the enemy of both God and humanity.”
Satan is assisted in his work by demons. In the Bible, we read that these beings sometimes actually possessed people, and caused them great harm (Mark 5:1–20, etc.). The Bible does not tell us a great deal about their origin, but it does tell us that they are created beings (Col. 1:15–20), and that along with Satan, they were defeated at the cross and can be cast out in Christ’s name (Col. 2:14-16). We also know that they will be conquered and destroyed by God at the end of human history (1 John 3:8; Rev. 20:10).
The invisible world, then, is inhabited by Satan, demons, angels, and the like. These forces have an influence upon the lives of people in this world, but their influence is not as great or as important as the Holy Spirit’s. The influence of the spiritual world is regularly manifested in our thoughts, goals, attitudes, and motives. The apostle Paul put it this way:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:10-12)
“Take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”
In this way the invisible connects directly with our daily existence. We are regularly involved in spiritual struggles, so that our choices and decisions are influenced by both evil and good forces at work on us in the invisible world.
What Does the Devil Do?
What does Satan do? His main agenda is destruction: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10a, NIV). “He was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44, NIV). Notice what happens to a boy when possessed by one of Satan’s demons: “He often falls into the fire or into the water” (Matt. 17:15b). Or to a man possessed by numerous demons: “Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:5).
How Does the Devil Do It?
Satan does his destructive work and gains his influence to do so primarily through lies. Jesus described Satan as “not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44b, NIV). False teachings that tempt people away from the gospel of Jesus truly are “teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1, ESV).
The Devil Gains a Foothold
In Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul teaches us about one of the ways that Satan gains a foothold in people’s lives (and when established, he will no doubt lie and destroy as fully as he is able). What is this way of gaining a foothold? Here is how Paul describes it:
“’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Eph. 4:26–27, NIV)
There are additional vices Paul describes in this passage (e.g., telling lies, stealing). But here, Paul seems to uniquely couple unrestrained anger and the Devil having a foothold in our lives. When we stay angry and we sin in our anger, it’s as if we’ve slid over and let him grab onto part of the steering wheel.
“Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
A Foothold in a Nation?
If the Devil can do this kind of thing in an individual’s life, then surely it’s possible for a nation to give Satan a foothold through unrestrained and prolonged anger. For example, we would like to suggest that the Devil was able to do this exact kind of thing in Germany leading up to World War II, in terms of the national consciousness and hatred for Jewish people.
Let’s ask about our nation. What might this kind of foothold look like within a nation whose people never stopped feeling intense anger against each other?
It seems we’re close to being there. One half of America, discipled in the progressive ideals of intersectional feminism, Critical Theory, the triumph of feelings, etc., regularly and angrily accuses the other half of being all sorts of disgusting things, such as systemically racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and classist. Once in a while, an allegation hits the mark. More often, the other half of America, tired of the nasty accusations, finds itself getting provoked into being the red-faced, worst versions of themselves—so that many of the accusations become self-fulfilling prophecies with hate-filled posts about progressives and liberals.
“What might this kind of foothold look like within a nation that never stopped feeling intense anger against each other?”
Our political discourse is becoming grounded in hatred. One side indicts a former President and the other side clamors to indict the current President’s son. Fear, anger, and suspicion reign. The nation is fracturing. Meanwhile, the CNN’s and Fox News’s keep the clicks coming by pumping headlines so full of fear and contempt that you can’t scroll for more than five minutes without feeling fear and frustration—both of which fuel (you guessed it) anger.
And yet, at the same time, there are events worth getting gut-level angry about. Such as a rage-filled school shooting that murdered six precious people.
What We Have to Do
Hence, we come to the near-impossible request mentioned at the beginning of the article. It’s a request that will make sense only for those who 1) are deeply weary of the Devil winning, and 2) are deeply grateful for God’s grace.
Even still, it won’t be easy.
It’s this: Can you and I hate and grieve the evil that we see, while refusing to give anger—and the Devil—a foothold in our lives?
Let’s be realistic: Paul did say, “In your anger”; yes, we will have times when we get angry. But Paul continued, “In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry.” Can we hate evil, and grieve when it happens, but refuse to let anger set up residence in our core? Can we hate and grieve the evil, but say no to anger and wrath—because we refuse Satan the pleasure of even a speck of real estate in our hearts?
“Can we hate and grieve the evil, but say no to anger and wrath—because we refuse Satan the pleasure of even a speck of real estate in our hearts?”
When a nation gives the Devil a foothold through perpetual anger, its Christians cannot dislodge the foot through recurring rage, even if it feels righteous. It’d be nice if that worked! But Satan doesn’t play fair. He’ll spread his poison as far into the reverberations of a tragedy as people allow. It doesn’t work to engage rage-filled battles that end up only yielding more ground to him. We do gain ground by speaking truth in love, fighting evil with good, and making disciples of King Jesus.