Many times we fall under the impression that being a Christian means that things will be “nice” from now on and all of our troubles will be over. However, we soon discover that this is far from the reality. Rather than being moved to a retirement community, we find ourselves in the midst of strife. When we gave our life to Christ, we rejected our sin and agreed with God that it is vile and worthy of destruction. Thus, we stepped out the dark and into the light. Our former partners in crime (our sinful nature, the World, and all enemies of God), are loathe to see us go over to Him and do all that they can to regain control of our lives. Perhaps the most intimidating of these foes is Satan and the rest of the fallen angels. They are often portrayed as immensely powerful beings seeking to deceive, destroy, and dominate. Peter refers to Satan as a “roaring lion” (1 Peter 5:8) and John uses the terms “dragon” and “serpent” to describe him. We read in the book of Job how Satan afflicts Job and destroys all his worldly possessions (Job 1:13-22, 2:7-10). Later, in the Gospels, we read of the terrifying results of demonic possession such as the man who wandered among the tombs crying out and cutting himself (Mark 5:1-5). Many stories exist of the desert monks being harassed by demons appearing in many fantastic and horrifying shapes. Even today we see churches torn apart by petty quarrels, cults rising up to spread false doctrines, and all manner of death, suffering, and destruction. The size and scope of the threat posed by demons often leaves us dumbfounded.
It is easy, when confronted by Satan and his works, to forget a profound truth:
“You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
-1 John 4:4
We often speak of the war between good and evil, but consider this: when has God ever fought a war or a battle? God does not fight, He smites or refrains from smiting. Satan and his ilk run around and cause trouble only because God does not strike them down as He can at any given moment. To ask why God refrains is to ask why there is suffering in the world; this is a question that God is not obliged to answer us on and we must trust in His goodness and holiness. Returning to the main point, two instances illustrate that God has complete power to do as He wishes with devils. These are the same two instances cited by St. Anthony in his speech to encourage his fellow monks in the desert.
The first instance is Jesus’ casting a legion of demons out of the man who lived among the tombs. At the very sight of Christ the demons cried out and begged Jesus, saying, “If you cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine.” Not exactly the words of someone who getting ready for a battle. Rather, it rings more of a scoundrel caught in some mischief by the king and who begins to plead for his life without the king saying a word. Perhaps more startling is the fact that the legion of demons is begging Christ for permission to enter into a bunch of pigs and it is only after Christ says they can that they are able to do so.
The second instance involves the story of Job. While Satan’s affliction of Job is what may first come to mind, recall the events leading up to it: the angels are coming and presenting themselves before God and Satan shows up as well. The conversation between God and Satan soon turns to Job, a man who “fears God and shuns evil”. After Satan slanders Job before God, God gives Satan permission to do what he will with everything that Job has. However, God sets a limit on Satan’s power, commanding him not to lay a finger on Job’s person. Satan destroys Job’s children and possessions, but leaves the man untouched. Again Satan comes to God and slanders Job and this time God gives Satan permission to attack Job’s health but sets another strict limit on his power by commanding him not to kill Job. Here we have Satan himself, the leader of all demons and ruler of the World, unable to do a thing without God letting him.
It is important to keep in mind that God is not ordering the demons to cause havoc, but instead He allows them to carry out what is in their minds to do. Jesus allows the demons to go into the pigs as they requested. Satan is allowed to carry out his plan against Job only after God permits him to and only to the degree that God allows him (first not to harm Job himself and second not to kill Job).
What this means to us is that although it may seem like Satan is in control, we can still trust in God who is the One really in control. We may not understand why God doesn’t just destroy all of the rebellious angels rather than allowing them to pursue their wicked schemes, but we know that they act only as far as God permits them to. This is one of the reasons why Paul can encourage the Corinthian church by writing,
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
-1 Corinthians 10:13
Why should demons, who have no interest in our welfare (quite the opposite, actually), refrain from overwhelming us with their wickedness and despair save that the hand of God holds them back?
Thus, despite their apparent power and authority, Satan and the other angels who have rebelled against God, are still subject to God’s power and authority. They are “reserved in everlasting chains of darkness for the judgment of the great day,” unable to do anything without God’s allowing it. We are not held at Satan’s mercy, we are given refuge under God’s.
“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”