How could God allow evil to bring destruction and loss in our lives? Why doesn’t he protect us from the perpetrators of wicked and evil acts? Our hearts ache, our questions churn. And yet, we’ve seen goodness emerge from tragedy and pain – heroic deeds, selfless compassion, a one-for-all sense of community. Somehow in the midst of something evil, goodness fights to prevail.
Is it really possible that something evil could end up being used for good? To answer that question, we have to look back – back to the very beginning of evil itself.
Twice in Scripture the curtain of time is pulled back, and we are granted a glimpse at the most foolish gamble in history. Satan was an angel who was not content to be near God; he had to be above God. Lucifer was not satisfied to give God worship; he wanted to occupy God’s throne.
According to Ezekiel, both Satan’s beauty and evil were unequaled among the angels:
“Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering…thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee” (Ezek. 28:12-15).
The angels, like humans, were made to serve and worship God. The angels, like humans, were given free will. Otherwise how could they worship? Both Isaiah and Ezekiel describe an angel more powerful than any human, more beautiful than any creature, yet more foolish than any being who has ever lived. His pride was his downfall.
Most scholars point to Isaiah 14 as the description of Lucifer’s tumble:
“For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14).
You can’t miss the cadence of arrogance in the words: “I will…I will…I will…” Because he sought to be like God, Satan fell away from God and has spent history trying to convince us to do the same. Isn’t that the strategy he used with Eve? “Ye shall be as gods,” he promised (Gen. 3:5).
He has not changed. He is as self-centered now as he was then. He is as foolish now as he was then. And he is just as limited now as he was then. Even when Lucifer’s heart was good, he was inferior to God. All angels are inferior to God. God knows everything; they only know what he reveals. God is everywhere; they can be in only one place. God is all-powerful; angels are only as powerful as God allows them to be. All angels, including Satan, are inferior to God. And this may surprise you:
Satan is still a servant to God.
He doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t intend to be. He would like nothing more than to build his own kingdom, but he can’t. Every time he tried to advance his cause, he ends up advancing God’s. Erwin Lutzer articulates this thought in his book The Serpent of Paradise:
The devil is just as much God’s servant in his rebellion as he was in the days of his sweet obedience…We can’t quote Luther too often: The devil is God’s devil. Satan has different roles to play, depending on God’s counsel and purposes. He is pressed into service to do God’s will in the world; he must do the bidding of the Almighty. We must bear in mind that he does have frightful powers, but knowing that those can be exercised under God’s direction and pleasure gives us hope. Satan is simply not free to wreak havoc on people at will.
Satan doing the bidding of the Almighty? Seeking the permission of God? Does such language strike you as strange? It may. If it does, you can be sure Satan would rather you not hear what I’m about to say to you. He’d much rather you be deceived into thinking of him as an independent force with unlimited power. Satan has absolutely no power, except that power God permits.
He’d rather you never hear the words of John:
“Ye are of God…and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
And he’d certainly rather you never learn how God uses the devil as an instrument to advance the cause of Christ.
How does God use Satan to do the work of heaven? God uses Satan to:
1⃣ Refine the faithful. We all have the devil’s disease. Even the meekest among us have a tendency to think too highly of ourselves. Apparently the apostle Paul did. His résumé was impressive: a personal audience with Jesus, a participant in heavenly visions, an apostle chosen by God, an author of the Bible. He healed the sick, traveled the world, and penned some of history’s greatest documents. Few could rival his achievements. And maybe he knew it. Perhaps there was a time when Paul began to pat himself on the back. God, who loved Paul and hates pride, protected Paul from the sin. And he used Satan to do it.
“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure” (2 Cor. 12:7).
We aren’t told the nature of the thorn, but we are told its purpose – to keep Paul humble. We are also told its origin – a messenger of Satan. The messenger could have been a pain, a problem, or a person who was a pain. We don’t know. But we do know the messenger was under God’s control. Please note what Paul says next:
“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:8-9).
Satan and his forces were simply a tool in the hand of God to strengthen a servant.
Another example of the devil as God’s servant is the temptation of Job. The devil dares to question the stability of Job’s faith, and God gives him permission to test Job.
“And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand…” (Job 1:12).
Note that God set both the permission and the parameters of the struggle. Job passes the test, and Satan complains, stating that Job would have fallen had he been forced to face pain. Again God gives permission, and again God gives parameters:
“And the Lord said unto Satan, Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2:6).
Though the pain and the questions are abundant, in the end Job’s faith and health are greater than ever. Again, we may not understand the reason for this test, but we know its source. Read this verse out of the last chapter. The family of Job “comforted him over all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).
Satan has no power except that which God gives him.
Even when Satan appears to win, he loses. Martin Luther was right on target when he described the devil as God’s tool, a hoe used to care for the garden. The hoe never cuts what the Gardener intends to save and never saves what the Gardener intends to weed. Surely a part of Satan’s punishment is the frustration he feels in unwillingly serving as a tool to create a garden for God. Satan is used by God to refine the faithful.
God also uses the devil to:
2⃣ Awaken the sleeping. Hundreds of years before Paul, another Jewish leader battled with his ego, but he lost. Saul, the first king of Israel, was consumed with jealously. He was upstaged by David, the youngest son of a shepherding family. David did everything better than Saul: he sang better; he was more impressive with the women; he even killed the giants Saul feared. But rather than celebrate David’s God-given abilities, Saul grew insanely hostile. God, in an apparent effort to awaken Saul from this fog of jealousy, enlisted the help of his unwilling servant, Satan:
“And it came to pass on the morrow, that the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied in the midst of the house…” (1 Sam. 18:10).
Observe a solemn principle: there are times when hearts grow so hard and ears so dull that God turns us over to endure the consequences of our choices. In this case, the demon was released to torment Saul. If Saul would not drink from the cup of God’s kindness, let him spend some time drinking from the cup of hell’s fury. “Let him be driven to despair that he might be driven back into the arms of God.”
The New Testament refers to incidents where similar discipline was administered. Paul chastises the church in Corinth for their tolerance of immorality. About an adulterer in the church he says:
“To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5).
Another example of such action is the case of Hymenaeus and Alexander, two disciples who had made a shipwreck of their faith and negatively influenced others:
“…Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20).
As drastic as it may appear, God will actually allow a person to experience hell on earth, in hopes of awakening his faith. A holy love makes the tough choice to release the child to the consequences of his rebellion.
By the way, doesn’t this help explain the rampant evil that exists in the world? If God allows us to endure the consequences of our sin, and the world is full of sinners, then the world is going to abound in evil. Isn’t this what Paul meant in the first chapter of Romans? After describing those who worship the creation rather than the Creator, Paul says:
“…God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature” (Rom. 1:26).
Does God enjoy seeing the heartbreak and addictions of his children? No more than a parent enjoys disciplining a child. But holy love makes tough choices.
Remember, discipline should result in mercy, not misery. Some saints are awakened by a tap on the shoulder, while others need a two-by-four to the head. And whenever God needs a two-by-four, Satan gets the call.
He also gets the call to:
3⃣ Teach the church. Perhaps the clearest illustration of how God uses Satan to achieve his purposes is found in the life of Peter. Listen to the warning Jesus gives to him:
“And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
Again, notice who is in control. Even though Satan had a plan, he had to get permission. “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth,” Jesus explained, and this is proof (Matt. 28:18). The wolf cannot get to the sheep without permission of the Shepherd, and the Shepherd will only permit the attack if, in the long term, the pain is worth the gain.
The purpose of this test is to provide a testimony for the church. Jesus was allowing Peter to experience a trial so he could encourage his brothers. Perhaps God is doing the same with you. God knows that the church needs living testimonies of His power. Your difficulty, your disease, your conflict are preparing you to be a voice of encouragement to your brothers. All you need to remember is:
“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
“But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive” (Gen. 50:20).
Adapted from ‘For The Tough Times’ by Max Lucado