Satan in Togo
Mawenah raised his hand and said, “This passage teaches us that Satan can come among believers.” I was a little puzzled. We had just read the passage in Job 1 where Satan and YHWH discuss the case of Job. I had asked the class what observations they could make about the role of Satan from these verses. Wrongly guessing at the intent of Mawenah's question, I gave an unhelpful answer about the meaning of "the sons of God” gathering before YHWH (Job 1:6). During the break Koffi came to talk to me. “You see,” he explained, “there is a debate in our context about whether Satan has power over the life of believers. Many people here associate Satan with sorcerers, witchcraft, and demon possessions. They believe that Satan is trying to kill you with magic all the time, and so people in the churches are anxious to know whether the power of Christ can protect them from such things or whether Satan can still kill them even if they are a Christian. This is a big debate.” So this is where Mawenah’s question was headed—if Satan can afflict Job, then that means that Satan can “come among believers,” i.e., afflict them.
“They believe that Satan is trying to kill you with magic all the time, and so people in the churches are anxious to know whether the power of Christ can protect them from such things or whether Satan can still kill them even if they are a Christian.”
Whew. It doesn’t matter where you teach, the passages about Satan will raise lots of questions, but these questions were a little different from the ones I was ready for. I decided to spend a bit more time the next day trying to think through the role of Satan in the life of believers. We started by clearly describing Satan’s role in the Old Testament. Satan is not a name, but a title. In Hebrew he is actually called the satan, and “satan” simply means “accuser” or “adversary.” If YHWH is the judge then the satan is like the prosecuting attorney. He is the opponent of God’s people who brings whatever charges he can against them to see what will stick (see Zechariah 3:1–5) and incites them to sin (see 1 Chron 21:1). Second, as a result of this we see that everything the satan does is under the authority of YHWH. The satan is a part of his heavenly court and his actions are limited by YHWH (Job 1:6, 12; 2:6). Nevertheless, the satan can certainly afflict believers—Job obviously, but also Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness and Paul's “thorn in the flesh” are attributed to the satan/the devil.
My point in all of this is that the work of Satan is under the authority of God for his glory and for the growth of the church. Without adversity we would not grow. Without trials and temptations we would never be refined (Rom 5:3–5; Jas 1:2–4). In this way we can see that in God’s design, Satan plays a thankless but necessary role in testing believers to refine them and prove their faithfulness. There is no justice without a good prosecution.
The students seemed to be blown away by the idea that the role of Satan could be understood to have a positive aspect in God’s plan. They found this deeply encouraging, especially when they could see clearly the limits of Satan’s power over believers. So yes—Satan can “come among believers,” but this is very different from saying that Satan “has power over believers.” I will not deny for a moment that there are evil spiritual forces in the world, but we are not at the mercy of some Voodoo sorcerer. In fact, we can boldly proclaim the empty power of such things because on the cross Jesus triumphed over all spiritual evil. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13).