BELIEVING in the reality of “the evil one” is not a comfortable position today, even if it is not entirely discreditable. And yet it seems to make more sense of this clause of the Lord’s Prayer if we swallow our scepticism and accept that we need to be protected from a source of negativity that would prevent us from responding positively to God’s will.
The most helpful question to explore here is not whether or not an evil one “exists”, but what reality does “the devil” represent in scripture and in Christian tradition, mythology, and spirituality? And that reality is both more and less serious than we might think. It is far more serious than the campil -costumed, naughty devil of trivial temptations, but also far more credible than the devil as God’s rival sibling who is hell-bent on malevolence, and the escalation of suffering, and the destruction of anything that approaches peace, truth, and justice.
TO TALK of the evil one is to recognise that there is a threat, but that the threat is not to God but to us. The evil one is “the devil” with a small “d”: not a rival to God, but a tormentor of our better natures; a denier of the self that we might become; the block to our full flourishing as a person of faith, hope, and love.
The devil is the personification, not of abstract evil, but of the temptations that beset us as individuals and communities. The devil is focused negativity that presents itself to our minds, sometimes as dread, but mostly as temptation. The devil is the voice that whispers to us the ambitions that will distort our priorities; the blind spot on our moral compass; the tendency that we have to excuse our own egocentricity. The devil is our denial of those failings in virtue that are so obvious to those with whom we live or work.
NOTICE how negative this is. The devil is negative, and deals in negativity, and turns you away from God’s love and God’s purposes — and so it gets worse. The devil is the voice that says, “Don’t trust yourself”; that says, “You are not good enough,” or “you can never be forgiven,” and that urges you to hold on to those vague guilt-feelings and ensure that they will go with you to the grave. The devil is the bit of you that aggravates the spinning self-talk of anxiety, and adds water to the smothering wet blanket of depression.
The devil isn’t only busy ramping up our negative self-talk. There are good actions to stop, injustices to be perpetrated, sins to be encouraged. The devil is that grip on your wallet when someone needs your money; that clamp on your tongue when someone needs a word of encouragement; that dreadful aversion of the gaze when someone needs the eye-contact of kindness — just precisely now.
The devil is that dullness of the mind that stops you reading the story of suffering in Yemen or Syria; the forgetfulness that wipes from your mind the plight of those who were in the news headlines just a few weeks ago, never mind last year. The devil is compassion-fatigue, moral cowardice in the face of the abuse of power, and the weary conclusion that real responsibility lies anywhere other than with me. The devil is the prejudice that insinuates itself into our unconscious minds, and the racism in our institutional structures.
SEE how crafty it is, how difficult to notice. These are just a few hints about the reality of the evil one. Of course, we cannot adequately describe the devil, or have any idea in what guise the evil one will next appear in our thoughts or dreams, aspirations or anxieties. But we can be sure of this. The devil opposes the grace and glory and goodness of God with the blunt instrument of negativity. The devil will never prevail, but the devil will be happy if the divine intentions for flourishing and fulfilment in the kin-dom of God are frustrated.
We rightly pray that God would deliver us from this evil one. And yet we also know that these thoughts and fears stem not from outside us but from within. That’s what’s so scary about it. There is nowhere to hide from the tempter.
The Revd Dr Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge.
Extracted from Thy Will Be Done: The 2021 Lent Book © Stephen Cherry 2021 (Bloomsbury Continuum, £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.99); 978-1-4729-7825-7).