Satan and Electric Joy

BY BRUCE HILLMAN

In the world of martial arts, which I am the first to admit I am no expert in, there is a concept, particularly in Jujutsu and Judo, called seiryoku zen’yo or, “maximum efficiency, minimum effort.” My Judo-trained friend, who has a spectrum of colored belts that would rival Joseph’s Technicolor coat, has explained this concept to me. “If you have an opponent who is stronger than you, that is you are the weaker rival, it doesn’t make sense to resist him by strength. Because you are weaker you will lose. His strength will overwhelm you. But if you learn to channel his movements and energy, unbalance him and redirect his swings, punches, kicks etc., you can have the advantage. He will work hard because he is strong. But you will use your weakness to harness his own strength against him, while reserving your own (weaker) strength in the fight. He swings at you, but you move out of the way and grab his arm to direct his momentum and velocity into the floor. It’s maximum efficiency with minimum effort.” 

There is lots of sermon material in this concept to be sure. But I’d like to approach seiryoku zen’yo as a way of seeing a demonic strategy at work in our lives, often deployed when we are disappointed or angry at God. It is with maximum efficiency and minimum effort that Satan and his demons take the very hard trials, tribulations and temptations in our lives and “judo” us into a position where we make some truly horrific spiritual mistakes. 

The technique’s foundation begins with a blind spot. Just a strong man thinks he can overwhelm a small man simply because he is bigger, but soon learns to his dismay that size doesn’t often matter, the demonic attack begins in the blind darkness of our presuppositions, prejudices and sense of reality. To most Westerners the world we live in has become disenchanted. The rise of the sciences and a modernist worldview has made what is observable, quantifiable, testable and consistent the chief hallmark of trustworthy truth and reality. Anything non-observable, empirical or quantifiable is relegated to “opinion” non-sense or the spurious category of “spiritual.”  Modernism’s disenchantment of the world meant that demons, devils and darkness were fairy tales of primitive man. And while most Christians might say they believe in angels, demons and the devil, we often mean that only as a sort of faith-statement, a sort of theological truism that doesn’t really translate into real life. After all, we don’t want to be fundamentalists or crazy people, seeing the devil under every bush. But should we rethink this? What are the consequences of seeing the world filled with angels and demons?

Certainly Martin Luther saw the world this way. In his most famous hymn,  A Mighty Fortress, the entire theme is one of spiritual warfare and hope in the power of Christ alone. As one verse reads, “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undue us, we will not fear, for God has willed, his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.”  And Paul reminds the Ephesians that the way the Christian is to see the full reality of the world is as a supernatural battlefield, “For we do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places.”

So what is the demonic seiryoku zen’yo strategy that begins in disenchantment? Disappointment and anger at God.  While it is true that we can be genuinely angry and frustrated at God (read the Psalms) this is almost always a case of forgetting who God is. Sometimes our grief produces anger, and sometimes life just overwhelms us and we look to the sovereign scapegoat to blame. But anger that remains, a cool, cold anger at God, a melancholy distrust and suspicion of him, these are the works of the demonic judo, and you’re the victim. An old monk helped me see this.

Some time ago I picked up a used book from a Greek Orthodox monk who lived on Mount Althos in Greece. He had passed away in the late 20th century and was credited with reviving the monastic movement in the past few decades. This particular book was a series of response letters he had written to pilgrims and people who had sought him out for his wisdom. 

On this particular occasion, the monk was responding to a man who was angry at God. The monk wrote back and said that he too, though he was a monk, was sometimes mad at God for sending him such difficult and terrible temptations. One time, after a particularly rough period of temptations that assaulted him with desires to betray his vows, the monk cried out in prayer. He said his prayers were a battlefield. For weeks he prayed and began to loose heart. Not only was he frustrated at God, but he was frustrated that he was frustrated with God!

One day while praying he said an epiphany came to him and struck him like a bolt of electricity that ran through every part of his body and left him in ecstatic, peaceful joy. What as this epiphany? That God was good. That God was a God of love. That God was the God of his salvation. The God who gave up his only Son. That this God was a God who loved him. Why was this such an epiphany?

Because, the monk explained, God had become so sovereign that there wasn’t any room for the Devil. The Devil and God had merged into one entity. The Devil might have existed but he wasn’t the real threat since nothing can happen without God’s command. The view neutered the Devil and made God the enemy. The monk was reminded of the complexity of which the Scripture speaks of God’s sovereignty and the Devil’s threat. He reminded himself of how it was Satan, not God, who gave Paul the thorn in the flesh, and he reminded himself that it was Satan who is like a hungry, mad-crazy lion who stalks and waits to pounce and rip the monk into pieces. And while God’s sovereignty permits the Devil some freedom to operate, the monk reminded himself that no temptation was too great that with Christ’s help he could not overcome.

So the monk stood up in joy. He could now run to God! He was angry and disappointed with God because he thought God the source of his troubles. But when he was able to see that the Devil was only using his hardships to “judo” his bad feelings towards a good God, he saw he was deceived by the Enemy. It was the Devil, not God, who is the Christian’s enemy. It is Satan, not God who seeks to sow discourse, disease, death and doubt. But Jesus Christ is love, peace and truth. The monk rejoiced. And told the letter-writer to pray and practice the eyes of faith over the eyes of the body. That just means trusting God’s word over our experience and personal wisdom.

A few months ago a friend of mine made a trip to Mount Althos and was privileged to enjoy the morning liturgy. It began in total darkness early in the morning--it was so dark in the church you couldn’t’ see your hand if you held it before your face. The monks then lit three candles, symbolizing the Trinity and the Light of creation breaking in to the darkness. But the service was 3 hours long! Because it was very early, very hot and humid and my friend was jet lagged, about halfway through the service he went and stood outside the church, under the threshold, to get some fresh air. It so happened that a senior monk was walking by and into the church and saw him. “Son”, he said, “Why are you outside of the church?” “Oh Father,” my friend said, “I intend to go back in, I’m just very hot and needed some fresh air.” My friend said the monk got quiet for a second, gave him a wry smile and said, “Son, that is not why you are outside of the church” and walked inside. 

When my friend later enquired what the senior monk meant by his statement he got an explanation. My friend thought his impetus for leaving the church service was because he was hot. But the monk corrected him,  he said he really left the church because he gave into the temptation of comfort. It was the Devil, the monk said, not the heat, that took my friend out of the church. This was more than just an ascetic way of seeing things. The monk’s sees the world filled with devils and demons—a place of real, everyday spiritual warfare. He sees the demonic behind every thing that undermines or attacks the work of God and the Church. Where there is discord and calamity, half-truth or deceit, selfishness or self-serving, the monk sees the hand of Satan.   

Such a view makes the Gospel all the more real and amazing. It makes grace all the more profound, and it make God all the more good to us. For in our disappointment and disillusionment with God we do well to ask, have we allowed ourselves to be disenchanted? Has the world gone flat, void of the depth and contours of the supernatural? Do we blame the Enemy—our real Enemy for our problems and run to the God of the Gospel for peace and safety? Or do we, like the monk mistakenly did, blend God and Enemy into one? Do that, and the Enemy hides in the shadow of God’s sovereignty.

The monk’s electric joy was real, and it can be yours too. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood—or with God. It is with Satan. So let us pray we no longer allow him to take our hardships and turn them with maximum efficacy and minimum effort into a blame-game against Abba. It’s an old trick, after all. But, though the prince of darkness grim, we wont tremble for him, for one little word will fell him: Jesus.   

Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.

Twitter: @HillsideLBC