There are a few occasions in the Bible where the curtain lifts, and we get to peer into the inner workings of the Divine Court. There we see strange creatures and beasts, angels and thrones, throngs and thrills. The Bible writers struggle to describe these scenes which put the imagination into overdrive and surpass its ability to reconstruct clear or coherent images. Instead, we grapple with dazzling and confusing pictures—like Ezekiel’s vision of a throne with wheels that have eyes affixed all around the rims, surrounded by creatures with four faces upon which the throne moves in all directions. There is Isaiah's sight of angels with six wings guarding a seat of immense fiery power that issues forth lightning, and for some reason, contains a bed of white-hot coals. And sometimes, on these rare excursions into places too great to imagine, we see into the mechanics of hell.
As the veil unfolds we get flashes of Satanic interaction with God. He is always prosecuting God’s beloved, always calling them out for their weaknesses and transgressions, decrying their motives and seeking their destruction. The most graphic or detailed scene is in the book of Job, where Satan instigates the “test” of Job’s righteous by falsely claiming Job’s devotion is caught up in his material and physical blessings. Satan is given a Divine search warrant into Job’s heart through the undoing of everything good in his life with one exception—he cannot kill Job. It is a frightening and not easily understood act of Divine permissibility—why would God allow such a vetting? We never get an answer. Instead, at book’s end, we are reminded of God’s care over the whole creation, even with creatures that offer little benefit to human flourishing. The point seems to be that God’s ways are inscrutable because in all his ways he acts for the ultimate good of his creation.
But there is another scene, far less detailed, where the Satanic curtain is slightly upended, and we get a strange vision into the inner workings of hell. The passage is Luke 22:31-32: Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” When you think about it for a moment, this is a fascinating passage. For in these words we learn that our temptations and struggles are not only the result of our poor sinful hearts but caught up in a larger economy where we are the central fighting-ground of Divine-Hellish warfare.
The passage is perhaps most striking for what it does not say. Jesus does not tell Simon, "Simon, Satan has demanded to have you, but I told him no." Jesus says that Satan demanded to have Simon but that Simon should take comfort in knowing that Jesus intercedes for him by prayer. And further still, Jesus does not say, "and I’m praying that God will give you more faith” but instead, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail." Jesus understands Peter's faith will fail in the short-run, because he says, "And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers." In other words, Peter's faith is such that though it will fail, it will not ultimately be a failure. You can fail without being a failure, and you can be a failure and not always fail. This is because victory is not caught up in battle’s progress but in the battle’s end.
But still, why does Jesus speak so passively about his response to this Satanic plot when, as Lord, he should be able to say—"Don't worry, I won’t even let Satan get close to you!” It’s not a snotty theological question for Christians who overthink things. It’s deeply practical. What about the family member who is an addict and struggles in bondage time and again? What about the widow who buried her child after losing her husband? What about the parent who just collapsed onto the small office chair because the doctor just told her that her child has terminal cancer? What about the son, raised in the faith, who has walked away? And what about the depressive who fights every day to get up, live and believe? Jesus could, if he wanted protect people from these ills. But instead we are told he will pray for them.
As a pastor who comes into the presence of these dark situations all too often to be any more surprised by them, I see a demonic shadow lurking in the background. We have a real Enemy who really hates us and wants to harm us. Yes, human hearts and sinful and we reap what we sow—but we also reap what we do not sow because we are caught up in a world that is ruled by more than our own actions and decisions. Martin Luther understood this well, his most famous song, A Mighty Fortress, is a song about Christ in the midst of spiritual warfare. One verse recounts the reality of demonic presence and activity: And tho’ this world, with devil’s filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed, his truth to triumph thro’ 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.
If this world is, "with devil's filled," we have a real problem. In the Luke passage above Jesus tells Simon, "Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you as wheat." The "you" used twice here is plural. So Jesus is saying, "Satan demanded to have Y'all, that he might sift Y'all as wheat." He is telling Peter that the host of hell is coming for all of them. They will be unpleasantly sifted—shaken up and frenzied. Just as wheat separates from the shaft, so too they will be shaken and to some extent broken. They will lose a part of themselves. In the shaking and separating may not even recognize themselves in the dislodgement. This is certainly true of Peter himself. He declares in the next verse, "Lord I am ready to go with you both to prison and death!" Peter believes those words. He finds his identity in them—he is a loyal guy. But he will soon say three times, "I don't know him!" How broken Peter must have been when a rooster's song shattered his whole sense of self.
But (!) Jesus issued a promise! He told Peter he would pray for him. And now perhaps we can make some sense of this passive statement. Yes, Satan will demand to sift you—but you will be sifted like wheat. Sifting wheat has a particular purpose, to remove the chaff from the valuable grain. Satan's sifting attempts the destruction of Peter and the others. But Jesus uses Satan's strategy against him: Satan will sift, but in doing so he will produce an even greater disciple. From the perspective of the immediate, the here-and-now, Peter fails the test. He denies the Lord three times. But Peter is not a failure. His faith works.
You see, faith is God's gift to us, and it comes by hearing God's words. We like to think of faith in terms of "amounts" or "strengths" instead of quality. When Jesus tells us that faith, the size of a mustard seed, can move mountains, he is debunking the idea that more faith matters. Even little faith can do great things if it is of the right quality. The same for the man who says, " I believe help my unbelief." He has very little faith too, a faith mixed with doubt, but the quality of his little is more than enough. Peter too has been given the gift of faith. So Jesus does not say, "I will pray that God gives you more faith." Instead, he says, "I have prayed for you (this time Jesus uses the singular) that your (singular) faith may not fail.” That is, Jesus has given Peter this gift, and it is sufficient for his need and use. He prays only that the quality is excellent. God who gifted faith will see it to maturity.
So what is quality faith? It is merely this: faith that grabs hold of God's words, words that point us outside ourselves to Christ. Faith does not grab hold of our actions, our agency, our abilities or our intelligence-important as those all are to our spiritual lives. Quality faith isn’t faith in faith’s quality, or faith in faith, or faith in faith’s power. Quality faith is faith that looks to Christ because all these other “faiths” will fail.
Why doesn’t Jesus say to Peter, “Satan demanded to have you, but I stopped him from trying?” Because Jesus will defeat the Devil by his own actions while advancing his disciples at the same time. This should give us great hope. For instead of keeping the Devil at bay all the time, cautiously keeping him away from us so that his power and reputation grow in our minds and the saints dread him with increasing horror, Jesus allows the Devil to work mischief and malice upon people that, facing his demonic wrath, his powerlessness is revealed. No doubt, the Devil’s malice is terrible. It brings some of the greatest hurt into our lives. But God’s gift remains. Faith lives through the storm. It may be as small as a mustard seed or as fragile as eggshells, but it persists. Satan furies, but is emasculated, and God’s people learn-like Peter—that Jesus is enough.
I want to close by making a careful distinction. Addiction, child sickness, widowhood, depression—these are emptying and terrible pains that inflict wounds that rarely fully heal. I am not making that argument here, that the ends justify the means—that is, that because God's gift of faith works through hard times and demonic attacks, that it's all worth it in the end. I think Job forever missed and longed for his family. And so I do not want it said that God's working out all things for good makes the need for the working out-good. Surely if the need for God’s deliverance is because Satan is behind our woes, the occasion for help is not good.
Instead, I want to make my argument clear: God's allowance of Satanic oppression is not usually defendable from the standpoint of human reason. I cannot justify God's inscrutable ways by his allowance of specific evils, because, to be frank, from the perspective of human justice and virtue God often violates those notions. God is often found guilty by human reason. But human reason is flawed and simple. Our ways are not God’s ways. What I am saying is a paradox of faith: Despite not always having helpful answers to hard questions, faith grabs hold of God anyway. Our experiences don't always add up to the revelation of God's personality or goodness, but faith trusts him nevertheless. Such is not a blind faith either. It is not blind because it believes in God's revelation of himself to us. God is good, loving, caring and trustworthy. God is revealed in the work and person of Jesus Christ. Faith accepts this revelation despite some life experiences narrating to the contrary. Faith gives God the benefit of the doubt. And it remains true that God does indeed work out all things for good. That is a promise to which we entrust our lives and drink from wells of hope It is not a promise meant to undermine the pain of loss or justify the evil we've experienced.
Instead, it is a promise that in the sifting of our lives by suffering, God will redeem the experience. God will use what Satan determines to break us to in fact endear us to God and showcase his glory. The point is not to justify God’s permissibility but to look beyond or through it to God’s revealed character. God will not let suffering be the final word, he will not allow Satan to be feared, and he will not let us languish in pain without bringing life out of it. Instead, he reveals himself as good and on our side, taking up our cause. In this world of devils it is good we have a Savior, who intercedes for us and prays for us. And it is a blessing that God himself has taken responsibility to gift us with a quality faith that is not easily destroyed, though the fires rage. He who has blessed you with such gifted faith will surely keep you.
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.