Have you seen the memes showing Jesus and Satan as musclebound arm wrestlers?
Sometimes people share it sincerely and sometimes as a joke, but either way, it’s pretty popular. The two of them are locked in a pitched battle, biceps bulging, veins popping, sweat pouring down their faces as they struggle to gain the advantage.
Even when we share this image ironically, it’s a little too easy to unintentionally internalise the idea that this is what spiritual battle is like: God vs the devil, two equally matched, opposite forces locked in combat. Even Catholics who should know better fall into yin-yang thinking, imagining the universe as a battle ground where two immense, abstract forces are held in eternal tension.
This is actually a heresy, or part of several popular heresies, including manicheism and some forms of gnosticism. Let’s call it “dualistic cosmology”. Whatever you call it, it’s baloney. You’re giving Satan way too much credit, and understanding far too little about God.
Remember when you were a little kid, and you used to think the sun was about the size of a rubber playground ball, because that’s how it looked? Then you found out it was a star, and actually quite a bit smaller than the other stars we can see in the night sky. And then you found out that the sun, which is not even an especially big star, is more than a million times bigger than the earth. If we somehow managed to scoot our planet up close to the sun, we would see that it’s barely big enough to be a little speck of soot drifting across the giant orange face of the sun.
Remember that feeling, when you first realised how far off your sense of scale was.
Now imagine that, on that tiny little soot-sized speck that is the earth, there is an island, and on that island, there is a house, and in that house, there is a fireplace, and in that fireplace, there is a log, and somewhere under that log, there is an actual literal tiny speck of soot.
Now imagine THAT speck of soot, and compare it to the sun.
The light of Christ has already dawned. The only thing that’s left is for us to decide if we want to ally with the risen sun, or with the piece of soot that tried to overthrow the sun.
How are you feeling? Getting a little big of a “Yikes, my proportions are way off” sensation? Go ahead and feel that feeling when you think of Satan (actual speck of soot) and God (the sun).
It’s not accurate. It’s not anywhere near approaching the reality of the scale of difference between God’s grandeur compared to Satan’s squalor. But we can learn something from that feeling of realising how out of whack our previous estimation was. When Satan decides to put himself up for a fight against God, it’s not two equals tussling for a prize. That’s just not how it is.
But Simcha! you will say. Surely you’re not trying to persuade us that the devil is as small and easy to manage as a little speck of soot! We cannot afford to be complacent about how strong the devil is. He really does have the power to lead us into Hell!
Right. I’m not saying we can rid ourselves of sin and temptation as easily as you could wipe away a speck of soot. Compared to us, the devil really is immensely big and powerful.
But compared to God? Soot vs. the sun.
And the sun . . . cares about us. It rises in the east every morning just to come see us, to be with us, to shine on us and bring us life. The sun likes us.
So here is the second problem with the “sweaty arm wrestler” imagery: It not only makes us imagine God and the devil as equal and opposite in strength, it suggests that they are comparable in nature. That they use the same kind of tactics to try to win our souls, and it’s just a matter of who puts more force into those tactics. As if goodness pulls you one way, and badness pulls the other, and sheer physics will decide which way you eventually go.
This is, if anything, even worse than the first falsehood. The truth is, there is no honest, straightforward fight when the devil is involved. All of his tactics are distortions, diminishments, cheats, and lies. He’s petty. He’s lazy. He’s an abuser, a sociopath, a sadist, a cockroach. The devil can’t renew anything, can’t supply anything, can’t fully reveal anything, can’t clarify anything. All he knows how to do is persuade you, and human life, and God, are less than they really are, and that you should act accordingly.
Nothing that is real, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual actually comes from the devil. He’s very good at making it seem like he’s got amazing, powerful weapons, but really all he can do is take what is real and distort, diminish, or disguise it. That’s all he’s got. That’s all he brings to the fight. Once you can identify what his squalid, weapons really are, they may become easier to resist, especially if you call on God and his angels to help you.
The weapons of God are beauty, truth, and goodness. They are life, light, hope, faith, and charity. And they are, strangely enough, self-sacrifice, voluntary self-diminishment, and service. Those are the weapons God uses in the fight for human souls. The truth is, there isn’t really an ongoing fight. The fight has already been won. The light of Christ has already dawned. The only thing that’s left is for us to decide if we want to ally with the risen sun, or with the piece of soot that tried to overthrow the sun.
And that battle, the battle over alliance that we engage in with our daily choices, is far less meme-able than the two brawny guys toughing it out over a splintery table. But . . . aren’t you glad the nature of God isn’t meme-able? Aren’t you glad it’s bigger than that?