Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up (James 4:7-10 TNIV).
I wish I had a better answer. I really, really do. After all, I get asked the question pretty often, or it comes up in conversation. Usually, the conversation goes something like this:
Questioner: "You know, I'm really struggling with (insert sin here). I really want to stop, but I just can't because (insert reason here). What should I do?
Me: Well, you know, James says, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you."
Questioner: (Only silence with crickets chirping in the background!)
See what I mean? I know that the question is sincere, and I also know that the answer makes it sound like I'm dismissing the difficulty of resisting the devil. I would love — I would really love — to be able to give an answer that makes lights go on and angels sing, but truthfully I don't know what else to say. So I end up quoting James. I could do worse, I guess.
I thought of this quandary of mine when I read about the advertising campaign computer specialist Didier Stevens came up with for Google's Adword. The ad was a very simple text advertisement on the internet that said, "Is your PC virus-free? Get it infected here!" The ad was supposed to demonstrate the power that internet ads can have, for good or ill. (There was no actual virus associated with it.) But even Didier didn't expect the results.
Over four hundred people clicked on the ad.
That's right. Four hundred people clicked on an ad that told them the click would infect their PC with a virus. Maybe the ad took you in, I don't know. Maybe you had to go back and read it again to see why clicking it was a bad thing. Sure, the ad might be a little misleading. Still, it promises pretty explicitly that if you do what it says, you're going to get a result you don't much care for. And over four hundred people read that ad and did exactly what it told them to.
While I wish I could claim that I'm smarter than all those people, it seems that apparently I'm not.
No, I didn't click the ad, but I've fallen for similar deceptions. How about you? I've believed hype. I've bought into slogans like "Everyone does it!" or "It's not really that big a deal!" or "He deserves it!" or "My anger is justified!" or "I'm not being selfish!" I've fallen, in short, for some of the campaigns dreamed up by one of the great hucksters of all time. I've bought some of what he's been selling people since, well, since there have been people. I've walked into his traps with my eyes open.
So I know first-hand that resisting the devil is sometimes easier said than done.
I also know first-hand that most of us from time to time could stand to do a little more resisting.
James says that if I resist the devil, he'll flee from me. Not to oversimplify, but might that imply that if he's not fleeing, then I just might not be resisting? Resisting him, after all, involves choosing not to do some things that I might really want to do. It's not that I can't resist him, at least a lot of the time. It's that I don't want to pay what resisting him might cost.
But reading James again reminds that I shouldn't stop just with quoting "Resist the devil." James says a few other things, too.
Resisting doesn't have to be done alone.
I think we're strongest to resist the Devil when we're in community with other people who are resisting him, too. Most churches need to restore the kind of community that allows us to share our struggles and draw strength from the prayers and wisdom and grace of the community. We need to remember that James is writing to "sinners" — plural, a group of people — and then remember that we're all made up of flaws stitched together, if at all, by good intentions.
Resisting isn't only about what you stop doing.
James reminds us that hands need to be washed and hearts purified. The problem isn't just that Satan's deceptions are out there. The problem is that the filthy state in which we find ourselves — in both our actions and our inner lives — make those deceptions attractive to us. We're "double-minded" people who left to ourselves would probably choose to try to divide our allegiances between Jesus and the Devil. When we begin to seek, through Jesus, clean hands and pure hearts, the lines Satan tries to feed us start to lose their flavor.
Resisting involves a change of perspective and of heart.
Notice the line, "grieve, mourn, and wail." We really don't like that, do we? But, I think maybe James is onto something: that contentment is part of our problem. When we're honest, we have to admit that we're somewhat comfortable with the lives we're living. Maybe we need to let the gospel shock us a little more often out of our comfort and contentment. Maybe we need to let the love and grace of God make us ashamed of how easily we give into the Devil's schemes. Jesus promised comfort to those who mourn. Maybe we ought to take him up on that offer.
Resisting means remembering we aren't in this struggle alone.
Just as resisting Satan makes him flee, seeking God opens the door for him to come near. If you humble yourself before him, James promises, he'll lift you up. When we're proud and arrogant and want to live life on our own terms, God is quite willing to sit on the sidelines and watch us struggle. But struggle against Satan, even if you lose, and watch him come to your rescue. Reach out for him, and you'll find him near. Make the smallest move to draw near him, and he'll enfold you in his arms and hold you close.
So maybe my answer to those questions about resisting temptation is sometimes a little inadequate. But it's not wrong, is it? Maybe, just maybe, we don't like James' simplicity — not because we've tried it and found it wanting, but because we've found it difficult and haven't tried it.
As Eugene Peterson words James' text in "The Message": "Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper."
Maybe we ought to give it a try.