Today in church an elderly gentleman shared a short spiritual thought. He said that God is the only one who can read our minds and thoughts, so that’s why we should pray silently, otherwise Satan can gain access to our innermost desires and use them against us. While this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment, it struck me as a particularly strange belief. Perhaps I should cease praying aloud with my wife at night, or writing my deepest thoughts in my journal, lest Satan weaponize my ideas and destroy me.
I’m not sure how typical my experience in this regard is, but I grew up understanding that Satan wasn’t particularly powerful. I recall clearly a lesson as a young boy where the teacher told us we had more power in one finger than Satan would ever have, because he didn’t have a physical body. Yet it’s not hard to find rhetoric from church leaders that grant the Devil great powers. “How cunning and sneaky and intelligent he is!”, they sometimes say. “He knows every trick in the book and has refined his trade for millennia. He has at his disposal a great part of the hosts of heaven that rebelled at the beginning in the War in Heaven.”
You see, on some days I find it hard enough to summon belief in a God that intervenes in my life. So get in line, Lucifer. I’ve got much bigger fish to fry. At the moment I keep my beliefs pretty simple. I don’t feel inclined to acquire belief in a devil figure, whether he’s a mythological figure with cloven hooves, horns, a tail and red skin, or the more traditional Mormon character that’s a spirit in the form of a human, or Will Ferrell dressed in red and exchanging killer guitar songs for people’s souls. I think that mankind is good enough at finding evil on its own, thank you very much. What’s the point in believing in a Devil?
Sometimes a church leader will bear testimony of Satan—his reality and his power. This unsettles me, because it seems like it gives him more power than he would otherwise have. Some might say that Satan has even more power over me because he’s able to tempt me and influence me behind my back, while I’m completely oblivious to the strings he’s pulling. As Baudelaire famously said, “the devil’s best trick is to persuade you that he doesn’t exist!” Perhaps. Or perhaps my skepticism in the existence of a Devil ensures that no such being has influence over me.
Terryl Givens, one of my favorite Mormon thinkers, explained in his interview with Mormon Stories why he thinks that faith must be a reasonable choice and why it matters what we choose to place our faith in. He said:
…faith is what operates or what unfolds in a middle ground, between the compulsion to affirm and the compulsion to deny. And I believe that God has structured our lives here on this Earth in such a way that, when it comes to those issues of eternal import, we have to be free to affirm or to deny. And therefore, there has to be a balance of evidence, both for the veracity of the Gospel, and against it. It’s essential to God’s divine purposes, and to the flowering of freedom itself, I believe, that there have to be compelling reasons to reject the Book of Mormon, to reject Joseph as a prophet, to reject the existence of God Himself. But they have to exist alongside compelling reasons to affirm those things. Only in those circumstances can we call upon our will and choose to believe or not to believe. And I think in those moments, our choice reflects the most important things about us: our souls, what we love, what is it that we choose to affirm.
What Givens says here really resonates with me. My choice regarding the ideas in which I place my faith reflects the most important things about me. Under this paradigm, what possible reason would I have for wanting to believe in a Devil? Why would anyone want to believe in such a being?