Satan’s Limitations

Q – Is there anything in the Bible to indicate that Satan and Co. try to drag us down, despite our salvation, thus rendering us temporarily ineffective as ministers/witnesses? From what I’ve read here, it would seem like you’re leaning in the direction of ‘no.’ But I’ve been told, well, since I was very young, that Satan attacks us in little ways just to bring us down and … well, just what I said, make us ineffective. Is there a Biblical basis for that or not?

Jim – I’m familiar with that sort of thinking. Satan does end up getting credit for all sorts of things that I think are merely human nature. We have an intrinsic propensity toward sin, despite folk attempting to place the cause outside themselves. But, the Bible does not give us any clear evidence that Satan can render a genuine, blood-bought, spirit-filled Christian ineffective in ministry. He that is in us is still greater than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Normally, the way it’s taught is that Satan tempts us to some grievous sin and it’s that sin that undermines our witness. But, the verses normally used to argue that Satan can hamper the furtherance of the gospel do not actually say that the Devil can successfully inspire Christians to sin their way into futility. For instance, the most common verse used in this regard is Paul’s statement to the Thessalonians that he intended to come see them but “Satan hindered me.”

Here’s the passage:

“For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost. But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire. Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? For ye are our glory and joy.” (1 Thess 2:14-20)

It is obvious from the context that Paul credited Satan with stirring up opposition to his return to Thessalonica. But, Satan did not directly attack Paul or hinder his effectiveness. Here’s the back-story of what happened the first time Paul had come to town:

“Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded; and a great multitude of the devout Greeks, and not a few of the leading women, joined Paul and Silas. But the Jews who were not persuaded, becoming envious, took some of the evil men from the marketplace, and gathering a mob, set all the city in an uproar and attacked the house of Jason, and sought to bring them out to the people. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king–Jesus.’ And they troubled the crowd and the rulers of the city when they heard these things. So when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews.” (Acts 17:1-10)

So, I think from the history and context, Paul was saying that Satan managed to stir up those Jews who were opposed to the gospel of Christ. But again, it was not a spiritual attack on Paul directly.

The second passage that leads folk to believe that Satan can directly damage Christians is 2 Cor. 12:7-10. It reads:

“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’

Two things are clear here: (1) God sent the tormenting agent in order to quell Paul’s natural human tendency toward pride and conceit. And, (2) this thorn in the flesh did not halt Paul’s ministry. In fact, it accomplished just the opposite, which is why God imposed it. It taught Paul to trust God more fully.

So, even though Paul suffered a physical malady of some sort (I personally believe it was an increasing blindness in his eyes), he recognized God’s control in the situation and asked God three times to remove it. But, ultimately he succumbed to God’s sovereign choice.

By the way, this also proves God’s complete sovereignty over demonic activities, just as we see in the book of Job, or with Jesus confronting the demoniac of the Gadarenes (Luke 8), or really with just about any passage where satanic activity is afoot. Because, in the end, Satan and his minions serve God’s sovereign purpose. Inasmuch as we know that God will one day judge them and render them utterly void of any presence or power, the very fact that God has not done that yet proves that they continue to serve some greater purpose in God’s economy.

By the way, on a different subject, Paul’s thorn in the flesh also proves that not all Christians get healed just because they have faith. Paul was unswervingly faithful under practically inhuman suffering, yet God opted not to heal him, despite his repeated requests. Why? Because sometimes sickness serves God’s purpose, as well.

Name it. Every element of life serves His purpose. Whether bad or good, all things work together to the culmination of His ultimate plan. So, devils and demons cannot thwart the gospel or the effectiveness of those who work to spread it. After all, it’s God’s enterprise and God does not fail.

That was basically just a long way of saying that your initial impression was correct. The answer is “no.”