A central Christian teaching is that for those who are in Christ, our lives are spent in the process of sanctification—in conjunction with our own efforts and desires, God’s Spirit works in us to transform our lives into conformity with that of Jesus Christ. In short, we seek to imitate Christ, and the Spirit helps us to do that.
While this is the goal, the sobering reality is that if we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves imitating someone very different—the Devil. That perhaps seems like a sensationalistic claim—what Christians actually set out to imitate the Evil One? By intention, it may not happen, but by action, it happens all too frequently. Let me explain.
Titles, Not Names
It will be surprising to some to hear that the Evil One mentioned in Scripture is nowhere given a name; he is repeatedly given titles and descriptions: the dragon, the serpent, the devil, the father of lies, etc.—even Satan is not a name—in the original language, it is used with a definite article (“the Satan”).
What I think is helpful about realizing that this murky character is only described with titles is that these titles tell us something about his character—a character that Christians can emulate if we are not careful.
The Father of Lies
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
This one is pretty obvious: the Evil One is a liar. We see it in his deception of Adam and Even in the Garden, and we see it on a regular basis as he whispers to us that the ways God has laid out for us aren’t really the best ways, or that we are too broken to be loved by our Creator and to be used by Him. He is a liar and the father of lies.
And here is the scary part: when we lie, not only do we fail to imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the father of lies. Being people of integrity is such a fundamental characteristic of Jesus’ disciples that He specifically addressed it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.33-37), but we easily resort to being people of evasion, partial truths, and outright dishonesty. When we do this, we may not be intentionally imitating the Devil, but in our lack of careful intention to be people of absolute integrity, we imitate him nonetheless.
This one may be less obvious to us because we tend to associate devil with a red creature with horns and a pitchfork, but really, the Greek word that is translated devil is διαβολος (from which we get our word diabolical), which means “the slanderer.” Obviously, this term is also related to the notion of dishonesty, but slander is more specific. Slander is “the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.”
Interestingly, this same word is used in Scripture to describe people:
Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.
1 Timothy 3.11
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
2 Timothy 3.1-5
Depending on translation, this Greek word can be rendered as “slanderers” or “malicious gossips,” but the basic idea is clear enough: talking bad about people is diabolical. The Evil One is a slanderer. He is the Devil.
And here is the scary part: when we slander, when we talk badly or share untrue statements about people, we do not imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the Devil. Being people who consistently speak in God-honoring ways is a huge challenge for followers of Jesus, and Scripture is full of admonitions regarding how we use our tongues and words (Ephesians 4.15; Colossians 4.6; James 3.6). This does not mean that we can never say anything negative about another person, but I do think it means that we should refrain from saying things about people that we wouldn’t say to them, that we should make sure that what we say is true, and that we should make sure that what we say is said in love.
This one may be the hardest of all for us to see initially, because we are so used to thinking of Satan as a name. But it is actually a title. Ha satan (הַשָּׂטָן) literally means “the adversary” or “the accuser”. It can be used in a general sense:
And the LORD raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite.
(1 Kings 11.14a)
The Angel of Yahweh is referred to this way:
But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary.
But when the term is used with the definite article (“the”) before it, it specifically refers to the rebellious spiritual being who has set himself in opposition to the will of God. This is how he is described at the beginning of the Book of Job, as he brings the case of Job before God and stands as an adversary against Job, accusing him of possessing a love for God that is shallow and deficient. We see a similar characterization in the Book of Revelation, where the evil creature variously described as the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil and Satan hurls accusations against God’s people day and night (Revelation 12.9-10). The Evil One is an adversary of God’s people, who lobs accusations against them.
And here is the scary part: when we oppose and accuse God’s people, we are not imitating Christ, but rather, are actively imitating the Satan. This is challenging for me. There are a lot of believers who are different than I am in various ways. Some of these differences are significant, and at times it is tempting for me to magnify the differences and question the hearts and motive of people with whom I disagree. But this is dangerous spiritual ground to occupy. I am sometimes humbled by the words of Jesus in Mark 9.40: “For the one who is not against us is for us.” I struggle at times to know how to apply these words, but I know that my perspective is often closer to that of the disciples than Jesus. And I know that I don’t want to be an accuser or adversary of God’s people. I don’t want to imitate the Satan.
This has not been an exhaustive post—there are other titles of the Evil One (like, for example, “Evil One”!) that we could look at, but I think the general point has been established. Rather than talking about an evil figure named Satan, Scripture uses lots of titles to describe this character. These descriptions let us know what he is like and what his motives are, and should also provide conviction for us that, if we are not careful, we can in a very real sense imitate the Father of Lies, the Devil, the Satan. For those of us who are instead called to be imitators of Christ, this obviously will not do.
Father of mercies,
Forgive us our sins and shortcomings.
May your Spirit,
Day by day,
Transform us into the image of your Son, Jesus Christ.
I don’t have issues with people using Satan as a name; I am just pointing out that this is not a name in Greek or Hebrew, and is not how biblical authors used it.