Can the devil personally be tempting me and a lot of other people at exactly the same time?
James F. Pope
Your question leads us to look in Scripture and examine how the devil measures up against God and people.
The devil and people
The Bible makes it clear that the devil has abilities superior to those of human beings. “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11,12).
While the devil’s abilities are superior to people’s, they are inferior to God’s. That brings us to the heart of your question.
The devil and God
As an angel—a fallen one at that—the devil is not omniscient. Only God is. The devil cannot read hearts and minds. Only God can do that (1 Kings 8:39). The devil operates by observing patterns in people’s lives. As an angel, the devil is not omnipresent either. Only God the Creator is (Psalm 139:7-10). Much as the human soul, housed in a body, can occupy only one space at one time, so the devil, a spirit being, can occupy only one space at one time.
Yet, as a spirit being without a body, the devil is able to move from one space to another faster than human beings can. And move he does. Job 1:7 and Job 2:2 describe the devil “roaming throughout the earth.” 1 Peter 5:8 states that the devil “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Roaming and prowling describe the devil’s non-stop activity as he moves from person to person, seeking to destroy them.
Although the devil himself may not be able to “tempt you and a lot of other people at the same time,” he has helpers to assist him in his dastardly work (Matthew 25:41). The devil’s minions flit about from person to person on seek-and-destroy missions.
The devil and the sinful nature
More than having helpers in the form of evil angels, we need to recognize that the devil has an accomplice inside each person. The sinful nature, passed on from generation to generation, is hostile toward God (Romans 8:7). The sinful nature hates anything good and godly and desires to do the devil’s bidding (Galatians 5:19-21). So while the devil is not personally present in the life of a Christian 24/7, his ally, the sinful nature, is.
With intermittent and ever-present enemies like these, what is a Christian to do? “Put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13) and launch a counter-offensive. That is not a foolhardy course of action. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7) is God’s instruction and promise. More than that, we combat our sinful nature through daily contrition and repentance, and we build up the new self through God’s gospel in Word and sacrament (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Finally, we remember that our spiritual enemies are not permanent. Our sinful nature is limited to life on this earth. Satan is an enemy whom Jesus has already defeated (Genesis 3:15). One day, he will lose all ability to tempt us (Revelation 20:10).
Author: James F. Pope
Volume 106, Number 5
Issue: May 2019