Does God collaborate with the devil?

May 18, 2016

I’ve said (or implied) this a few dozen times on this blog and in sermons: I find it immensely comforting to know that Satan himself can’t derail God’s plans for me—that God has the power to transform into good whatever the devil sends my way. (And, yes, biblically speaking, Satan has the power, however constrained it may be, to “send things our way.”)

As evidence, I always cite two scripture verses or passages: Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today”; and Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12 about his “thorn in the flesh,” which Paul describes as both a “messenger from Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) by God. C.S. Lewis might describe Paul’s thorn as a “severe mercy.”

Believing that this is so spares me from having to be selectively thankful to God for what’s happening to me. Because the skeptics are right: It isn’t logical to give God all the credit when something goes well in our lives without at the same time at least appreciating that God’s providential hand is at work through the bad stuff in our lives. To be clear: this doesn’t mean that God causes evil; only that God is always at work, transforming it for our good.

Andrew Wilson, an English pastor and theologian, makes the same point in this fine blog post. Scripture is clear that God and Satan are often in a “collaborative” relationship, although Satan is an unwitting partner with a drastically different agenda. He cites many more scriptures:

The problem is, of course, that there are a number of places in Scripture in which a collaborative relationship between divine and satanic agency is assumed, or explicitly taught, without going anywhere near the unforgivable sin (unless we are to believe that Moses, the Chronicler, Luke, Paul and co committed it within the pages of the Bible, which seems unlikely). Job is afflicted by Satan (1:6-12; 2:1-8), and also by God (1:20-22; 2:9-10). David’s census is incited by God (2 Samuel 24:1), and also by Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1). Judas betrays Jesus because of Satan (Luke 22:3-6), and because of God’s sovereign plan (Acts 4:27-28). Church discipline will result in an immoral brother having his flesh destroyed by Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5a), so that his spirit may be saved by God (5:5b). And that is without mentioning the various human individuals whose evil actions are ordained somehow by God, with a view to bringing about good (Joseph’s brothers, Pharaoh, the king of Assyria, and so on). Paul’s knowledge of all these stories, alongside his language here, strongly indicate that he regarded his thorn in the same way.

Contemporary Methodists, among many other Christians, get squeamish about saying that God ever wants his children to experience pain or suffering for any reason. If you are one of them, please feel free tell me why Wilson and I are wrong.

I like this concluding paragraph:

So who gave Paul his thorn? God, and Satan, but with thoroughly different agendas. Satan, we may surmise, wanted to destroy him. God wanted to humble him, and throw him back onto divine grace. And God won.

One Response to “Does God collaborate with the devil?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    “And God won.” I like that. The devil is very clever, but no matter how hard he tries in the “chess match,” he can never beat the “chess master.”

    The thing about it is (Grant, if you are reading, sorry if this sounds like free choice!), the devil always has his own “contrary agenda.” God is never the “initiator” of sin. “Let no man say, when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ because God cannot be tempted with evil, NEITHER TEMPTETH HE any man.” God certainly “places restraints” on the devil (see Job), but the “evil idea” part of the equation always comes from the devil (see Job again). Thus, God is not “overriding” the devil’s “free will” to cause him to do something bad he does not want to do, just as he does not do so with us. But God is “in control of the game.” And, of course, God already “foreknew” how the devil would react in each scenario the devil would face, so God knows “how everything will go” from the outset.

    I don’t want to resurrect or rehash again the “free choice versus God’s providence” debate again, but nonetheless it is the very fact that no moral evil can be initiated by God that strongly supports that God allows moral agents to act “freely,” of their “own accord,” within certain “restraints.” The fact that God “foreknew” this (and planned history accordingly) cannot mean that he “flipped the switch” in anyone to bring about a morally evil action, by us or the devil.

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