Spite the Devil

The devil is conquered by despising him and mocking him, not by resisting and arguing.

-- Martin Luther

Back during the tumult of the late 1960s, a college friend observed, “Ever notice how the leaders come and go, but the head of the secret police always stays the same?” My friend was not talking about the Soviet Union or some other totalitarian regime. At that point FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had held office for well over 40 years. Presidents generally liked to put trusted lieutenants into sensitive political posts like his. But Hoover had repeatedly been asked to stay on by presidents of both parties since Calvin Coolidge first appointed him in 1924. As it turned out, Hoover had been assembling secret files on important political figures in Washington for decades. These were kept under lock and key in his office. When some juicy tidbit found its way into his files, he would dispatch his minions to inform the official in question that the FBI knew his dirty little secret. No explicit threat was ever made – but then, none was needed. Hoover – who was himself reputedly blackmailed by the Mafia over his homosexuality – knew that his knowledge of Washington’s dirty little secrets gave him all the power he needed.

Martin Luther may have had someone like J. Edgar Hoover in mind when he advised a friend, “One must always do what Satan forbids.” Luther knew that Satan was perfectly capable of invoking God’s law to exercise control over his victims. He wrote, “Whenever the devil charges us with our sins and pronounces us guilty of death and hell, we ought to say to him: I admit I deserve death and hell; what, then, will happen to me?” Luther, of course, believed he had an ace in the hole, which was the saving grace of Christ’s death on a cross, freeing him and all believers from the consequences of sin. Therefore, he could safely turn the tables on his accuser, knowing his threats were empty.

It is perhaps a bit jarring to think of God’s law as an instrument of the devil. But then, Satan was perfectly capable of quoting Scripture when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. This may explain why Luther advised, “We must put the whole law out of our eyes and hearts.” Why provide more ammunition for the Evil One? “Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.”

Luther, of course, had famously advised, “Be a sinner, and sin boldly.” Such utterances had laid him open to charges of antinomianism, a term Luther himself had coined for those who took the concept of justification by faith to extremes. While it might have been true that faith alone guaranteed salvation from sin, Luther never believed that faith should be regarded as a license to sin, his own somewhat mystifying statements on the subject notwithstanding. “We are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone,” he always insisted.

When Luther talked about sinning boldly, he was addressing a particular situation that had tormented him as a young monk. For Luther and for most of his contemporaries, Satan was a real personage, and hell was a real place. With the salvation of his immortal soul hanging in the balance, the stakes could not have been higher. Accordingly, he spent hours each day examining his own conscience and then hours more unburdening himself with his confessor, until his spiritual advisor ordered him to stop sweating the small stuff. Eventually Luther realized Satan was using his own conscience against him, much as J. Edgar Hoover had used his secret files to control his political enemies. Henceforth, when confronted with his dirty little secrets, Luther was only too happy to tell Satan to go to hell.

Matthew 4:1-11

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