I’ve gone back and forth about writing this post for months. I’ve always been skeptical of people who talk about Satan as an entity that intervenes in their daily lives. So I am not at all eager to join those ranks.
As a teenager in a rigid, repressive Christian school, I came to regard Satan as a romantic hero, a la Milton and Byron, a creative force who welcomed all the questions and rebellion and angst and confusion and beauty that my teachers discouraged and disapproved of. Plus, Satan had better music! Later I embraced my Goth side, and the prince of darkness became practically a patron saint, or at least a muse (although this was not a fascination shared by most of the Goths I knew). I discovered black metal and met actual satanists, who, with one exception, were scrawny loudmouths looking for some sense of power and belonging. I shouldn’t judge, since power and belonging were what I craved, too. When I had the freedom and the courage to do so, I sought out a spirituality that left me feeling powerful, rather than powerless; safe, rather than under constant threat; protected, rather than subject to the whim of a deity who had no problem annihilating me in the most painful way possible just to prove He could; desired rather than despised. Praying had always felt like banging my head against a brick wall; Satan promised to listen. And if I could make contact with absolute evil, I reasoned, then I would know that absolute goodness also had to exist.
My views were further shaped by my reading of Neil Gaiman’s story “Murder Mysteries.” I came away with a concept of Satan as a nobly tragic figure, assigned by God to play a necessary, difficult, painful, but ultimately redemptive role in the human drama. I still find myself partial to that idea. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more agnostic about the existence of Satan as a malevolent being and not just metaphor. After all, Satan gets blamed for a lot of things that are, if we’re honest, our own faults, unpleasant consequences of our own or other people’s poor choices.
But. I’ve noticed a pattern over the past 18 months or so, and reluctant as I am to attribute it to Satan, it is at least causing me to reassess my beliefs in ways that feel uncomfortably fundamentalist. Because it seems like every time I feel particularly close to God, experience deep peace, and have an almost tangible sense of God’s presence, it’s just a matter of time until I find myself crashing hard into disillusionment and despair.
Sometimes it’s my own doubts that boil up. Often, though, the crashes have been triggered by other people. I’d be so excited by what I thought God was telling me that I couldn’t help sharing it. All the books I’ve read on listening to God say that if you think God is telling you something, ask for confirmation from Christian friends. But…what happens when you hear a clear message, but everyone else thinks you got your wires crossed? I’ve heard everything from “That’s just not how God works” to “You’re not at the point where God would make those kinds of promises to you” to “That’s not God’s plan for your life.” And the thing is, all these people seem so sure. And I’m not. So then I doubt that I’m actually hearing God right. But why would God tell other people things about my life that are kept secret from me? And am I just projecting my own dreams and desires onto God’s voice? That way lies madness. And what kind of God rewards you with madness and lies when you’re seeking love and truth?
I spin my wheels. I doubt everything, and the doubt throws me into such existential despair that I don’t know if I can go on living, because if the promises are false, does that mean all the love and the peace and the comfort were just illusions too? I churn. I spiral. No one knows how to help, what to say. It feels like people put God into their own boxes, and if my experiences don’t fit into those boxes, then they shrug in pity and avoid openly saying I’m delusional.
And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am. Or maybe God is trying to force me not to rely on other people for validation and confirmation. Maybe God is trying to build my faith.
A few nights ago, I sat down with my journal and wrote a list of questions that were torturing me, questions about why things are the way they are in my life and why nothing I do seems to create change. And then I listened for God. And those same promises, the ones I’ve been hearing for more than a year, came forcefully into my head again. With very specific details that I have no way, yet, to verify. I began writing what I understood God to be saying, and this is where the writing took me:
Satan is the one who wants you to despair and believe you’ll always be alone, who wants to steal your hope. Your suicide would make him gleeful. He attacks every time you feel close to me and at peace and confident about the future. He steals it away.
Regardless of whether those were actually God’s words flowing through my pen, I realized the concept rings true. Whether or not the promises are from God, whether or not I’m hearing them right, they always carry peace and comfort and reassurance and an overwhelming sense of love. But the subsequent crashes are so awful, so ugly, so nearly intolerable, that I’ve stopped wanting to pray at all. I’ve begun fearing the peace and the love, because I know they won’t last and I’m terrified of what will follow. It’s like a bipolar spiritual cycle. And at the very least, adjusting my view of Satan from a tragic ally to a(n actual or metaphorical) being working for my destruction gives me a different framework to understand my own spiritual struggles.
I can’t get out of my own way. All along I’ve blamed God for throwing obstacles in my path, but maybe all those verses about freedom in Christ are right, and maybe that freedom could translate into tangible differences in my life: freedom from worrying obsessively about lack of money and whether I have a future, freedom from mediocrity, freedom from not having time to do what I’m most passionate about, freedom from feeling trapped in my life. Freedom from lies and despair that just might originate from Satan as well as my own psyche.
So many, many people have told me over the past year that I have to learn to be grateful where I am. That God put me in this particular space for a reason. And on one level I’m sure that’s true, but it’s also led me to resent and blame God because I feel so trapped. But maybe Satan is the name on the trap — or a name I can usefully scribble onto it — and the restlessness is God’s way of telling me it’s time to escape before I gnaw off my own foot in desperation.
After I wrote in my journal the other night, I felt a clarity I haven’t experienced in a long time. Less fear and more peace. The peace has stayed, and even though it started with the reiteration of those promises when I prayed, it doesn’t feel tied to them. In fact, I’ve stopped worrying about whether or when the promises will come true. The peace is enough. It enabled me to spend a productive day on my novel and another on work. It allowed me to enjoy an afternoon with people I love, without the lingering traces of sadness that usually haunt me. It meant that today I could laugh in delight as my two dogs chased each other through chest-deep snow, dolphin-leaping with pure joy.
I’m holding tightly onto the joy and peace and love, and I’m keeping the promises close to my heart. And even though I feel a little like the kind of fundie drama queen I despise, I’m praying a new prayer: Please protect me from Satan’s lies and the damage he wants to inflict. Because there has been too much damage already, too many lies. And that’s true regardless of whether Satan is a malevolent entity or a metaphor for my own darkest tendencies.
No theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.
If that doesn’t put the devil in his place, I don’t know what does.