Under Satan’s Thumb
Troubles, evil, and where they really come from
Being in a religiously mixed marriage yields interesting experiences. I know because my wife Kathleen is Catholic while I’m Baha’i. We see eye-to-eye on many moral questions but have some significant theological differences. Indeed, sometimes she sees significant theological differences where I do not, and vice versa. Much hinges on interpretation.
Yesterday I accompanied her to Mass, and afterward she stopped to talk to a couple of women she hadn’t seen for some months. Kathleen’s suffered a host of medical issues over the past half year which have kept her home most Sundays, so she enjoyed catching up with her friends. One of these women, upon hearing of her woes, commented, “Satan likes to keep us under his thumb,” and urged us to call if we needed anything.
We both appreciated her sincere offer of help although, myself, I don’t blame Satan for physical illness. But I mentally shrugged off the assertion. There would have been no point in getting into that. Not then, anyway.
Now is another matter…
Humans have a self-centered view of perfection. The more something is as we like it, the more perfect we regard it. A steak done to perfection is one cooked the way you prefer, even if your spouse hates it. You probably envision a perfect life as long, healthy, and pain-free, with your bank account overflowing, your every whim satisfied, and nobody ever imposing upon you.
You’re also smart enough to know you can’t have that. Nothing is ever that perfect for anyone. Yet most everyone experiences small moments of such perfection from time to time. Some religious folks may credit God in those moments and blame Satan for the rest of it. But hold on a second.
God is often portrayed as a loving parent, so consider the following. Do loving parents give their children everything they want? Shield their children from all harm? Make sure they never need work for anything? Teach them to think only of themselves?
You know the answer. And you know why. If any parent, God included, actually gave their children everything they desired, those kids would become spoiled brats. So are the tough times necessarily satanic attacks? Or might they sometimes be divine providence?
Many of the tests and difficulties we face in life are consequences of God’s design. Earthquakes are an inevitable result of our planet’s structure. Disease results from evolutionary biology. And so forth. Why would this be so? Because misfortune is part of growth. It can teach us virtues, if we allow it. Through it we can become detached from the world, learn to place our reliance in God, develop patience, and recognize the value in generosity and in helping others. The alternative is to become self-absorbed and greedy. A spoiled brat.
Who’s This Satan Guy, Anyway?
So if such misfortunes are not Satan’s doing, what is? Or, more fundamentally, what is Satan in the first place? The Adversary, the Enemy, the Father of Lies, he is associated with all things evil. But evil isn’t an inherent property of anything. It’s the negation of good. Good and evil are akin to light and dark, and are indeed often symbolized as such in our thoughts and words. Light emanates from a source and illuminates whatever reflects it, but darkness doesn’t emanate, nor is it reflected. It is nothing more than a lack of light or a failure to reflect whatever light is present. It is an emptiness, a vacuum, a nothingness rather than a something. Evil, similarly, is a failure to reflect goodness, a moral nothingness that results from a lack of positive characteristics.
Every good thing is of God, and every evil thing is from yourselves.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, LXXVII, p149)
Evil is a human failing, resulting from our lower nature, that part of us that derives from the animal. It is rooted in self-centeredness. It grows when we feed our desires and passions instead of controlling them. It recedes when we turn our sight outward to others and to our Creator. In this self-centeredness Satan is found. He is not something apart from us. He is us, or rather, the aspect of us driven by animal impulses and primarily concerned with our own selves.
So curiously, my initial objection notwithstanding, it turns out that Satan does indeed like to keep us under his thumb. Our lower nature wants to exert itself. It wants to run the show. But our true self is our higher nature, our spiritual self, created with a supreme capacity to know and love God. We must nurture and train our spiritual self so it can assume control. This is where goodness is found. Properly regulated, our lower nature is not evil, but when granted free reign, it inevitably gives rise to every genuine evil that has plagued humanity from time out of mind.