A dead Christian is of no value to the Devil. Only a Christian who is still alive is worth Satan’s time and efforts. This is an obvious truth, assuming the particular, physically deceased person in question was indeed a true man or woman of God. For upon the physical death of the truly faithful and genuinely regenerate person, they enter into the presence of Christ and are forever secure from Satan’s attacks. But for those who still live, they are in the Devil’s crosshairs and ever susceptible to his attrition. The Devil’s plan of attack is always twofold: to discourage the true believer from being effective for God’s kingdom, and to use the false convert to destroy the Church from within.
As to the latter aim, the Devil realizes that the best and most effective way to attack God’s Church on earth, is through those who consider themselves “Christians,” but who deep down know they are not (Acts 5:1-8). Or, the Devil can work through those who are so self-deluded, they genuinely believe themselves to be Christian, yet have so forsaken God’s Word and God’s ways, that in reality, and in spite of their belief, they are not (2 Cor 13:5). There are biblical precedents for both kinds of claims (Matt 7:14-16, 21-23 & 15:8; Mk 4:16-17; 1 Jn 2:18-19, 14:23-24; 2 Cor 13:5; 2 Tim 4:3-4; Jas 4:4; 2 Pet 2:2), and it seems both obvious and unfortunate that right from its outset, the Church has been infiltrated by a corrupting power. This power usually takes the form of false converts of one of the two aforementioned types.
Ultimately then, for any particular church to crumble or fade into irrelevance in a particular culture or epoch of history, the Devil will work through Christians, or at least those “inside” the church. Attacks from the outside, from obvious enemies, are never what ultimately take out the Church in a culture. As with any physical war, the most dangerous enemy is always found within the ranks.
Potiphar’s Wife and God’s Man
The story of Joseph is one of the most paradigmatic narratives in the Bible. There are more lessons to learn from this pericope alone than most human beings could digest in a lifetime of learning. One subtle point that doesn’t often get preached, revolves around the events occurring between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. In this section of the Joseph narrative, Joseph has overcome the initial shock of being sold into slavery to become the head servant of a rich and aristocratic household. As Nahum Sarna points out in his commentary, the prophecy of Genesis 15:3 is being fulfilled.
Yet in this narrative a seemingly marginal figure in history, the unnamed wife of Potiphar, tries to undermine God’s providential plan for Israel by undermining the moral character of His servant Joseph. We all know the story. Joseph, the “well built and handsome” (Gen 39:6b) foreigner has attracted the notice of the nobleman’s wife. She desires to be with him, sexually. However, Joseph, the authentic man of God, is not only not interested, he sees the entire advance as an affront both to his master and ultimately to God (Genesis 39:7-10). Joseph’s stalwart faithfulness, also a sign of his increasing spiritual maturity, affords him the opportunity to be the vehicle through whom God’s promise to increase Abraham’s seed will be fulfilled.
Sarna, commenting on Joseph’s firm rejection of the wife’s adulterous proposal, says:
Joseph’s spontaneous response is a categorical no. His moral excellence can be appreciated all the more if one remembers that he is a slave and that sexual promiscuity was a perennial feature of all slave societies. Moreover an ambitious person might well have considered that the importuning woman had presented him with a rare opportunity to advance his personal and selfish interest.
In sum, Joseph’s convictions about God and God’s moral law, preclude him from falling into base concupiscence or from using the moral weakness of Potiphar’s wife to his own long-term advantage. Of course, it is more than just his conviction at this point. It is more than mere intellectual assent. It is who he has become that prevents him from doing so.
The story of the aging temptress and the young, vigorous hero is not new, not even to the Bible. It can be found throughout human literary work. In more recent versions, like Mike Nichols’ award winning 1968 film, The Graduate, the moral decision is however reversed. In this modern retelling, Benjamin Braddock (played by a young Dustin Hoffman) succumbs rather quickly to the temptings of Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). In the post-modern world of 1960’s America, there is little reason not to give in; life is, as the movie shows us repeatedly, rather meaningless and absurd. As such, any “hero” is only a hero in the Nietzschean sense, as the amoral man (or woman) grasping for the elusive “élan vital” and for nothing higher or transcendent to their own subjective desires. Of course, Hoffman’s “Braddock” is very much the real-world exemplar of Nietzsche’s idealized “Übermensch.”
The model for Christian life, however, is not Benjamin Braddock but Joseph son of Jacob. Although the juxtaposition seems appropriate, since many churches today cater to the former type and marginalize the latter. But God’s good plan for the life of the Christian is not one of “self-fulfillment” or “self-actualization” in the Nicholian sense. God’s good plan is instead one of self-sacrifice in the biblical sense. It is one that cannot genuinely be achieved apart from God, for in our flesh we would never choose it.
And so it is exactly this latter type of person, the man or woman of God who is prepared to sacrifice everything for God, that the Devil has in his sights. Thus, Potiphar’s wife, as a tool of Satan, must react to Joseph’s impeccable moral stance in the same way her master would: she lies.
Who Satan Is, And Who Satan is Not
In John 8:44, Jesus provides the only direct predicate of God’s main spiritual enemy, the Satan. According to Jesus, Satan is fundamentally the “father of lies.” In other words, of all the things Satan does to foil God’s plan of history, to undermine God’s desire for the holiness of His people, telling lies is his primary strategy. Jesus does not call Satan “the father of violence,” although we can assume Satan does foment violence. So although in the passage Jesus does refer to Satan as a murderer, what Jesus seems to be saying, given the context, is that what he (Satan) is the murderer of is truth itself. We have no evidence, after all, that Satan ever murders anyone directly. And so what Satan kills is not physical bodies, but a body of Truth.
Jesus also does not call Satan “the father of greed,” although He does talk about mammon in other places. Nor does Jesus call Satan the “father of inequality,” although we also know that there is a unique place in the heart of God for those who suffer unjustly. Ultimately, then, this is what Jesus tells us clearly about Satan: he lies. Satan is the ultimate deceiver of men, and it is through the lie that he works most effectively to harm God’s people and destroy His creation. And so Satan is not primarily a brutish aggressor, or a sensuous spirit or even a haughty creature (although he is all these). More than all of these Satan is a slick con-man, a mendacious speaker of untruths and half truths, a teller of unfounded exaggerations and tall tales.
Paul, in 2 Corinthians, speaking about false teachers, says this about Satan’s abilities:
13 For such people are false apostles,deceitfulworkers, masquerading as apostles of Christ.14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.
Since deception is the primary attribute of Satan, it is the primary means by which he accuses (the meaning of his Hebrew name) God’s people. And so Potiphar’s wife concocts a lie meant to disgrace Joseph (a common practice in our own day, one usually carried out over social media for maximum effect). That lie is the false accusation of, in her first account, rape (v. Gen 39:14); and, in her second account (v. 17), sexual harassment. Indeed she changes her story depending on her audience (another common feature of any effective lie). Sarna points out this noticeable difference in the way Potiphar’s wife relates her lie to the other household servants as compared to her husband (who retains the legal authority to judge and sentence Joseph):
Significantly, she [Potiphar’s wife] does not repeat to her husband her previously stated charge of attempted rape. This omission was probably a powerful factor in saving Joseph from the executioner. Perhaps she secretly nourishes the hope that, by having Joseph incarcerated, she might be able to break his spirit and finally get him to succumb to her.
JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, 275
Potiphar’s wife is a perfect tool in the hands of the evil one, for she understands that the better thing would be for Joseph not to die. After all, if the man of God simply dies, then he cannot be converted into an instrument for evil. Instead, she changes her lie, reducing it in severity, so that Potiphar will restrain himself from exacting capital punishment for the alleged offense. This is something he clearly would have had the power to do. Potiphar’s wife, i.e., Satan, still hopes to sink her talons into Joseph. A dead Joseph makes this impossible. With a living, imprisoned Joseph, however, there are opportunities. Perhaps a midnight visit to the dank, fortress prison, making the same offer but in light of Jospeh’s new circumstances, would succeed this time around. Would not Joseph’s will in prison be far weaker than it was in the aristocrat’s palace?
Satan Wants His Enemies Alive
In C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece on spiritual warfare, The Screwtape Letters, the elder tempter, Screwtape, is indignant with his nephew, Wormwood, regarding Wormwood’s naive attempts to lead his patient, the Christian man, astray. The main weakness in Wormwood’s unsophisticated strategy is thinking that the patient’s physical death is of primary importance. Screwtape repeatedly has to chastise Wormwood for his foolishness. The goal for any tempter of mankind is not simply to kill his patient. The goal is to conquer his patient’s soul and win over his allegiance from God to Satan. Only then is any real damage done.
In one of Screwtape’s letters, Screwtape castigates his nephew for relishing in the sheer physical destruction caused by war, the kind of destruction that really has no bearing on the spiritual battle that rages between the forces of good and evil:
When I told you not to fill your letters with rubbish about the war, I meant, of course, that I did not want to have your rather infantile rhapsodies about the death of men and the destruction of cities. In so far as the war really concerns the spiritual state of the patient, I naturally want full reports. And on this aspect you seem singularly obtuse. Thus you tell me with glee that there is reason to expect heavy air raids on the town where the creature lives. This is a crying example of something I have complained about already—your readiness to forget the main point in your immediate enjoyment of human suffering. Do you not know that bombs kill men? Or do you not realise that the patient’s death, at this moment, is precisely what we want to avoid? …
If he [the Christian man] dies now, you lose him. If he survives the war, there is always hope.
In the same way, from the vantage point of Potiphar’s wife and her demon master, a dead Joseph is no good. A living Joseph, however, a Joseph who has been compromised, becomes of great value to the kingdom of darkness. A Hebrew who has compromised the law of God, who has given himself over to Egyptian unrighteousness, is now an inside asset able to be used against God’s people and God’s plan. We can only imagine how a compromised Joseph would have treated his brothers upon their arrival into the land–likely he would not have received them with mercy, but with vengeance.
False Converts & The Nature of Propaganda
In military intelligence it is also assumed that the gravest threat to any operation or campaign is the infiltration of friendly forces by an unseen or unidentified enemy. It is not the legions or battalions that can been seen outside the front gates (as intimidating as they may be) that cause the greater concern on the part of commanders and generals. It is the enemy within the ranks who can open the gate for the larger force to move in that generates the constant need for “counter-intelligence” in the history of human warfare. This principle holds for spiritual warfare in the same way it does for physical battle.
To have an “inside man” is one of Satan’s most sought after prizes. We see it in the Gospels, when Peter, only moments after recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, is immediately tempted by Satan to say this about the Messiah’s mission:
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Of course, Jesus recognizes Satan speaking through Peter immediately. And this narrative is preserved for us today, so that we too can recognize how easy it is to fall into deception and worldly ways of thinking about God and God’s plans.
It has been said somewhere by someone, I believe here, that in Communist Russia every third priest of the Russian Orthodox Church was KGB. That may be an exaggeration, but, if at all true, it is certainly one form of infiltration. But that is a rather direct form. There are more subtle ways to infiltrate God’s Church than simply planting nefarious agents who know they are not part of it.
The more subtle way is, of course, through propaganda. That is, through the slow and gradual process of using Christian morality itself, especially Christian social teaching, as a way to convert the faithful into a compromising position. Marxist agitators and critical theorists have know this for years. They have even openly written about it. One of the more explicit mentions of this tactic was made by the father of modern American activism, Saul Alinsky, in his classic work on revolution, Rules for Radicals. In a chapter entitled “Tactics,” Alinsky enumerates the basic tactics for marxist agitation. One of those rules states the following:
The fourth rule is: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.
This propagandistic tactic is rife in American Christianity today. Instead of arguing over truth and falsity, over goodness or beauty or even over feasibility, positions are advanced simply by pointing out other people’s moral failures. But in order to use other people’s moral failures against their idealist positions, they must obviously be alive. The dead Christian, the one who has already paid the ultimate sacrifice for their biblical faith, is not only useless, his or her sacrifice is counterproductive to Satan’s plan of corruption.
This dynamic is portrayed with great depth in Terence Malick’s 2019 film A Hidden Life, where the Austrian peasant, the blessed Franz Jäggerstätter, is tempted by his own parish priest to compromise his position by signing the Hitler oath. The priest, thinking he is doing right, tempts Franz to save his own skin by signing the oath as a mere formality. The idea being that “God knows what is in your heart,” so who cares what man thinks. But Jäggerstätter will make no such compromise (like Joseph son of Jacob), knowing that what is right cannot be hidden away in the heart but must be shouted from the rooftops. After all, just as one cannot hide a lamp by putting it under a bowl, so too must one not cover up truth for the sake of compromise.
Live Not By Lies
In the end, God’s plan for Israel, a very uncomfortable one at that, was realized through Joseph. Potiphar’s wife may only have thought it would be pleasurable to sleep with such a strapping and exotic Hebrew boy. Perhaps like “Mrs. Robinson,” she was simply bored with life, seeking to find some mundane pleasure that might reinvigorate in her a sense of meaning or purpose. However, Joseph, the authentic man of God, saw much more in her proposal than just an indecency. He was able to discern the attack of God’s enemy, Satan– whose name may have been obscure to Joseph, yet whose intentions were not.
In his resistance to Potiphar’s wife, Joseph remains pure and true in God’s sight. In his purity and his trueness before God, Joseph also remains strong and resilient in the face of persecution. This strength becoming not only the foundation for his own success, but for Israel’s salvation (from famine) and eventual redemption (from Egypt). This is antithetical to the disenchanted, dysphoric and solipsistic modern man, Benjamin Braddock, who gives into the moral turpitude of the age and, in so doing, relinquishes his moral strength. It is exactly this type of man who becomes susceptible to propaganda. For the man who cannot sacrifice is also the man who cannot suffer. And the man who cannot suffer is the man willing to accept whatever is told him. It is this kind of man who becomes a vehicle for Satan.
Shockingly, this is another truth known even by the godless agents of Soviet Russia. In a harrowing 1984 interview with former KGB agent and specialist in propaganda, Yuri Bezmenov, Bezmenov can be heard saying repeatedly that it is the morally weak, egocentric person who is most susceptible to propaganda, i.e, to lies (mins. 57-59; 1:10:00 to 1:14:00, etc). It is the man or woman who lives without morals, without a sense of anything that transcends his or her own ego, like a transcendent moral law, that was the prime target for soviet-era propaganda (Although little has changed today in America, except the source of the propaganda and the technology that disseminates it.) It is the Benjamin Braddocks of the world, not the Josephs son of Jacob, who fall for lies. And so it seems to be a real historic fact that even atheist Communists came to understand something that the Devil has known since the beginning, namely, that man without God is utterly gullible.
It is also the recognition of this spiritual truth that motivated Alexander Solzhenitzyn to write shortly before his own incarceration the following:
And therein we find, neglected by us, the simplest, the most accessible key to our liberation: a personal nonparticipation in lies! Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!
Ultimately it is the will of man that Satan needs to break, the body of man being worthless to him (unless he can break the will through the the body). As such, Satan would prefer you alive than dead. Alive you can become his tool, his “useful idiot.” But if you die, you may die a martyr, a man or woman who refused to allow the lie to go through them, but who instead rebuked the lie at its source. And so for the Christian it is always better to die, than to live by the lie.