John Chrysostom: Job, the Devil, and the Path of Holiness

From that prestigious post, old Golden Mouth launched a righteous series of indictments against the lavish lifestyles of the city's ruling class, berating their lascivious behavior and total disregard for the poor among them. Annoyed by John's singling them out, the nobles of Constantinople trumped up false charges against him and succeeded in running him out of town. However, when John didn't show up for church the next Sunday, parishioners took to the streets demanding John's reinstatement. The nobles, fearful perhaps of God as well as the rioting crowds, caved and dropped their bogus incriminations. Emboldened, John stormed back to the pulpit. He resumed his denunciation of the wealthy, widening his crosshairs to encompass those within the church hierarchy too whom he felt had grown fat with the perks of authority. As Archbishop, John made them sell off all excessive accouterments—ornate furniture, fancy communion sets, jewel encrusted vestments, and other church nonessentials—and donate the proceeds to the sick, the poor, and needy. He also deposed six bishops for peddling their spiritual services, a shameful practice known as simony. Furthermore, he was the first to denounce and expunge from the church a deeply offensive habit that threatened ruination and woe among all believers: clapping during worship.

Having tidied up God's house and chastised the aristocrats, Chrysostom raised his sights to the Emperor's throne, specifically the Emperor's wife, Empress Eudoxia at whose feet John laid the blame for the city's moral deviancy. Playing Elijah to her Jezebel (at least that's how he framed it in his sermons), John rebuked the Empress roundly in full public view. Naturally, the Empress took it personally (which I think was the point) and as a result, kicked John out of Constantinople for good. This time the public outcry was squashed by authoritarian force. However exile failed to muzzle John Chrysostom. He continued to write and spur his church on toward a deeper faith until his death in 407 A.D.

Among the hundreds of sermons that survived him was one entitled "Concerning the power of Demons." Chrysostom believed that the devil was a necessary evil, required for your spiritual growth. "We embark on this discourse concerning the Devil," he preached, "not because the Devil is sweet to us, but because the doctrine about him offers full security for you. As with any enemy or foe, which the Devil is, there is great security in knowing clearly your enemy's tactics. Take assurance, therefore, that the Devil can never overcome you by force, nor by cruelty, nor through coercion, nor through violence. If he could, would he have not already destroyed all people? But instead, he couldn't even infect a passel of swine without the permission of Jesus. And likewise, he did not venture to destroy the herds and flocks of Job until first he received power from above. No, the Devil does not overcome you by force, or by coercion, but only through deceitfulness.

"Yet you ask, is not his deceitfulness enough? Since through deceit, he triumphed over Adam and contaminated the entire human race, wouldn't it be better to have him destroyed so as not to wreak further havoc? Why not blow his pointy head out of the water?" Okay, so I'm taking a few translation liberties here, but that would make sense wouldn't it? If the permitted power of Satan is in his fraudulence, which leads you astray from God, why leave him roaming the earth? If he's destined to be thrown into a lake of fire at the end of history as Revelation predicts, why not do it now and get it over with?

"Perhaps you have not yet understood what has been said," Chrysostom rhetorically replied. "Let's try again. Say that there are two athletes pitted against a single adversary. One athlete is consumed with gluttony, he is unprepared, void of strength, nerveless. But the other is diligent, of good habit, passing his time in the wrestling school, in many gymnastic exercises, and exhibiting all the practice that bears upon the contest. Now if you take away the one adversary, which of the two athletes is injured? The slothful and unprepared, or the earnest one who has toiled so much? It is quite clear that it is the earnest one. The slothful was destined to fall anyway, due to his slothfulness. The earnest, however, with no one against whom to wield his training, deteriorates into a good-for-nothing thraniopatata (which in Greek means, couch potato)." Chrysostom asserted that the devil is not currently vanquished because you need him. If all you ever do is scrimmage in life, you'll eventually grow weak in faith. You need an opponent; you need trouble and suffering to keep spiritually sharp.

Chrysostom stressed that the devil is not wicked by nature (having been created by God), but wicked by choice. He is a slanderer (the Greek word Diablo means slanderer) who with his lies stirs up doubt in the minds of God's people, enticing you to choose against God too. His ways are wily, Chrysostom noted: Eve with Adam, Mrs. Job with Mr. Job. Ah, the crafty tools of a woman's lips the devil doth employ. But also the lips of friends, as evidenced by Peter with Jesus. Yet why did the devil choose to be the devil? Chrysostom claimed it was because he coveted. He coveted the honor God bestowed upon humans when he created them in his own image. Unable to have that honor for himself, Satan did what you do when you can't get what others have. You try to make it so nobody has it. Like the child who breaks the toy a playmate refuses to share, or the person deprived of attention who ruins the reputation of the one he or she was unable to control or possess.

1/31/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Daniel Harrell
    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.
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