As a lover and teacher of storytelling, I have run across the idea that there are only a limited number of plotlines – and so all stories are just elaborations or newer forms of the same stories. While I disagree with this on a conceptual level – i.e. that there are no new plotlines – I submit that there is sufficient evidence. In related terms, I think that the conflicts that drive stories, for a conflict-less story is not truly a story, are more recycled than plotlines.
A very prominent conflict is good vs. evil. I could write an entire essay on why this is the case, but let it suffice for now simply to say that I believe this is a result of the fact that we are the Church Militant, and our battles are against evil.
But the common method of portraying the good vs. evil conflict is by putting the two on common grounds as far as power or ability goes – or at least making it a possibility that evil could defeat good. I suppose many storytellers find the idea that good has already triumphed over evil as un-engaging or conflict-less. But the heart of the Christian message rests on the fact that Christ’s death has already won us our salvation. The conflict now is whether or not we will claim this victory, this salvation won by the blood of the Cross. In the words of U2, “Now the real battle has begun / To claim the victory Jesus won.” I’ve always liked that phrasing.
Inherent within this conversation is something I never thought about until lately: the weaknesses of the Evil One. Naturally, I think of Satan’s power, his cleverness, his ability and knowledge of me and my weaknesses. There is nothing wrong with this line of thinking, especially since it aids us in the battle to do good and to love. But what I’ve missed in all of this is that Satan does not have access to the fullness of Truth as I do. Satan’s ability and cunningness may surpass my own, but I can know things that he cannot. Separated from God forever, there is an eternal limit to his knowledge.
For example, as this is Lent, let me bring up the death of Christ. Satan was involved intricately in the details of the Crucifixion. He was the instigator of Judas, as the gospel tells us that “Satan entered Judas.” I think Satan thought he had a chance to win the battle on Calvary. From my perspective, this seems ridiculous; but Satan’s vision, although panoramic and piercing, is intrinsically limited. Through Satan’s most powerful attempt to keep man from God, he unwittingly aided in Christ’s most powerful act on earth, an act that insured man’s eternal access to God.
I think this idea of Satan’s weaknesses and limited knowledge has relevance beyond Calvary. In our own struggles against sin, we can use this model to equip and reassure us. Just as Satan’s attempt to keep man from God achieved the polar opposite effect, the challenges he presents us with can be our most compelling road to Christ and sanctification. In our temptation to impatience, we can learn patience; in our temptation to impurity, we can learn purity. When the Devil was most active in the landscape of the world’s destiny, we were given the gift of eternal life. Likewise, when we feel that the devil is most active in our life, we should expect the greatest things to happen. I often equate moments in my life when I feel the presence of temptation to a distance from Christ; but nearly the opposite is true.
The problem arises when we do not sense the Devil at work – when the Devil’s work is too subtle for our languid spiritual sense, or when the Devil does not even need to act in our lives, when our destruction is wrecked by our own hands. This is when we should be worried. When we’re tempted often and powerfully, this is when we should recognize both that the Devil feels the need to tempt us (a good sign), and that Christ works all things to the good for those who love Him.
So on one level we are smarter than Satan. Perhaps he even still thinks he has a chance to win the ultimate battle against Christ, a battle that is over. We have access, even if we don’t always use it, to the fullness of Truth – and Satan does not. Perhaps Satan is as ridiculous as the Hollywood and the other pop storytellers that still think Evil has a shot against Good.