But how does sin accomplish all of this? Paul does not really explain the mechanisms behind sin’s enslaving power, but reading other parts of Scripture in light of our collective experience can illuminate sin’s cancerous effects on our lives. Moreover, it reveals that sin is nothing more than a dastardly tool in the hands of Satan.
In what follows, I explain what I have learned about the Enemy’s strategy for enslaving us to sin. It may not be the only way that he works to enslave us to sin, but I think that it is one of his primary strategies. Next week, we’ll talk about how to combat this strategy, but, for now, my hope is that understanding will help us thwart sin’s deadly influence in our lives.
Step 1: Warping the Imagination
The first thing that the Enemy has to do is to warp our imagination. The human imagination is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to us. It allows us to imagine how our life could be better and to work out ways to bring those imaginings to life. As such, it is the engine behind all great innovations, whether they be technological, aesthetic, or cultural in quality.
But imagination also has another important function. It helps us to see how life could be worse. This side of our imaginative life allows us to perceive the dangers of a given course of action and to feel gratitude for the good things that we have.
It is this aspect of our imagination that the Enemy seeks to undermine. He whispers in our ear that there is a better way to live. He shows us how we might benefit from a particular course of action. But he obscures the downsides of that course of action. In so doing, he blinds us to the dangers that we face and to the blessings that we have received as part of our present course of action.
Step 2: Denigrating God’s Reputation
Once the Enemy has convinced us of the desirability of a given course of action, he then allows (or encourages) us to think that God has been holding out on us. He whispers in our ear “God knows that you would enjoy this, but He has told you not to do it. What do you think that means?” The answer that we are supposed to derive is that God is more concerned with His agenda than with our happiness. And, therefore, God cannot be trusted.
We see the first two steps of the Enemy’s strategy writ large for us in Genesis 3. The serpent does not deny that God told Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree, but he does deny that Eve will experience the negative consequences of which God spoke when He gave His command. Then, the serpent keeps Eve’s attention on what the tree can give her. The subtle undertone of the serpent’s message is that God is not doing right by Eve. God is trying to keep her from reaching her potential.
Step 3: Replacing Satisfaction with Pleasure
Like Eve, all of us fall for the Enemy’s trick at some point in our lives. But how does he keep us coming back for more? How does he close the trap and imprison us in our own sin (cf. Galatians 3:22)?
His strategy is as simple as it is devious. He substitutes pleasure for satisfaction. Let’s be clear about what we are talking about. It is important to do this because pleasure and satisfaction are closely related but distinct ideas. Then describe how this bait-and-switch affects us.
Pleasure is the positive feeling that we get from a given thought or action. It says, “this is good,” “I like this,” or “this makes me happy.” Satisfaction, however, is also a pleasant feeling, but it is one that puts the thought or action under consideration in the past. It says, “that was good,” rather than “this is good.” In so doing, it acknowledges that a need has been met, that appreciation is in order, and that life can go on in a new direction.
Obviously, satisfaction is very important if we are going to properly function as a biological entity. For example, we need to be able to say, “No, thank you, I do not need any more food. I am full.” But it is also vital to our proper functioning as moral agents. We need to be able to say things like, “No, I do not want a nicer car. The one that I have is enough.” Or, “No, I do not want to have sex with you. I am satisfied with—and grateful for—my spouse.”
In other words, satisfaction puts boundaries around our behavior and connects us to our Creator through the mechanism of gratitude. But it is precisely this sense of satisfaction that the Enemy seeks to undermine. Pleasure is not a bad thing. Indeed, it can contribute to deeply satisfying experiences when it is combined with a sense of appreciation for what has occurred and when there is a recognition that this state of pleasure is not the normal state of human existence.
But pleasure is not the same thing as satisfaction, and it cannot bring satisfaction by itself. The Enemy, however, works to convince us otherwise. He does this to accomplish two goals: a psychological one and a theological one. As psychologist Jim Wilder points out, there are some needs that can only be met through satisfaction, so when we try to meet them with pleasure, we end up feeling empty and broken. So, we seek even more pleasure to meet the needs that were not met by our previous experiences of pleasure.
Since our needs are not being met, our minds never experience gratitude. And this accomplishes the Enemy’s theological goal. He wants us separated from God, and depriving us of appreciation for what God has given us is a marvelous way to do that. It is surprising how many people who are mired in sin are angry at or bitter towards God. Some of this anger and bitterness results from very real experiences of pain, loss, rejection, and/or injustice. But some of it results from a profound lack of appreciation for what God has done.
Step 4: Flipping the Script
But what happens if someone wakes up to the devil’s schemes and realizes that he or she is not satisfied with a life of sin? Then, the Enemy implements the fourth step of his strategy. Once again, it has to do with the imagination. This time, the Enemy “flips the script,” so to speak, on the first step of his strategy.
When a sinner turns their eyes towards God, the Enemy works to ensure that all they see is pain. Obviously, he wants them to see all the ways that they have disappointed God and to imagine that God could never forgive their sin, but there is something else he wants them to see. He wants them to focus on all the pleasure that they will have to give up and on all the pain that they will have to endure in order to follow Jesus into life. He also wants to keep them from seeing all the satisfaction that they will receive and all the hurt that they will avoid by following Jesus.
A classic example from Scripture of how this step in the Enemy’s strategy might work can be seen in the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27 and parallels). A young man approaches Jesus with an important question. “What must I do to receive eternal life?” As part of their back and forth, Jesus challenges the young man to sell all of his possessions and to follow him. It is a step that the young man cannot bring himself to take. He can see how much he will have to sacrifice. What he cannot see is how much he will gain (cf. Mark 10:28-31 and parallels), not just in terms of eternal life, but also in terms of the human relationships and material resources that will be at his disposal.
With this biblical example as our guide, it is not hard to imagine why the Enemy’s strategy works. If someone turns their eyes toward God and sees only pain and deprivation, they will assume that a life of sin is their only option. At least the pleasure that they are getting now will dull the pain of their unsatisfied existence. If they follow Christ, not only will they not have any pleasure to dull their pain, but Christ himself will add more pain to what they already have. Of course, it is all a giant lie, but it is one that can be rather easy to believe, especially when we are hurting and are not convinced that God cares about our pain.
We have already mentioned several of the outcomes that the devil hopes to achieve with this four-part strategy for enslaving us to sin, but let’s summarize them so that we can really understand what he is doing. Satan works to draw us deeper into sin than we ever thought we would go, and then he leaves us with the impression that we do not have any way to escape from the sin in which we find ourselves.
It sounds simple, and it is. Even absent the danger of eternal punishment, this kind of life only produces destruction. After all, the sin into which the devil leads us deprives us of the personal satisfaction and the interpersonal relationships that are essential if we are to be spiritually, socially, and emotionally healthy.
That is why it is so important for us to be honest with God about our struggles and to confront the Enemy with God’s Word. That is what we will endeavor to do next week when we talk about how to combat Satan’s strategy for enslaving us to sin.