Joseph Anderson

Resist the devil

It took me a few decades to get there, but my life has not been the same since I realized who the devil really is: it’s my own fear and doubt and self-criticism. Things really started to shift, leading to much unexpected freedom and happiness, when I was able to isolate that “adversarial” voice in my head telling me that I am unconditionally not good enough.

But the real trick is not just knowing the voice is there – it’s knowing what to do about it. And for this it turns out that a verse I learned in Sunday School is absolutely correct: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:6) But I’ve discovered resistance is not quite what I imagined it to be in the simplistic theological framework of my youth. If the devil is my doubt and fear and self-criticism, then resistance means asserting my worthiness. As the great Jewish sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”

Standing up for oneself in the face of the soul-draining energies of fear is a profound spiritual practice, and has wonderful transformative potential. It is your birthright to counter every doubt and fear with a strong voice of affirmation, to stand up for yourself in the face of negativity (coming from outside of you, but – most powerfully – coming from within you). You deserve to be here, as you are. Your dreams deserve to be pursued with passion and commitment, and if you don’t have control over the way they manifest in the world, then you do have control over your ability to face down your doubts at every step, in every circumstance. And most importantly, in the nature of things, resistance is highly effective in all cases.  In this the confident unequivocal nature of the verse is a great asset. It’s a promise: resist the devil and he will flee from you.

I have been mulling this topic for a few days, but was goaded into writing it because of a remarkable episode of the show Once Upon A Time (more about that here) we watched tonight: “The Tower” from Season 3. One of the characters is pursued by a shadowy and threatening figure, and when finally confronted it turns out to be the character’s own fear, personified as the character himself. It was highly effective and very satisfying, and drives home exactly what I’m talking about. Run from your fears and they control you. Face your fears and you can and will overcome them. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.

One more note on this topic. I’ve been visiting a local Buddhist temple, Buddha Jewel Monastery in Shoreline (an outgrowth of the powerful encounters with Buddhism I’ve had in Japan; Buddha Jewel is Taiwanese and feels a lot like a Japanese temple). This month’s service was the Eighty-Eight Buddhas Repentance Ceremony. My legs are sore from at least 100 prostrations, and my heart is happy with literally hours of beautiful chanting in the service. But it’s the “repentance” part that I want to talk about here. “Resisting the devil”, going to bat for yourself, while essential, needs a little refinement. There is work needed to keep clear about who it is, exactly, that you are going to bat for. Repentance can be understood as a way of clearing out any confusion about who you are, discarding the less-than-helpful notions about yourself that seem to accumulate naturally, and reasserting your freedom to make choices that support your full being and becoming.

These two ideas (standing up for yourself, and repentance) play so beautifully together, because they balance each other out. Without repentance, “resist the devil” quickly becomes a defense of the ego and its wily subversive agenda. Without “resist the devil”, repentance threatens to simply result in more fear, doubt, and shame.

Resist the devil and he will flee from you. But don’t forget about the prostrations.