If you ever have the chance to read through Luther’s Table Talks or his Letters of Spiritual Counsel, one of the things you’ll notice right away is that Luther has some very peculiar advice for those in the clutches of the devil and temptation. In a letter to Jerome Weller in 1530, Luther encourages Weller to seek out the company of friends, engage in raucous drinking and merriment, tell crude jokes, and commit some small sin to taunt the devil. One especially odd piece of encouragement, and “the best counsel,” according to Luther, is for the Christian under the affliction of Satan to talk back to the devil. And, if necessary, to do so coarsely and disrespectfully. In one instance, Luther dismisses temptation by saying euphemistically, “Dear devil, if you can’t get any closer to me, lick me! I have no time for you now” (Tappert, 90).
While this kind of advice may seem impious or silly, there are two important theological reasons behind mocking or talking back to the devil. First, this kind of active engagement with the devil recognizes that the devil is very real! He is alive and well and lies in wait as St. Peter says, prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). To this, Luther adds, “the devil who hounds us is not lazy or careless, and our flesh is still all too active and eager to sin and inclined to oppose the spirit of prayer” (Tappert, 126). Not only is the devil seeking our demise constantly and actively, but so also is our very own sinful flesh. The devil has an inside man, so to speak, in seeking our destruction and that “without the Word of God the enemy is too strong for us” (Tappert, 121). During a table talk in 1538, Luther writes, “The devil is a master at finding the spot where it hurts most” (Tappert, 100).
As much as Luther calls Christians to a sober belief in the devil, he also calls them to a firm and steadfast faith in Christ.
All this is not meant to further terrify the Christian, but to warn all God’s saints to be vigilant and stand fast. We Christians must take Christ’s warning seriously that “In this world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). The devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh stand against us and do not want us to hallow God’s name, let his kingdom come, or let his will to be done as Luther says in his Catechism (SC III.4). These powers would instead lead us into “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice” (SC.III.7). And if Christ himself suffered the attacks of the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4), then we ought not to expect any different for his saints.
Second, despite the devil being our great adversary, continually attacking the saints, and ever vigilant to destroy us, we have an even greater one who fights for us. If the devil is a trickster, we have one who has out-tricked the devil. If the devil is great and powerful, we have one who has bound the strong man. If the devil is an accuser and murderer, we have one who rightly accuses and kills off the devil. This is none other than Jesus Christ. With Christ on our side, the only proper response to all the devil’s wiles and accusations is laughter, mockery, and the worst insult of all: to throw Christ’s victory in the devil’s face. In this spirit, Luther writes:
When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also (Tappert, 87).
With Christ on our side, no one and nothing can stand against us. Anyone who dares is indeed worth mocking.
As much as Luther calls Christians to a sober belief in the devil, he also calls them to a firm and steadfast faith in Christ. This Christ is our defender, advocate, and savior from all evil powers. When the devil attacks us and tries to convince us that his accusations are the truth, we ought to shove in his face the one who is Truth. In this way, Luther reminds us of where our faith lies and who we should believe in. He writes, “you must not believe your own thoughts nor those of the devil. But believe what we preachers say… Be content and confident. Your sin is forgiven. Rely resolutely on this… for it is God himself who speaks to you through them” (Tappert, 103).
Despite its apparent impiety and silliness, Luther’s spiritual counsel is indeed quite wise. Luther acknowledges the truth of life in this world and also the one who has overcome the world. With Christ on our side, no one and nothing can stand against us. Anyone who dares is indeed worth mocking.