Learning Theology in the Devil’s Classroom
He was a dwarf of a man with coke bottle glasses, but when he told us boys about the Israelites walking dry-shod through the Red Sea, or Jacob rolling in the dirt with the angel, it was like he morphed into a giant Moses. With him, we were right there in the thick of things. He was my first Sunday School teacher. He was good. And he taught me about God. But he wasn’t my best teacher.
He exuded energy and excitement as he marched into the classroom, chalk in hand, to whiten the boards with declensions in Greek or paradigms in Latin. He ushered Rome and Athens into our classroom. Soon we were reading Paul in Paul’s original tongue. He was my language teacher in college. He was good. And he taught me about God. But he wasn’t my best teacher.
And along came more. Seminary profs who led us through the labyrinths of ancient heresies and dined with us on the rich cuisine of prophetic oracles. Jewish teachers in my graduate years who showed me how to swim in the deep waters of the Talmud and rabbinic lore. All of them were good. And they taught me about God. But they weren’t my best teachers.
My best teacher, the instructor who taught me more theology than any other, has been the devil.
He’s certainly taught me much about the potency and repercussions of sin. Professor Lucifer titles those courses Freedom, Pleasure, and Independence. He does, after all, boast a Masters of Deceit. But when he wooed me into the course on freedom, I learned how thick the walls were in the prison of my perversions. When I took the class on pleasure, I sat for years afterward licking my wounds and drinking my tears. I stared into the dark eyes of the monster lurking in my cavernous soul. The evil of which I am capable, and culpable, I learned at the feet of the Serpent.
And, along with an awareness of my own weaknesses and failings, I learned a compassion for my brothers and sisters who bleed my wounds. I needed to learn this most of all. I had a head full of knowledge and a body empty of scars. I needed to crawl through the rubble of an imploded life. To know how welcome death can be. To feel fear and despair like two rats clawing their way out of your guts. And to know that those whom we are so quick to dismiss, to ostracize, or even to demonize—they languish in these same pits. We label them addicts or losers or freaks or failures but such labels usually only serve our purpose of pigeonholing those we think are below us. They are brothers for whom Christ died, sisters for whom God shed his blood. They are us, and we them. The universal struggles of a fallen humanity, I learned all too well in the devil’s classroom.
Most of all, however, I learned that you can never have an oversupply of grace. My teacher, the devil, never intended for me to learn this. But I did, despite him and thanks to him. I had theologized about grace, written about it, preached about it, hymned about it, but until I had nothing left but grace, I never realized it was all I needed. For when you have grace, you have the Spirit. And when you have the Spirit, you have Christ. And when you have Christ, you have the Father. When you have grace, you realize that you have a God who is madly, wildly, in love with you. You have a Creator who pours down rain on your drought-stricken soul. You have a Shepherd who scours the highways and gutters and alleys of this world until he finds you, heaves you up on his shoulders, and bears you home rejoicing. You have a brother who, though he was a Son, learned obedience from the things which he suffered (Heb 5:8). You have a friend who will risk being called a gluttonous man, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you to bear the shame and scorn of this world’s mockers. When you have grace, you realize that God has you. That come what may, he will not turn his back on you. When you sin, he will say, “I already forgave that.” When you repent, he will say, “The feast is already prepared.” The all-sufficiency of the grace of God I began to learn in the devil’s classroom.
In one of his Table Talks, Martin Luther once remarked, “I did not learn my theology all at once, but had to search constantly deeper and deeper for it. My temptations did that for me, for no one can understand Holy Scripture without practice and temptations. This is what the enthusiasts and sects lack. They don’t have the right critic, the devil, who is the best teacher of theology. If we don’t have that kind of devil, then we become nothing but speculative theologians, who do nothing but walk around in our own thoughts and speculate with our reason alone as to whether things should be like this, or like that,” (TWA I, 147, 3-14; emphasis mine). That critic, the devil, teaches us as only our enemies can. As the Psalmist prays, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word,” (119:67). And again, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn your statutes,” (119:71). Until a child of God feels the fiery darts of the tempter, despairs of saving himself, stares in shock at the horror of which he is capable, and finds at the end of his rope the crucified God of love, he still has much to learn of theology.
But we all still have much to learn. And like it or not, much of that learning will take place in the devil’s classroom. Through temptation and suffering, rejection and abuse, scorn and hatred, mocking and name-calling, we will learn more about ourselves, our neighbors, and the God of grace who justifies the ungodly.