I heard a story on This American Life a couple of weeks ago that has had me thinking about the reality of Satan and just what that means for us in our lives. The program’s introductory segment featured a man being interviewed about a traumatic experience he’d had as a young boy that forced him to question the reality of Satan. He was twelve and attending a church summer camp at the time. Around the campfire one night, he and several other boys got to talking about the devil, Ouija boards and rumored experiences that people they knew supposedly had had. After heading off to bed, the boy awoke to strange sounds he attributed to the devil, and so he borrowed his friend Joe’s crucifix to get through the night.
The next day, as he was walking back to his cabin from a morning activity, the boy saw a huge storm rolling in and began to muse that the devil had sent it. For whatever reason, his reaction was to “challenge” the devil, taunting him along the lines of “let’s see what you’ve got.” He’d figured that he was safe, being at church camp and all. Right away, however, a torrential downpour hit, something he once again chalked up to the devil. He scurried to his cabin for shelter and to change for lunch. Once ready, with raincoat in hand, the young boy asked his friend Joe–the same one he’d borrowed the crucifix from–if he should wait, but Joe told him to go on ahead. As the boy neared the mess hall several minutes along the trail, he heard a deafening crack of thunder. Six kids, including his friend Joe, had been hit by lightening. Several of these young boys died from the injuries they sustained, Joe among them (whose crucifix the boy still had).
Upon hearing the news, this young boy immediately felt a crushing weight of responsibility. He was convinced that he had brought this on by challenging the devil, resulting in the death of his friend. He said he’d been warned in church not to fool around with spirits or the devil because they were real. He confessed to his camp counselor and then his priest, who tried to reassure him that it was not his fault; that he hadn’t caused this to happen. This bewildered the boy though, causing him to question whether the priest really believed in the devil himself. The boy went on to struggle for years with this experience, and, somewhere along the way, he said he stopped believing in the devil; he could see no way of holding to such a belief without condemning himself.
Hearing this clip brought to my mind countless conversations that hovered over campfires I sat around growing up. As a youth I was very much convinced of the reality of Satan and can remember talking about these sorts of things on more than a few occasions. I’d always been taught of a Satan (with his minion of spirits) who had actual power on this earth and could literally influence our lives. This belief was only bolstered by a mass-marketed, young-adult, semi-apocryphal biography called Jay’s Journal, that was purportedly adapted from the personal diary of Mormon teenager from Pleasant Grove, Utah who had dabbled in the occult. Urban legends surrounding this book abounded when I was in high school. And while my friends and I were skeptical about many of them, I don’t remember any of us ever questioning the premise behind them, that Satan did indeed exist and shouldn’t be trifled with.
In spite of this, however, I can still see Latter-day Saint leaders giving the very same sort of counsel as the priest did above–reassuring a young boy in similar circumstances that his friend’s death was not his fault (and I would tend to agree with them). The situation forces us to explore, however, what exactly we mean when we speak of the reality of Satan and the power he possesses. Granting that Satan has genuine power, under what circumstances do we attribute events, acts or occurrences to him and under what conditions can he control or be controlled by us? Does Satan typically exercise his power in an Exorcist-like manner (as imagined above) or in some more subtle way? Moreover, what limits bind him and what protections against his power does God afford, especially to the innocent, the young, and the naive? Given such protections, how do members and non-members alike place themselves beyond the security these protections offer? In teaching our youth of the reality of Satan, how should we explain his power? And what should our counsel to a young boy in the situation above be?