One way to look at Gnosticism is that it is a form of theodicy. What is theodicy? Theodicy is defending God’s goodness in the face of an evil world. The question of theodicy essentially is, “If God is so good and loving, why does evil happen in the world?”
Basically in answering this question, there are two tensions going on. On one side, God may seem to be not fully good. It may be claimed, for instance, that God is indifferent to human plight. He racks the universe up, hits the cue ball, and lets things fall where they may. This is the Deist approach. This answer preserves God’s almighty nature, but gives up his goodness.
The Gnostic answer is to say that God is good, but there is another deity who is responsible for the evil of the world, basically Satan. This answer retains God’s goodness, but in so doing, sacrifices his almighty nature.
Yet, as orthodox Christians we believe that God is almighty AND good. How do we square these two traits?
A good case study in the issue is the story of Job. In the story of Job, God allows Satan to wreak havok on Job’s life in an effort to get him to lose faith in God. Satan does his thing, but the point is, God is completely in control of the whole process. Or again, we think of St. Paul begging God to relieve him of the “messenger of Satan” sent to antagonize him. Three times Paul prayed, and God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Finally, think of Jesus after His baptism, being led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness where Satan awaited him.
In each of these cases, God was clearly managing the work of Satan. Not that he authored it or was the cause of it, but he was allowing it and managing it.
Insofar as it is God managing this power of Satan in our lives, how can our task not be to embrace it? Let’s put it on a more spiritual level. Satan is an accuser and his voice in our souls is to accuse us of our sins, or to tempt us to doubt. The Gnostic in us wants to separate his voice from that of God, and defeat him, or escape his grasp. But yet, when Job contemplated the work of Satan in his life, God essentially said, “You can’t understand my ways.” Or to St. Paul, God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” To Jesus, God waited forty days before sending angels to minister to him.
This is part of what “taking up the cross” means. At the cross, the full force of Satan’s work came crushing down on Jesus. Accusations flew. Jesus was forsaken by God. Death won. Far from triumphing over the cross by separating himself from it – one of the temptations leveled at him – Jesus clung to the cross until God’s time was complete and it was finished. We are called to take up that cross and bear it as well, until we are finished.
What does this mean?
In baptism, we reject Satan and all his works and ways. In the ancient liturgy, the initiate would spit toward the west as a sign he was turning away from Satan toward Jesus (the east). Such action meant embracing a life of putting to death the “old Adam” with its sins and temptations.
How does this square with the idea that Satan may be granted access to our souls to wreak havok?
Perhaps it simply means, when Satan’s work manifests in our lives, we are given both to spit at him and to acknowledge his work as being managed by God, trusting in His ultimate goodness at the end. It’s as St. Paul said, “Wretched man that I am!” Or Christ, “Why have you forsaken me?” Such statements – in a sense spitting at Satan – are coupled with a trust in God’s ultimate goodness.
The Gnostic approach is to sever Satan from God and take one of two approaches. The first is to simply give in to Satan’s temptations and indulge the flesh. It’s a way of saying, “This aspect of my person has nothing to do with my true Self which is sourced in the true, good God. To prove it I’ll simply give it over to Satan’s work.”
The second approach is to go ascetic, to deny the desires of the flesh in a radical way, to starve it of Satan’s work. This is the way of death, a way of saying, “I am not my flesh. I’ll just completely deny it unto death.”
Both are ultimately a denial of the flesh, a severing it from our true personhood. It parallels the severing of God from the work of Satan as dualistic contrasts.
But if the flesh is to be redeemed, the flesh that God created, then there must be another way. And that is the way of embracing the flesh and Satan’s temptations of it, but knowing in the end that his temptations are under God’s management. We keep our flesh close, so to speak, embracing it in all its defects, embracing it with all its inner accusations. At the same time, because we are baptized, we spit at such thoughts, knowing that we are resurrected with Christ to new life.
Until Satan is brought completely under Jesus’ feet, his accusing voice will remain in our souls on account of our flesh. It’s why we pray “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Those petitions also live out our baptism, keeping the flesh close while begging its redemption and deliverance.
As prayers, however, we know they will be answered. Just as Job knew that his redeemer lived, and that in his flesh he would see God. And just as Jesus knew that he could die entrusting his spirit to God, and St. Paul knew that all things worked for good to those who love God.
We don’t eliminate the work of Satan either by indulging it (thus removing guilt) or starving our personhood of life (suicide; asceticism). No, we remember that always, Satan is under God’s management. As such, we embrace him…and then spit in his face.