How to Win a Rap Battle (With the Devil)

When the Devil Throws Your Sins in Your Face

Sam Bush / 5.19.23

There’s a famous scene at the end of 8 Mile, the early 2000s hip-hop drama based on the backstory of Eminem. In a crowded basement, two rival rappers, Papa Doc and Rabbit (played by Eminem), face off in a freestyle contest, both of them trying to tear down the other’s ego in a battle of wits. The key is to reveal the other’s weaknesses. Any material that could be used to discredit the other’s reputation — the fact that Rabbit’s girlfriend cheated on him, the secret that Papa Doc went to private school — can and will be used against them.

Rabbit is an easy target. He’s an outsider, a scrawny white kid in a hyper-masculine black culture; he lives in a trailer with his mother; he has been mugged and humiliated by a rival gang and his aspiring career as a rap artist is floundering. As he’s given the microphone standing next to his opponent, it’s a do or die moment.

And what does he do? Rabbit chooses to die. Before Papa Doc is given the chance to expose his weaknesses, he lays his own soul bare for all to see. “I know everything he’s about to say against me!” he says to the crowd. “I am white, I am a bum, I do live in a trailer with my mom!” He goes on and on, highlighting every last chink in his armor before anyone else can. It’s a divinely inspired move to say the least (“No one takes my life from me,” as Jesus says. “I give it up willingly!”). It’s an approach that no one expected but it’s the only game plan that would lead to victory. Once Papa Doc is given the mic, he is already out of ammunition. Rabbit has left no stones to throw.

Our world seems built around the concept of a face-off. From political debates, to professional wrestling, the only way to win is to tear down one’s opponent. Every winner is simply the last man standing. It’s not just the culture that has made us this way, however. An “eat or be eaten” approach to life is embedded in our DNA. Our very survival often depends on whether or not we throw the first punch.

And yet, what would it look like to lead with weakness rather than strength? There is something unfettering (dare I say, empowering) about confessing one’s faults in the open. I remember a first encounter in college with someone who instantly became one of my closest friends; someone who, within minutes of introducing himself, casually admitted that he was completely obsessed with what people thought of him. At that moment, the walls of pretense came a’tumbling down. My new friend made it quite clear that there would be no face-off, no battle of wits between us. The reason why he is still one of my favorite people is because he routinely lays down his life by confessing his faults. After all, it’s pretty pointless to throw a stone at someone who’s already dead.

Far from the public eye, each of us experiences an internal face-off with the devil on a regular basis. The father of lies has a way of highlighting our weaknesses in order to drive us to despair. “You really are a moron,” he whispers when you spill your tea or trip over your words. “You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s amazing that anyone puts up with you at all.” Little by little, he wears us down to the point where there is nothing left of us. How can we compete when he knows every weak spot?

In a personal letter, Martin Luther once advised a friend who had confided in him about struggling with temptation to the point where it was too heavy to bear. In response, Luther tells his friend to disengage with the enemy altogether. “Avoid entering upon a disputation with the devil,” he says. If there is any guarantee when one engages with the enemy, it’s that it will not be a clean fight. When the devil’s accusations inevitably persist, Luther urges his friend to change the topic.

So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him 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 on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!”

Luther’s response to the devil is shocking. He does not excuse or defend himself by telling Satan he is under a lot of stress these days and is simply doing his best. He does not counterattack by accusing the devil of starting all of this trouble in the first place. Instead, he lays down his arms and surrenders his pride: “I admit that I deserve death and hell.” From there Luther’s rebuttal draws its strength on how quickly he changes the conversation from himself to Jesus. For Luther, there is no such thing as self-defense; Christ alone, rather, is our defender. It’s a theme that echoes throughout his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a hymn that freely admits, “Should we in our own strength confide our striving would be losing.” If we ever find ourselves engaged in a rap battle with the devil, Luther’s only hope is in a substitute. “And he must win the battle,” as he would say.

So goes the two-point formula of the Christian life — repentance and redemption, confession and consolation. When we finally give up our lives, we are given a far better life in return. It is somehow only after our weakness is revealed that God’s strength is ushered in. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9). Not only is this approach to life the key to freedom and relief, but it just so happens to be the best strategy to win a rap battle.

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One response to “How to Win a Rap Battle (With the Devil)”

  1. Rev James R Shaw says:

    I remember reading this passage in Luther’s Works many years ago. God knew what He was doing in preparation for who knows what. His timing is perfect. About three weeks later I was doing chaplain work in a mental hospital working with a patient that I suspected was demon possessed. He leaned in, looked me straight in the eye with a peculiar stare. He said, “I know all the sins you have committed”. So does one play defense or offense after this salvo? Remembering Luther’s approach, I confidently looked him straight in the eye with a steely resolve of faith in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ–the One Who cast out demons and vanquished sin, death, and the power of the devil on Calvary’s cross. I said, “Jesus Christ died on the cross for all those sins. They are forgiven. What else have you got?” The person then quickly changed the subject and we moved on. 1 Peter 3:15.

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