Sermon 08-20-17: “Anxiety and our Adversary”

September 15, 2017

The following sermon is the last in my sermon series on 1 Peter. It’s mostly about our adversary, the devil, who, Peter tells us, “prowls around (J)like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” I begin my making the case for the reality of Satan and demons before talking about a couple of ways—through seemingly “small” sins (!) of pride and anxiety—that he gets a foothold in our lives.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 5:5-11

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I have a friend from college. I’ll call him Steve. He’s a committed Christian and a Methodist. Many years ago, one of Steve’s good friends encouraged him to join a very secretive fraternal organization. Please note: I’m not talking about the Masons. My own father was a Shriner and a Mason. In fact, Dad was the Grand Poo-Bah, if you remember Happy Days—he was the “Potentate” of Shrine organization in North Georgia. So nothing I say should be interpreted as my being opposed to Masons or other fraternal organizations. But as Steve soon learned, the one that he joined was not benign.

So he joined this secret organization; he learned their rituals; and one day, he was “practicing” them, as he was taught to do, shortly before going on a hike in the woods. Now, Steve is a smart guy. Scientifically minded. An engineer. And he told me that shortly after performing these rituals, while he was on his hike, he saw an apparition of a demon, which chased him through the woods. He knew it was a demon. He was terrified. And get this: when he told his friend about what happened—the friend who persuaded him to join this organization in the first place—his friend said, “Oh, yeah. That’s happened to me, too. But that’s just some psychological phenomenon. There’s nothing to it. Don’t worry about it.”

Don’t worry about it? Well, Steve immediately quit this organization and these obviously occult rituals. All I can say is my friend is not a crackpot.

And neither is another friend, also from Georgia Tech, who like me is a Methodist pastor. When he was in seminary, he and some classmates, would go into the streets of the large city near the seminary and do “street ministry”—literally go into crack houses, share the gospel with junkies and prostitutes. Scary stuff. And he told me that he saw things—experienced things—while doing this ministry that can only be explained by the supernatural—specifically, he saw things that could only be explained by evil spiritual forces. He is not a crackpot.

And neither is Dr. Roger Olson, a theology professor at Baylor. Years ago, he was teaching a class at at the college on the occult. For research purposes, he went to an occult bookstore that had a reputation as a hangout for both Wiccans—witches—and Satanists. Olson writes:

I drove up to the bookstore, parked across the street and attempted to get out of my car… I found myself literally unable to get out… I sat there for a very long time trying to exit the car but could not. It wasn’t fear; I’ve been in many occult and esoteric bookshops and was not afraid of any mere bookstore. As I sat there pinned inside my car by some mysterious force, I remembered praying for divine protection. Eventually I pulled away and never did go inside that bookstore.[1]

And I’ve told you before about New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, one of the most brilliant men you’d ever meet, who said in one of his commentaries that usually when he sits down at his computer to write about the subject of Satan and “spiritual warfare,” odd coincidences happen: His computer stops working. A construction crew on the street outside accidentally cuts a power line, and he loses power and can’t complete his work… that sort of thing. He says he should be grateful nothing worse happens.[2]

These are intelligent, credible people… I share this with you because belief in Satan and demons in our modern world will often be met with skepticism—if not outright hostility and scorn. But I believe, and I’m not a crackpot. If we accept the authority of God’s Word, we don’t have a choice but to believe. No one said more about Satan and demons than Jesus himself. Just like in last week’s sermon when I talked about the Second Coming, the best reason to believe in that doctrine is that Jesus himself believed in it, and talked about it a lot. It’s no good to say, “Well, Jesus was an amazing teacher when it comes to topics A, B, and C, but he was wrong when it comes to the subject of the Second Coming or Satan.”

So, brothers and sisters, I implore you to take seriously what Jesus and God’s Word tell us about the devil. Satan is real. Demons are real—just like angels are real. They influence our world supernaturally. And they can cause great harm in our world and in people’s lives. Including the lives of Christians. But most of the time, the work that they do, as Peter makes clear, is very subtle… very seductive… almost imperceptible. Unless we do what Peter says, to be “sober-minded and watchful,” we won’t even be aware of their work.

How do these evil spiritual forces harm us Christians? That’s what today’s scripture is about. Peter writes,

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” ¶ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

Peter knows something that the apostle Paul also knows: that the main way that Satan works in a Christian’s life is through personal sin in our lives. So for example, in Ephesians 4, Paul writes, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” Literally, “opportunity” means “foothold.” You can think of an experienced rock climber, and how he needs only the tiniest ledge, which might be imperceptibly small to an untrained eye. But that’s just large enough to support his weight.

Pastor Tim Keller says that sin in our lives is the piano, and the devil is the piano player. Apart from the sin, the devil would have nothing to work with!

But just a small sin is enough for Satan to cause great harm. Another way of thinking of this is that the devil has the power to take our so-called “small” sins and amplify them into something very harmful. His work is subtle.

And think about how this applies to Peter and the Christians to whom he’s writing. These are people who are facing severe persecution, with the possibility of actual martyrdom, because of their allegiance to Christ. I mean, it’s obvious that Satan is at work in these anti-Christian enemies who are threatening them. And yet, Peter wants us to know that that the most harmful way that the devil is at work is through these seemingly small sins of pride… and anxiety.

Do you struggle with the sin of pride? Notice what Peter says in verse 5: “Clothe yourselves… with humility toward one another, for”—and here he quotes Proverbs 3:34—“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Notice the connection between humility and grace. You can’t have one without the other. We can think of pride, therefore, as “any resistance to the grace of God.”[3] Pride prevents grace; it blocks it.

Think about how this is true. Every religion in the world, except for Christianity, says that if you want to be accepted by God or “the gods”; if you want to go to heaven, or achieve nirvana, or whatever that religion’s ultimate reality is; then you have do these certain things; and you have to avoid doing these other things. You have to perform these rituals; you have to practice these techniques; you have to overcome these sins in your life. Only after doing these things successfully will your god or gods accept you.

By contrast, think about the gospel. You can only become a Christian and receive God’s saving grace the moment you’re willing to say something like this: “I’m a far worse sinner than I ever imagined. I am enslaved by my sins; I am helpless over my sins and in need of a Savior. The good news is that God has given us one in his Son Jesus. Jesus lived the life of perfect obedience to the Father that I was unable to live; he died the death that I deserved to die; he suffered the hell I deserved to suffer. So that I could be saved, not by my own righteousness, but his.”

For many people, upon hearing the gospel, their pride swells up and they say, “I’m not that bad! I’m doing O.K. Sure, I’ve got a few sins to deal with here and there, but they’re nothing I can’t handle.” That’s pride! Or we say, “I know I’m not doing O.K. I know I’m a sinner. So I need to work harder to earn God’s acceptance and love!” That’s also pride.

And you might say, “But I’m a Christian; I already know that I can’t save myself.” But pride can still creep in. Earlier in this letter, in chapter 4, verse 9, Peter talks about the sin of grumbling. Is grumbling a problem in church? Of course! What causes us to “grumble”? When we feel like we’re not getting what we deserve. When we feel like our efforts are not being properly recognized or rewarded. When we feel like we’re working harder than everyone else, and we look down on others who aren’t working as hard as us, and we feel resentment. Why do we do this?

It’s pride. However much we believe that Jesus will save us for eternity, we still look to the opinions of other people to save us right now. If other people can’t recognize and appreciate how wonderful I am, what good am I? Why am I working so hard? I need other people to appreciate me, recognize me, love me! That’s how I know I’m a valuable person!

That’s pride. And Satan can use it to get a foothold in our lives, and ruin us! Make us miserable!

Just last Wednesday night at Bible study, we were talking about the doctrine of God’s foreknowledge. And the class asked some good questions. One of you said that God wants us to pray for lost people. But God is outside of time; God in his foreknowledge already knows who will or won’t be saved or lost. Meanwhile, God wants us to pray for a lost loved one. Suppose we pray all our lives for that person, and they never come to know Christ. What good was all that prayer, and why did God want us to do it, knowing all this time that it wouldn’t work; the person wouldn’t repent; the person wouldn’t be saved?

Good question! Right?

And the reason we struggle with this question is because of pride. Because we can’t imagine doing something purely—purely—for God and his glory. Purely because it’s God’s will for us. Purely because it pleases God. “Yes, God, I want to please you, but can you throw me a bone while I’m at it? Can’t I get a little something out of it, too—a little something for my ego? Isn’t there something in it for me?” That’s pride!

I mean, God’s Word commands us to pray, continually, and to leave the results up to God. To do so brings glory to God. Why isn’t that enough for us? Shouldn’t it be enough for us to do something merely because it pleases God? It pleases God when we pray for lost people; whether or not they repent and get saved is beside the point. Our only desire in life ought to be to please God! But pride gets in the way. Pride gets in my way. What’s in it for me?

I have learned—and re-learned—this bitter lesson: that when I work for my own glory instead of God’s glory, it’s a recipe for misery. Because I’ll never get enough of glory for myself to satisfy me! And I’ll compare myself to what other people are getting, wonder why I’m not getting it, too, and feel miserable. Does this sound familiar?

We need to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to the sin of pride: When we find ourselves getting our feelings hurt. Grumbling. Feeling resentment. Feeling as if we are being treated unfairly, we tell ourselves this: “Through Christ I’m fully accepted by God. He loves me more than I can imagine. I have everything I need in him—everything that can satisfy my soul. Yes, this person has treated me unfairly. Yes, they’ve hurt me. Yes, they’ve sinned against me. But who do I think I am? I’ve hurt plenty of people. I’ve sinned against plenty of people. Besides, I think of how patient and gracious and forgiving the Lord has been with me!”

So Satan can get a foothold in our lives through the sin of pride. But there’s another foothold of Satan that Peter mentions here, which is related to pride: anxiety. Anxiety is a symptom of pride.

Why do I say that? Because when we are anxious, it’s because we believe that we are in a position to second-guess the ruler of the universe. “Yes, it’s true that God has put me in this place, in this situation, to glorify him and not myself. And I know that his Word tells me that in all things he’s working for my good, so I should trust that he’s going to bring good out of this situation. But I’m not convinced. I know what’s good for me. I know what I need. Not the One who actually created me. Not the One who knows me better than I know myself. Not the One who knows everything that’s going to happen in the world at every moment.” Do you see the pride there? We are over-confident that we know what’s best for us; we know how things ought to be going in our lives right now. And when life is not unfolding the way we think it should unfold, we feel anxious; we worry.

What’s the solution? “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God” and “cast your anxieties on him.” Notice Peter doesn’t say, “Ignore your anxieties and hope they go away.” No… Cast each one of them onto God. Name them. Name each thing every day that’s making you feel afraid. Tell God exactly what it is that you’re worried about.

John Piper puts it like this:

When [1 Peter 5:7] says that [God] cares, it means he will not stand by and let things develop without his influence. It means he will act. He will work. Not always the way we would. He’s God. He sees a thousand connections we don’t see. The lost credit card might result in an evening of searching and take you away from a TV program that unbeknownst to you would have put a lustful desire in your mind and made prayer unappealing so that you failed to seek God’s power and missed a golden opportunity to speak of Christ to a ready colleague the next day, which because of that lost credit card you did not miss. God sees a thousand connections we do not see.[4]

Brothers and sisters, that’s a God we can trust!

1. Roger Olson, “Where the Devil is Satan (in Contemporary Christianity), 20 May 2013, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson. Accessed 19 August 2017.

2. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 72-3.

3. This insight and the ideas in the next few paragraphs come from Tim Keller’s sermon, “The Flesh and the Devil.” Preached 15 May 1994. GospelinLife.com. Accessed 19 August 2017.

4. John Piper, “Anxieties: To Be Cast Not Carried,” 13 June 1993. desiringgod.org. Accessed 19 August 2017.

4 Responses to “Sermon 08-20-17: “Anxiety and our Adversary””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Boy, a lot of heavy stuff in this one! First, I certainly believe in demons and that they are active, though exactly how and to what extent and by what means I am a little unsure about. At the least, though, I believe they can do such things as prompt you to look at the Internet at the very moment that there is something lustful on it, which, being particularly susceptible to just such temptation, you end up staring and thereby sinning. Things like that, at least.

    Second, as to “little” sins, I agree that all sins are bad and tend toward deleterious results. The only caution I might note is that we not conclude that all sins are therefore “the same.” To go back to the previous example, to continue to look at the screen is bad, but to “go further” and end up committing adultery with somebody is considerably worse. In my opinion, anyway.

    Third, I do agree with you that one sin which tends to be worse than what we might otherwise want to categorize it is the sin of pride. In essence, this was part of Eve’s sin, wanting to “be like God.” Satan also, if you interpret certain scripture to him, said, “I will be like the Most High.” He even asked Jesus himself to worship him! But perhaps more to your point is the “other things” which are sinful as being interrelated with pride. I appreciate your pointing these out as being in that light. Particularly, anxiety!

    • brentwhite Says:

      Given Job 1-2 and 2 Corinthians 12 (off the top of my head) I would also say that Satan has a limited, highly constrained amount of power to affect our physical world—not without God’s permission, of course. People like Olson and Wright would agree. And demons can’t do anything that God can’t transform for our good, as he did with Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.”

      Like you, I don’t believe that all sins are the same, either. Any sin has the power to separate us from God, but they are not therefore all equal in God’s eyes. Dallas Willard, in his great book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy, deals with this issue.

      When I say “small” sins, I use scare quotes very deliberately: Pride is the chief sin, or at least it’s way up there, because it’s at the root of so many others. Even anxiety assumes a prideful stance: “I’m in control of everything. I have to do something to solve this problem. I’m worried that I can’t do anything.”

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Definitely “heavy stuff”.

    I’m sure you have both read “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis. He really does a great job of exposing the means and methods of Satan and his crew.


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