Posts Tagged ‘spiritual warfare’

Living with a “wartime mindset”

August 10, 2018

Pastor John Piper understands how high the stakes are.

In my previous podcast episode, I talked about the inadequacy of most Christians’ efforts (including my own) to witness. I said that all Christians are ministers who are called to this task, as evidenced by the Great Commission that Christ gave to his Church.

Yet I’m sure that some listeners thought, “Yes, but I’m not bold enough to witness: I couldn’t do what the woman on the subway train in Manhattan did, for instance [not that I think I could, either]; I couldn’t muster the courage to give a Bible to an unsuspecting stranger (much less a celebrity who’s openly hostile to Christianity), as in the Penn Jillette story. The very prospect fills me with fear. I’m an introvert, after all. I’m too shy! I’ll have to leave witnessing to people who have a gift for it.”

Other listeners likely fear that certain techniques for witnessing risk “turning people off” to the gospel. (One point I made in the podcast, however, is that the gospel will turn many people off, no matter how well or poorly we present it.) Other listeners disagree with any self-conscious technique or effort to evangelize. They believe that we should follow the prompting of the Spirit and let opportunities for witnessing flow organically. Any ulterior motive to share the gospel with someone, rather than enjoy a relationship on its own terms, spoils the effort.

While I would argue against these objections, that’s not my point today… My point is, even if you disagree with something I said in my podcast, I hope we can agree on this: We live in a world in which the vast majority of people (judging only by objective demographic surveys) need Jesus and the gift of eternal life that’s available through him. Moreover, we have a deadly Enemy, Satan and his demonic forces, working to thwart even our most well-intentioned efforts to convince people of the truth of the gospel. We are at war, as Paul says in Ephesians 6, the stakes of which are higher than any merely human war.

So I’ll grant that, for any number of reasons, you may feel unqualified to witness. Fine… Given that nothing less than heaven or hell hangs in the balance, however, let’s figure out what you can do to reach lost people with the gospel: First, if you’re a parent, consider the lives of your children your most important mission field and respond accordingly: You are constantly “witnessing” to them, whether you know it or not. They are learning from you every moment about who Jesus is and how important he is to you. Your example will have a far greater influence on how they’ll spend eternity than anything they learn at church. You have an awesome responsibility! Don’t take it lightly.

What else can you do (whether you’re a parent or not)? Pray for people you know and love who aren’t yet in a saving relationship with God through Christ. Pray that God would send someone to reach them with the gospel and convert them, even if it’s not you. (Have you noticed, for example, that “prayer request” time at church focuses inordinately on loved ones who are physically sick. How often does someone ask for prayer for a loved one’s soul? Where are our priorities?)

Pray for the Holy Spirit to empower your church to be bold and successful in evangelism—not just “sheep-stealing,” which is what counts as evangelism in most churches. On that note, stop worrying about “growing the church” and worry instead about making disciples. Invite unbelieving or lightly committed Christian friends, neighbors, and co-workers to church. Support and encourage your church in its evangelism efforts. Give more money and volunteer more time for the cause of Christ in your church and world. Live in such a way that people outside the faith notice that you treasure your relationship with Christ above all earthly treasures. Pray for revival in your church. Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pray especially for your pastor or pastors as they seek to be faithful to their call!

In fact, you and I should live with what pastor John Piper calls a “wartime lifestyle”:

The phrase is helpful… It tells me that there is a war going on in the world between Christ and Satan, truth and falsehood, belief and unbelief. It tells me that there are weapons to be funded and used, but that these weapons are not swords or guns or bombs but the Gospel and prayer and self-sacrificing love (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). And it tells me that the stakes of this conflict are higher than any war in history; they are eternal and infinite: heaven or hell, eternal joy or eternal torment (Matthew 25:46).

I need to hear this message again and again, because I drift into a peacetime mind-set as certainly as rain falls down and flames go up. I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call the earth “home.” Before you know it, I am calling luxuries “needs” and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming about the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mindset that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set.[1]

That second paragraph, especially, convicts me. “I drift into a peacetime mind-set… I begin to forget the war. I don’t think much about people perishing.” Instead, I worry about worship attendance; I fret over the already-saved leaving for another church (and taking their tithe with them); I’m too easily satisfied with “church growth,” which relates to marketing and sales, rather than making disciples.

But no longer… Lord, help me live with a wartime mindset. Place people in my lives who will hold me accountable to live this way. Amen.

1. John Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009),111-2.

Does spiritual warfare let God off the hook for evil?

July 9, 2016

We’ll see what kind of response my comment gets on this blog post from John Frye on Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog. (It’s a Patheos blog with unmoderated comments, however, so I don’t have high hopes.) In a nutshell, Frye argues that we need to emphasize spiritual warfare when we consider evil and suffering in the world. Give some of my own recent blog posts, who am I to disagree?

But does Frye’s post, which summarizes the theme of a book by Greg Boyd, solve the problem that he wants to solve? Does an emphasis on spiritual warfare “get God off the hook” for evil? Would we want to live in a universe in which God is off the hook—especially when it comes at the expense of his omnipotence, foreknowledge, or sovereignty? Never mind what it does to our understanding of the Bible as a fully truthful revelation of God.

So I’ll pass.

Anyway, nothing new here, but here’s my comment:

Like the author of this post, I believe that we don’t emphasize spiritual warfare enough. But for me, this post doesn’t solve any problems.

Did the man in the prayer circle who was having the terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day pray that God would deliver him from it? If so, did God grant his petition? It sounds like God didn’t. In which case we have three options: 1) God didn’t grant the man’s petition because he’s incapable of doing so. 2) God didn’t grant the petition because whether or not God does so is completely arbitrary. 3) God didn’t grant the petition because, after considering it alongside all other petitions and everything else happening in the world, including God’s desire to direct history to a certain goal, God had a good reason for not doing so.

It seems to me like the third option is the best one for us Christians. If so, there is a reason God allows some bad thing to happen, even if he doesn’t cause it directly. Indeed, Satan may have caused it. But God created Satan and allows him some measure of freedom to operate. Right? Does God have a good reason to do so? Or are God’s hands tied?

My point is, the difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing isn’t nearly so great as many think.

Besides, what about, as one example, Paul’s discussion of the “thorn in his flesh” from 1 Corinthians 12? Paul describes the thorn as both a “messenger from Satan” and something that “was given” him (divine passive) by God—in order to benefit Paul in some way. Paul sees that when it comes to evil and suffering, it’s not either/or, but both/and. God is someone who constantly redeems evil. If he could do it with the cross of his Son, he can do it with all lesser forms of evil in our world.

Even the Washington Post takes up subject of exorcism

July 6, 2016

On the heels of my recent blog post, “If Satan is real (and he is), why not exorcism?” comes this Washington Post op-ed from a well-credentialed psychiatrist, describing his consulting work with churches on the subject of exorcisms. He helps clergy distinguish between mental illness and what he believes to be paranormal phenomena caused by the demonic realm.

Among other interesting things, he writes:

For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.

Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.

Whether or not you agree with Dr. Gallagher, give him credit: He’s no crackpot. He believes that demonic activity of this sort is “extremely rare” and “extremely uncommon.” Moreover, he’s well aware of risks posed to vulnerable patients from diagnosing “false positives.”

Regardless, he no doubt harms his professional reputation by telling the world that he does this work. Which is brave. Only slightly less brave than psychiatrist M. Scott Peck following up his mega-best-selling The Road Less Traveled with a book affirming evil, Satan, and the legitimacy of exorcism (at least in some cases) called People of the Lie.

Also give credit to the Washington Post for giving over its high-end op-ed real estate to a deeply controversial opinion—although at 2,600 comments and counting, it doesn’t seem to be hurting its business.

I’ve said before that I believe in the power of Satan and the demonic realm to exert a supernatural influence on our physical world—including the people within it. For me, it just makes better sense of our world, especially the evil within it. In Christian theology, this opinion isn’t exactly controversial. For one thing, anyone who takes seriously the authority of scripture must concede that this kind of demonic activity was common in Jesus’ day. But it’s also not a topic that many theologians tackle.

While English evangelical theologian Michael Green, in his 1981 book, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, states the case more strongly that I would, I mostly affirm these words:

I believe the Christian doctrines of God, of man and of salvation are utterly untenable without the existence of Satan. You simply cannot write him out of the human story and then imagine that the story is basically unchanged. At the beginning, at the mid-point of time and at the end, the devil has an indelible place in Christian theology. The fallen nature of man and of everything he does, the self-destructive tendencies of every civilisation history has known, the prevalence of disease and natural disasters, together with “nature, red in tooth and claw” unite to point to a great outside Enemy. I would like to ask theologians who are sceptical about the devil how they can give a satisfactory account of God if Satan is a figment of the imagination. Without the devil’s existence, the doctrine of God, a God who could have made such a world and allowed such horrors as take place daily within it, is utterly monstrous. Such a God would be no loving Father. He would be a pitiless tyrant.[†]

Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

Sermon 05-08-16: “Jesus Defeats Satan”

May 11, 2016

Opening the Scriptures graphic

Sermon Text: Genesis 3:1-15

In the first part of my new sermon series, “Opening the Scriptures,” I talk about the nature of sin and temptation: “At the heart of temptation—any temptation—is the belief that we can’t really trust God: we doubt his Word; we doubt his promises; we doubt that he knows what’s best for us. So we take matters into our own hands. We place ourselves at the center of the universe instead of God.” Is all hope lost? No… because in the midst of this story of humanity’s first sin is a glimpse of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 of the sermon.]

In Luke 24:13-35, two disciples of Jesus are returning from Jerusalem to their hometown of Emmaus, about eight miles away. It’s Easter Sunday. Although some of their fellow disciples told them that they found the tomb of Jesus empty, they don’t know what to make of it. As of yet, alongside most of their fellow disciples, they don’t believe that their Lord has been resurrected.

So they head for home, discouraged and confused.

Jesus meets them on the road, but, as Luke tells us, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” At Jesus’ prompting, they tell him about the events of Good Friday as well as the reports of the empty tomb.

Jesus tells them: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then Luke writes: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

To say “Moses and all the prophets” is shorthand for, well, the entire Old Testament. And when Luke says that Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” he’s implying that all the scriptures—which at that time meant the Old Testament—have something to say about Jesus Christ and his gospel. Read the rest of this entry »

Water balloons and spiritual warfare

April 23, 2015

Last night, I finished up the six-part confirmation class that I’ve been teaching our youth on Wednesday nights. I tailored the class not only for those youth who are being confirmed in a couple of weeks but for the whole group.

After all, we could all use a refresher on the basics of faith, right?

Each week I tried to create a fun and physical outdoor game that tied into the lesson. Last night’s activity, for example, was a combination water balloon war fight and relay race, which I related to the “whole armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6:10-20. The object of the game was to have players carry an egg in a spoon across a field while being bombarded with water balloons, which were launched by opposing teams.

My point was that living a Christian life is hard, not simply because, when it comes to obeying God, we often face opposition within ourselves, but also because we face opposition from Satan and evil spiritual forces. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” as Paul says.

You can see a little bit of the game in the following video. It didn’t last very long before it became a water balloon free-for-all, but as you can see, the youth didn’t mind!

Do most UMC clergy believe in the devil? Yay!

March 2, 2015

Sometimes I get a little, um, pessimistic about the future of our United Methodist Church, especially given how lightly many of our clergy hold to the authority of scripture.

Be that as it may, credit where credit is due: On the United Methodist Clergy Facebook page (which is not for the faint of heart), a Methodist clergy colleague (whom I don’t know) posed these questions (click to enlarge):

satan_facebook2

I’m pleased to report that the response from clergy so far is a resounding “yes.” Here’s what I contributed to the discussion. This summarizes some ideas I’ve blogged and preached about on the topic in the past.

satan_facebook

 

“Kenosis” is the idea that one consequence of Christ’s “emptying himself” (Philippians 2:7) in the incarnation is that his knowledge was greatly limited. While I agree with that in principle, I don’t believe kenosis applies to his teaching.

Earlier in the comment thread above, someone wondered aloud if arguing over Satan’s literal existence wasn’t “majoring in the minors,” since, after all, the devil doesn’t rate a mention in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed? As if the creeds have more authority than the Bible?

Sermon 02-15-15: “Basic Training, Part 6: Deliver Us”

February 26, 2015

Basic Training Series

This sermon is part warning and part encouragement about the biggest challenge facing us: the reality that both our lives and God’s work in the world is opposed by an Enemy who wants to destroy us. Are you prepared for the fight?

The good news is that Satan is no match for our Lord. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:9-15

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Like many of you, when I was growing up we had a “rec room”—sometimes called a “rumpus room”—in our basement. At one time, the rec room had a pool table, a pinball machine, a Pong-like video game attached to a TV on the wall, a stereo, a bar—which was never stocked—and a sauna—which never worked. But still… We kids loved playing in the basement, as you can imagine! And one of my favorite games to play there was a game we called “hot lava.” The object of the game was to get from the bottom of the stairs, which was on one side of the basement, all the way to the bathroom, which was in the other side, without letting your feet touch the floor.

Because the floor, of course, was hot lava, and if you touched it you’d die. So the object was to climb or jump on furniture, chairs, the pool table, the pinball machine—various objects scattered across the floor—in order to get from Point A to Point B. It was difficult to get from Point A to Point B without falling in hot lava.

In so many words, that’s the message of this final part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The prayer ends with a warning from Jesus that there’s spiritual hot lava everywhere in our lives and in our world, and if we’re going to get through this life successfully, we’re going to have to be very careful. And to trust in the Lord every step of the way. Read the rest of this entry »

A warning to pastors like me

March 20, 2014

What if I woke up every morning and re-read this paragraph, from Douglas Moo’s commentary on James? Here he’s referring to James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” God knows I’ve already blown it a thousand times over—for which I will face our Lord’s judgment. By God’s grace, however, I’m getting better all the time!

Teachers, because they bear so much responsibility for the spiritual welfare of those to whom they minister, will be scrutinized by the Lord more carefully than others. Jesus warned: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). God has given to teachers a great gift and entrusted to them “the deposit” of the faith (cf. 2 Tim 1:14). He will expect a careful account of the stewardship. Paul reflects just this sense of responsibility as he addresses the elders of the church at Ephesus. He stressed that he had been faithful to his task as a herald of the gospel: “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:26-27)… Those of us who teach God’s word regularly need to follow James’s example and apply the warning of this verse to ourselves. When we undertake to guide others in the faith, we must be especially careful to exhibit the fruit of that faith by the way we live. Our greater knowledge brings with it a greater responsibility to live  according to that knowledge. Of course, James is not trying to talk people who have the appropriate call and the gift out of becoming teachers. But he does want to impress upon us the seriousness of this calling and to warn us about entering into the ministry with insincere or cavalier motivations.[†]

I would only add that we can enter into the ministry sincerely and sober-mindedly. The problem is what happens next: we have an enemy, the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

I can count on one hand the number of times the topic of spiritual warfare came up either in seminary or throughout the United Methodist ordination process. That, my friends, is a problem!

Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 150.

Screwtape on marriage

June 12, 2013

Last Sunday, during the second part of my sermon on spiritual warfare, I shared a few insights from The Screwtape Letters about ways in which Satan attacks us. There were many more insights I would have liked to have shared—but that’s what this blog is for!

In the following passage Screwtape discusses with Wormwood the Satanic lie of being “in love” as the basis for marriage. I could have used these thoughts in my recent sermon on marriage. (Remember that “the Enemy” is God and “our Father” is Satan.)

The Enemy’s demand on humans takes the form of a dilemma; either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy. Ever since our Father’s first great victory, we have rendered the former very difficult to them. The latter, for the last few centuries, we have been closing up as a way of escape. We have done this through the poets and novelists by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually shortlived, experience which they call ‘being in love’ is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding. This idea is our parody of an idea that came from the Enemy…

In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. Two advantages follow. In the first place, humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves ‘in love’, and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.[†]

Let me highlight that last line: They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.

C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 236, 238.

Stephanie Newton on spiritual warfare

June 10, 2013

Here’s a video I created for yesterday’s Vinebranch service. I preached again on Satan and spiritual warfare. Enjoy!