Posts Tagged ‘The devil’

Sermon 01-22-17: “The Only Bread We Need”

January 31, 2017

matthew_graphic

In the spiritual battles that every Christian fights against Satan and his minions, God has given us a little-used weapon in our aresenal: fasting. If Jesus needed to fast to prepare for his testing by Satan, what makes us think that we don’t? This sermon begins by addressing the real and present threat that Satan poses and makes the case that, in order to face that threat, we Christians should fast.

Sermon Text: Matthew 4:1-11

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

Did you ever see The Exorcist? I have not. But I know that this 1973 horror movie is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time—and one of the scariest and most influential. The director was William Friedkin—who is still around. In last month’s issue of Vanity Fair, he admitted that until recently he had never witnessed a real live exorcism. He is himself an agnostic, he said. But he wanted to see an exorcism for himself, so he went to Italy and filmed one. It was an exorcism of a woman—not Linda Blair, in case you’re wondering. And then he showed the video to two of the world’s leading neurosurgeons and researchers in California.

One of them, Dr. Neil Martin, the chief of neurosurgery at UCLA Medical Center, said the following:

There’s a major force at work within her somehow. I don’t know the underlying origin of it … This doesn’t seem to be hallucinations … It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy … I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, [etc.] … and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence from any of those disorders. This goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced—that’s for certain.

The other doctor was equally baffled—saying that whatever was happening to this woman was authentic. She wasn’t faking. But he had no idea what was causing it or how to treat it.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of <em>The Exorcist</em> in 1974.

Actress Linda Blair and director William Friedkin on the set of The Exorcist in 1973.

Friedkin said:

I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, ‘This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.’ That’s not what I came away with. Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.

Interesting! I hope that Friedkin’s experience shakes his agnostic worldview and enables him to believe in the reality of the spiritual realm—and God, and his Son Jesus.

I am a scientifically minded person—not many pastors have an engineering degree from—if you don’t mind me saying—one of the world’s best engineering schools. And in the past I’ve certainly been a naturally skeptical person. But I’m telling you: I believe in Satan. I believe in the reality of evil and personal spiritual forces at work in the world, forces which oppose God and his kingdom and are working against individuals and against the church. The best reason to believe in Satan and his fellow demons is because this is the clear teaching of scripture and because Jesus himself believed in them. One theologian, Michael Green, points out that if Jesus was mistaken

on a matter as vital as whether or not there is a great Adversary to God and man, why should we take him as our teacher on anything else?… ¶ It will not do simply to take those areas of teaching of Jesus which we like and regard them as coming from God, while rejecting those areas of his acknowledged teaching which do not appeal to us… The fact that Jesus taught so clearly the existence of Satan is the most powerful reason for his followers to take the same stance and act accordingly.[1]

So I believe in the devil. C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…”

There’s no question that in our United Methodist Church, we tend to fall into the first error: We tend to not believe in Satan and his minions. Or even if we say we do, this belief makes no practical difference in our lives. We fail to see the devil as a clear and present danger. We fail to heed the apostle Paul’s words that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”[2]

The funny thing about Paul’s words here is that if you read the Book of Acts, you see Paul seems to “wrestle” plenty against “flesh and blood”—flesh and blood people oppose him everywhere he goes; people try to kill him; people beat him; people abuse him; people throw him in prison. How can Paul say he “wrestles not against flesh and blood”?

Because he sees a deeper, more powerful struggle underneath the surface of reality. One that’s invisible to the naked eye. Yes, people do all kinds of evil, awful, sinful things all the time—and God will hold us responsible for our role in these things. But the Bible teaches that we’re not doing sinful, evil things on our own. Unfortunately, we have a deadly spiritual enemy who is all to happy to help us. In fact, we often make it all too easy for him.

Do you remember a couple of years ago, when kids in elementary schools were playing this game called “Charlie Charlie”? They would make something like a Ouija board, stack pencils on top of it, and call upon a demon named Charlie to answer questions. The Vatican issued a warning to kids and their parents not to mess around with this. And many people scoffed: “Oh, it’s just a harmless game,” people said. “It’s not real.”

Who’s to say that’s not something the devil could use? Why take the chance?

As many of you know, I’m a big music fan—I’m always looking for new bands, new artists I might enjoy. Recently, I was reading about a rock band that was getting great reviews; they sounded like something I might like. Only… The critics who reviewed their albums said that their music was great, but their lyrics were really silly—always singing about demons and witches and occult stuff. But of course they’re not serious about that! It’s all a joke. Besides, you can just disregard the words and pay attention to the music. And I started to download one of their albums off iTunes—before my conscience spoke up: “You can’t do that, Brent! The devil is hard enough to resist when you’re fighting against him. And here you are, practically inviting him into your front door! You can’t do that!”

But you know… demon possession, Ouija boards, the Charlie Charlie Challenge, devil-worshiping rock bands… These are kind of obvious examples of ways that the devil works in the world. Most of the time, he’s much more subtle, much more discreet, much more invisible.

Even in today’s scripture, notice that we’re not told in what guise the devil comes to Jesus. If we’re picturing the Underwood Deviled Ham figure—a red guy with cloven hooves and a pitchfork… Well, we’re certain he doesn’t look like that. Was he visible to him? If he was, I’m sure he was very beautiful to look at. Maybe he came in the guise of a person. Or maybe he came to Jesus the way he so often comes to us—through our own thoughts. By planting ideas in our minds. By sowing seeds of doubt. Lying to us. Exploiting our weaknesses.

Keep in mind: Jesus is not a superhero. He is God-made-flesh. He is fully human. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that these were real temptations. That means he had to consider each one; he had to think about it. He doesn’t just brush them away like they’re gnats. In fact, the Book of Hebrews says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” The point is, these temptations are really tempting; they challenge him. And why wouldn’t they?

After all, why not turn a stone to bread? Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days—that’s about as long as anyone can go before starvation sets in. A messiah who dies before accomplishing his mission and going to the cross and dying for our sins isn’t going to do anyone any good. And notice that Jesus responds to this temptation by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3. Moses is reminding the Israelites that after God delivered them from Pharaoh’s army through the Red Sea, they immediately started grumbling—“Did Moses bring us out here in the desert to starve to death?” So what does God do? He gives them bread from heaven, called “manna.” God feeds his people with miracle bread. So when Satan tempts Jesus, he’s really just reminding him, “Hey, you did this before, Jesus—when you were with Israel back in the wilderness. You’re God, alongside the Father and the Holy Spirit! You fed them when they were starving in the wilderness. And guess what? Now you’re in the wilderness as Israel’s representative. Are you going to let yourself starve, Jesus? Feed yourself with miracle bread, just as you fed the Israelites with miracle bread so long ago.”

Do you see how tempting that must have been? Satan is so close to being right. And he’s counting on Jesus not being able to think clearly, so he thinks, it just might work.

But this verse—“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”—means not only are we not supposed to live by bread that we make by hand, it also means that we’re not supposed to live by miracle bread, either. We’re not supposed to live by anything other than God himself. Satan loves miracles because he knows that they can distract people from God. In John chapter 2 we’re told that crowds are seeing Jesus work miracles, and they’re impressed with the miracles. And they start following him because of the miracles. But what does John say? “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.”[3] He knew that the people weren’t falling in love with Jesus; they were falling in love with miracles. They didn’t have genuine faith in God; they were just captivated by the miracles that God performed.

God is telling us in Deuteronomy 8:3 that the purpose of the miracle bread was not to feed hungry Israelites; the purpose was to get hungry Israelites to fall in love with the supplier of this miracle bread—to fall in love with God; to place their faith in God; to trust in God—and not in the things that God provides, be it earthly bread or heavenly bread. The purpose of the manna wasn’t to satisfy their physical hunger but to awaken within them a hunger for God! Jesus knows the meaning of Deuteronomy 8:3. That’s why he won’t feed himself with miracle bread. He’s got everything he needs to survive in his heavenly Father.

Consider John chapter 4: When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well. Remember what happens? Jesus’ disciples leave him at this well in a Samaritan village while they go into town to buy food and bring it back to him. John tells us that Jesus is hungry. In the meantime he has this long conversation with a Samaritan woman. By the end of it, she comes to believe in Jesus as her Lord and Savior—and she rushes back to town to tell everyone about Jesus. When the disciples show up with food for Jesus, they urge Jesus to eat. But he doesn’t. They’re confused. Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”[4]

Jesus somehow has so much of his heavenly Father—he finds so much pleasure in pleasing his Father and glorifying his Father and doing his Father’s will—that somehow it satisfies even his deep physical hunger. How is possible? I don’t know. But I would love to find out.

I would love to be so filled with God’s love, to be so filled with Jesus, to be so filled with the Holy Spirit, that I don’t need anything else this world has to offer. I would have God and that’s enough for me. I wouldn’t need more money. I wouldn’t need other people’s approval. I wouldn’t need recognition. I wouldn’t need trophies. I wouldn’t need popularity. I wouldn’t need to be liked. I wouldn’t need to measure up to other people’s opinions. I wouldn’t need to please other people. I wouldn’t be enslaved to the things of this world. My only “food”—my only sustenance—would be to please God, to glorify him, to do his will.

Don’t you want that? I do! How do we get it? How do we get more of God?

God is showing us one important way in today’s scripture. He’s actually showing us more than one way, but I’m going to focus on this one—because frankly, we’re failing miserably at it. Me included.

I’m talking about fasting. 

When I was ordained as a United Methodist elder-in-full-connection six-and-a-half years ago, I lied. Because one of the promises I made to God, to my bishop, and to the North Georgia Annual Conference is that I would teach my people to fast. I’m serious. It was a question: “Will you teach your people to fast.” And I said “yes.” If I said “no,” I wouldn’t get ordained, so I said “yes,” like everyone else.

Have I said a word about it to you? Nope. That’s got to change.

Before beginning his ministry on earth—before facing and overcoming these three temptations and many more besides—Jesus prepared for it by fasting. This means he went without food for a period of time. He drank water, but ate nothing. Now, forty days is really extreme. On the other hand, Jesus had to accomplish by far the most difficult task that anyone has ever had to accomplish. So in order to get ready for it, what did he do? He fasted. Of course he prayed, too—prayer and fasting should always go together. But his spiritual preparation included fasting.

Here’s my question: Why doesn’t ours? If the Son of God—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—needed to fast in order to overcome the trials and temptations that he would face, what on earth makes us think we don’t?

Jesus fasted. In the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ll get to soon, he teaches about fasting and says, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites… But when you fast, anoint your head with oil and wash your face.” He doesn’t say “if” you do it; he says “when” you do it. In Luke 2, we’re told that Anna, the prophetess who blesses the baby Jesus in the temple, prays and fasts. The apostle Paul fasts for three days after his conversion in Acts 9. Later in Acts 13 he and the rest of the church at Antioch fast just before the Holy Spirit anoints Paul and Barnabas to be missionaries to the Gentiles. In 2 Corinthians, he says he fasts often. And of course, the roll call of people who fast in the Old Testament is a Who’s Who of heroes of the faith.

Fasting is a means of grace. From at least the late first century, many churches instituted a twice weekly fast. John Wesley fasted twice a week for most of his adult life. When he grew old, he only fasted once a week.

In 1756, King George II called the people of England to a national day of prayer and fasting because of a threatened invasion by France. On February 6, 1756, the day of the fast, John Wesley wrote in his journal, “The fast day was a glorious day, such as London has scarce seen since the Restoration. Every church in the city was more than full, and a solemn seriousness sat on every face. Surely God hearted prayer, and there will yet be a lengthening of our tranquility.” In a footnote, he added: “Humility was turned into national rejoicing for the threatened invasion by the French was averted.”[5]

Fasting teaches us the kind of “bread” that we live by. [Richard Foster, unmasking what’s already there in our hearts—like anger.]

[Talk about the “130” goal. Good plans to accomplish it. But you know what we need? We need power. By not fasting, it’s as if we’ve taken an arrow out of our quiver and thrown it on the ground—“we don’t need that one.” Without fasting, we could be missing a weapon in our arsenal that we need to fight the devil and wage successful spiritual warfare.

We need all the power we can get. Because as our church turns the corner and marshals it resources to reach 130, we can expect that the devil will fight back hard.

Will we be ready for that fight?]

1. Michael Green, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 29.

2. Ephesians 6:12 KJV

3. John 2:24

4. John 4:32, 34 ESV

5. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 50.

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.

Does God collaborate with the devil?

May 18, 2016

I’ve said (or implied) this a few dozen times on this blog and in sermons: I find it immensely comforting to know that Satan himself can’t derail God’s plans for me—that God has the power to transform into good whatever the devil sends my way. (And, yes, biblically speaking, Satan has the power, however constrained it may be, to “send things our way.”)

As evidence, I always cite two scripture verses or passages: Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today”; and Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12 about his “thorn in the flesh,” which Paul describes as both a “messenger from Satan” and something that “was given” (divine passive) by God. C.S. Lewis might describe Paul’s thorn as a “severe mercy.”

Believing that this is so spares me from having to be selectively thankful to God for what’s happening to me. Because the skeptics are right: It isn’t logical to give God all the credit when something goes well in our lives without at the same time at least appreciating that God’s providential hand is at work through the bad stuff in our lives. To be clear: this doesn’t mean that God causes evil; only that God is always at work, transforming it for our good.

Andrew Wilson, an English pastor and theologian, makes the same point in this fine blog post. Scripture is clear that God and Satan are often in a “collaborative” relationship, although Satan is an unwitting partner with a drastically different agenda. He cites many more scriptures:

The problem is, of course, that there are a number of places in Scripture in which a collaborative relationship between divine and satanic agency is assumed, or explicitly taught, without going anywhere near the unforgivable sin (unless we are to believe that Moses, the Chronicler, Luke, Paul and co committed it within the pages of the Bible, which seems unlikely). Job is afflicted by Satan (1:6-12; 2:1-8), and also by God (1:20-22; 2:9-10). David’s census is incited by God (2 Samuel 24:1), and also by Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1). Judas betrays Jesus because of Satan (Luke 22:3-6), and because of God’s sovereign plan (Acts 4:27-28). Church discipline will result in an immoral brother having his flesh destroyed by Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5a), so that his spirit may be saved by God (5:5b). And that is without mentioning the various human individuals whose evil actions are ordained somehow by God, with a view to bringing about good (Joseph’s brothers, Pharaoh, the king of Assyria, and so on). Paul’s knowledge of all these stories, alongside his language here, strongly indicate that he regarded his thorn in the same way.

Contemporary Methodists, among many other Christians, get squeamish about saying that God ever wants his children to experience pain or suffering for any reason. If you are one of them, please feel free tell me why Wilson and I are wrong.

I like this concluding paragraph:

So who gave Paul his thorn? God, and Satan, but with thoroughly different agendas. Satan, we may surmise, wanted to destroy him. God wanted to humble him, and throw him back onto divine grace. And God won.

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 »

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 »

You can’t write Satan out of the story and leave the story unchanged

August 5, 2014
Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

A fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger named Morgan Guyton, who blogs on Patheos’s “Progressive Christian Channel,” wrote the first post of his that I’ve read with which I can mostly agree! He defends his belief in Satan as a supernatural being, rather than a literary symbol or metaphor.

Among other helpful things, he writes:

To be honest, I’d be more scared of the world if I didn’t believe there was a devil. Because we have had some hideous things happen in our world. During the dirty wars in Latin America in the eighties, military torturers did incredibly horrendous things to other peoples’ bodies. Now, in Iraq, the ISIS terrorist group is literally crucifying its political opponents. If that kind of behavior is natural to humanity, then our world is an incredibly scary place. I have to believe that it isn’t natural, that there’s an evil one who possesses people, and that most importantly, they can be delivered from this possession and have their humanity restored.

I warned him, half-jokingly, that my own journey away from the progressive Christianity of my seminary days began, in part, after I embraced what Roger Olson calls “Satanic realism.”

What Guyton says above, however, is echoed by theologian Michael Green in his excellent book I Believe in Satan’s Downfall. With uncharacteristically strong words, Green writes:

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 civilization 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, MI: Eerdmans, 1981), 20-1.

The “stupendous double promise” of James 4

April 3, 2014

deviled_ham

I’m preaching James 4:1-12 this Sunday. The passage includes a remarkable “double promise” in vv. 7-8, upon which N.T. Wright ruminates in his For Everyone commentary: “Resist the devil and he will run away from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

At the heart of this challenge there lies a double promise so stupendous that I suspect most of us never really take it seriously. To begin with, ‘resist the devil and he will run away from you’. The devil is a coward; when he is resisted, with the prayer that claims the victory of Jesus on the cross, he knows he is beaten. His trick is to whisper that we know we can’t resist; he’s got us before and he’ll get us again, so why not just give in straight away and save all that bother? It’s a lie. Resist him and he will run.

Second, though, ‘draw near to God and he will draw near to you’. That is astonishing! God is ready and waiting. He longs to establish a friendship with you, a friendship deeper, stronger and more satisfying than you can ever imagine. This, too, will take time, as any friendship worthy of the name will do. But what could be more worthwhile? If even a few more people were prepared to take these promises seriously, think what a difference it would make to the world, never mind the church.[†]

What is a prayer that “claims the victory of Jesus on the cross”? Here’s a brief but helpful devotional to point you in the right direction.

If sin is a problem for us—in our relationship both with God and one another—then, why would God forgive us of our sin without also giving us power to overcome it in our lives? The answer, of course, is that he wouldn’t and hasn’t.

But in order to claim this victory over sin, we can’t remain passive. We must “resist” and “draw near.” I’ll say more about how we do that this Sunday.

N.T. Wright, The Early Christian Letters for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 28-9.

“Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil”

October 8, 2013

I wasn’t interested in the philosophical discussion about the law, but Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gets my attention in this interview when he talks about his faith. After saying that he believes in heaven and hell, he offers the following to the surprised interviewer:

Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.

Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

No.
It’s because he’s smart.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the ­Devil’s work?
I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.

Well, you’re saying the Devil is ­persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament.

Right.
What happened to him?

He just got wilier.
He got wilier.

Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.

A couple of minor objections: Christianity Today cites statistics that suggest that not as many Christians in America (Catholic or otherwise) believe in the devil as he thinks. Also, I strongly suspect that evidence for the devil’s handiwork is as conspicuous as ever: what’s changed is our ability to recognize his activity. If one’s secular worldview excludes belief in a spiritual realm, then one would rarely look beyond naturalistic causes for any event. Don’t you think that makes a huge difference?

After all, if we saw pigs run off a cliff today, we wouldn’t interpret that it was Satan’s work. The pigs weren’t flying or doing anything against nature.

Regardless, his basic point—and his reason for indignation at the interviewer—remains.

My own “re-conversion” to believing in Satan took place over years, but it started toward the end of my seminary career. Like many of my classmates, I was happily liberal on the subject: Satan was merely a symbol for evil that was caused by human beings. Then a favorite professor of mine—brilliant, sarcastic, fiercely intellectual—told our class that he believed in the devil.

I was taken aback: here’s someone who was much smarter than me, at least as “worldly wise” and much better read, yet he still believes in the devil. Why?

Then you read up on the subject and realize, as Scalia said, that “many more intelligent people than you” have believed in the devil.

I’m not proud of this: I shouldn’t have needed someone to appeal to my intellectual vanity to change my belief in the devil—it should have been enough that our Lord clearly believed in Satan. But that’s where I was at the time.

“Ah, but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”

The number one obstacle to prayer

October 3, 2013
"I wonder what it is? What could it be? Let me think..."

“I wonder what it is? What could it be? Let me think…”

Ever since I prepared my sermon on Matthew 6:5-13 and the Lord’s Prayer a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about obstacles that often prevent us Christians from developing healthy prayer lives. I talked about one of these obstacles in my sermon: the spiritually dangerous idea that prayer doesn’t really change anything—or, specifically, that God doesn’t change anything as a result of our prayers. Whatever happens is going to happen anyway, so why bother praying? Read or watch my sermon for more about that.

Another important obstacle to prayer is our often hectic lifestyles: prayer becomes one more item on a long checklist, one more activity to shoehorn into a busy schedule. Even worse, our prayer life is mostly invisible to the rest of the world. Unlike other areas of our life—including our career, our marriage, our education—no one is holding us accountable to pray (unless we ask someone to).

If we don’t pray, who’s going to know—except for God, I mean?

I confess with embarrassment that when I first thought about going into full-time ministry many years ago, I imagined that the habit and discipline of prayer would be easier for me as a pastor than as a layperson. After all, I would practically be in the business of prayer, so I’d have more time to devote to it.

How quaint that thought seems now! Being a pastor, as I quickly found out, is as “busy” as any other job, with as many demands on one’s time. You might be surprised, as a layperson, to know how much a pastor can accomplish during a typical day without prayer. We pastors can fake a spiritual life if we have to—at least for a little while.

No, prayer is a challenge for most of us for any number of reasons. But perhaps the biggest reason is one that I haven’t mentioned yet. In fact, most of us pastors rarely if ever mention it, even though Jesus talked about it throughout the Gospels. Even in the Lord’s Prayer!

I’m talking about the “evil one” of Matthew 6:13: We’re used to King James language that says, “deliver us from evil,” but scholars today recognize that Jesus isn’t speaking of evil in general, but of a being whose very nature is evil: Satan, or the devil.

As a pastor, I preach about Satan. How could I not? As Christians we face a deadly Enemy in our lives every day. We are at war, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 6:10-17. If we lose this war, we may lose our very souls and go to hell. Or, if we wage this war poorly, we will at least bring upon ourselves a great deal of needless suffering, heartache, and frustration.

Or worse, we may even hinder people we love from receiving God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Christ for themselves.

As you can see, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

So, alongside all our other prayer concerns, we pray that God will protect us and rescue us from our biggest threat: Satan himself.