Posts Tagged ‘The devil’

The “stupendous double promise” of James 4

April 3, 2014


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.

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.

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.

The devil in the details

May 14, 2013
Say what you will about the devil, Underwood deviled ham is delicious!

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

My sermon on Sunday, based on Mark 7:24-30, dealt squarely with the 800-lb. gorilla of Jesus’ seeming callousness, or chauvinism, or prejudice, or ignorance—or whatever you want to call it—in his initial response to the Syrophoenician woman who begged him to heal her daughter. Contrary to a depressingly large number of contemporary New Testament scholars and commentators, I strongly disagree that Jesus was any of those things. I cited a number of reasons why in my sermon, which I’ll post later this week.

My point today is that in discussing that particular gorilla in the room, I left a second one sitting in the corner: the illness for which this desperate mother sought Jesus’ help was an “unclean spirit,” a demon. She needed Jesus to perform an exorcism.


Understandably, we modern Christians get squeamish when we read about demonic activity in the gospels: victims of demon-possession often seem to suffer from what we would call mental illness—like, perhaps, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder, or epilepsy. In fact, I’ve read that pre-modern people always attributed mental illness to demonic activity. Was this always a misdiagnosis? If so, did Matthew, Mark, and Luke misinterpret these many demonic episodes?

For a few years at least—while struggling to be the old-fashioned mainline Protestant that the Candler School of Theology wanted me to be—I probably thought so. I would rationalize these passages by saying that “demon-possession” was just the label that first-century people placed on the underlying illnesses that we would describe today as various kinds of mental illnesses. That they understood these miraculous healings as “exorcisms” was mistaken, but understandable. If Jesus himself also misunderstood the nature of these healings, it was only because of the “self-emptying” nature of the Incarnation: if he was fully human, he was also limited in knowledge.

(Yes, I’m aware that reinterpreting the exorcisms in this way creates at least as many problems as it solves, but I guess I was more comfortable with cognitive dissonance then.)

Oh, well… As the song says, “I was so much older then/ I’m younger than that now.”

Here are some things I believe today: I believe in Satan’s literal existence—including the existence of other fallen angelic beings who are loyal to Satan. I believe that spiritual warfare is real and that, as the apostle says, 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” (Ephesians 6:12). There is so much biblical support for these ideas that I hardly need to proof-text more verses for you.

As I’ve discussed before, this doesn’t mean I accept Hollywood or pop-cultural caricatures of the devil as a red guy with a pitchfork, horns, and cloven hooves—or worse. As this great Lost Dogs song asks…

I believe the church’s reluctance to embrace the reality of this demonic realm, or talk about it very much, makes us more vulnerable to attack. While we’re hardly overmatched—we have the Holy Spirit, after all—we are undertrained and under-informed. We are at war, Paul says. Are we prepared for the fight?

The early church didn’t beat around the bush when it came to demons. Even today, the baptismal liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox tradition includes a pro forma exorcism (which may jolt any Western Protestants in attendance). In fact, a pale reflection of this exorcism remains even in our United Methodist liturgy when we ask the baptismal candidate, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…?”

Renouncing the “spiritual forces of wickedness” means more than renouncing “evil.” Evil could merely refer to human sin or its consequences. “Spiritual forces of wickedness,” by contrast, implies that evil has a will, a personality, a direction—that it is actively working against God’s purposes in the world and in our lives. As N.T. Wright has said, Satan’s existence means that evil is greater than the sum of its parts. Our contribution to evil through individual human sin is bad enough: Satan shapes it into something even worse. Often, we unwittingly cooperate with the devil.

How does Satan do this work in our lives and world? I’m not sure—it’s far more important to believe that he does it than to say how he does it. Nevertheless, it becomes easier to believe once we reject the simplistic post-Enlightenment idea that we live in a closed universe: physical explanations are the only ones that count, since there is nothing beyond time, space, and matter; if an event has a physical cause, then it doesn’t also have a spiritual cause. I’ve described problems with this worldview elsewhere on this blog, in relation to evolution. It applies to questions about demonic activity as well.

The Bible describes a very thin space between physical and spiritual realms. The Bible sometimes shows them overlapping—often in dreams or visions, for instance. The closeness of these two realms accords nicely with some things we already know about the “real” world. For example, modern medicine agrees that we are psychosomatic creatures: we are bodies and spirits together—hopelessly, intractably bound. We cannot separate physical health from spiritual (or mental) health—each influences the other, as we all know. So perhaps, just as I can squeeze an inflated balloon and exert pressure on the gas particles inside without directly touching these particles, so these spiritual forces can operate on the thin membrane separating the physical from the spiritual and affect us.

Again, explaining how isn’t terribly important to me. I’m only trying to show that it’s reasonable to believe that we can be influenced or harassed by demonic forces.

We don’t have to be Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” to believe in Satan.

We don't have to be like the Church Lady to believe in the devil.

We don’t have to be like the Church Lady to believe in the devil.

Personally, I’m relieved to believe in Satan again. It helps me make sense of my own struggle with sin. Not that I can say (God forbid), “The devil made me do it,” but I can see more clearly why, after so many years of practice, living a Christian life is still so hard! Among other things, we have an Enemy who is constantly working to undermine our faithfulness to Christ.

That thought alone should bring us to our knees!

Here’s a great Keith Green song from 1977 that pertains to this discussion:

More on the devil from last Sunday’s sermon

September 29, 2011

As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon, I thought of this classic song by the late, great Keith Green called “No One Believes in Me Anymore.” You can count me as a former devil skeptic. Even as recently as seminary, I seriously doubted that Satan existed. And I was slightly embarrassed by the quaintness of the many New Testament passages that made reference to him or it.

Once, when I was sitting through a lecture on St. Augustine’s theology, the professor—an Oxford-educated Augustinian scholar named Lewis Ayres—made reference to Satan. I protested: “I don’t understand why we need a devil. I sin just fine on my own, without any outside interference! I’m certainly not going to say, ‘The devil made me do it.'”

Dr. Ayres replied, “Of course. But just because you don’t understand what Satan does or how Satan works in the world doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist.”

And he was exactly right. What impressed me was that someone who knew much, much more about theology than I do was not embarrassed to say that he believed in the reality of the demonic. Of course it didn’t hurt that he said it with a beautiful English accent!

Enjoy the song. You’ll appreciate, I hope, what a great pianist and songwriter Keith Green was. He died in a plane crash in 1982.

Sermon for 08-14-11: “Roman Road, Part 10: If God Is For Us”

August 16, 2011

Our sermon series, “Roman Road,” continues with Part 10. In this sermon, we turn our attention to Romans 8:26-39, including Paul’s beautiful crescendo to the symphony he’s been composing up to this point: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Hear this good news: If you are a child of God through faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, nothing can separate you from God’s love!

Sermon Text: Romans 8:26-39

The following is my original manuscript.

Lisa, my wife, gave birth to our middle child on the living room floor of our house in Tucker almost ten years ago. Some people plan to give birth at home, with a midwife—and doing so is a trendy thing these days. When you plan to have a home birth, however, that means that you want to give birth at home; Lisa was, by contrast, an unwilling participant. But she gave birth at home in spite of what she wanted because her husband was out of town on an “emergency” business trip in Florida, and was not home to drive her to the hospital in the middle of the night. Can you believe he did that? No wonder she divorced that guy! Just kidding, just kidding! I am that guy! As it’s so easy to see in hindsight, I should not have gone out of town so close to Lisa’s due date.

Lisa’s mother showed up to drive her to the hospital, but by the time she got there it was apparent that Lisa wasn’t going to make it. So her mom called 9-1-1. The first responders were about eight or nine of Tucker’s Bravest—firefighters—and they were hugging the far wall, as far away as they could get from Lisa. Because they wanted nothing to do with birthin’ no babies. They reassured Lisa that the paramedics would be there shortly. And they were. When the paramedics arrived, Lisa’s first question was, “Do you have any drugs?”—because she really, really wanted an epidural at that point. And the paramedics, who barely arrived just in time to catch Townshend as he came shooting out, said, “Oh, no… It’s much too late for that!” So Lisa gave birth without the benefit of drugs—on our living room floor! And for that, she certainly deserved mother-of-the-year for 2001. And of course every year since then!

We want to avoid pain and suffering, which is why we Americans tend to worship at the altar of modern medicine. There’s a magic pill, we imagine, for every problem these days. Have you watched some of these prescription-drug commercials on TV? Side effects may include dizziness, constipation, and death. Consult your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. I’m not against medicine and prescription drugs, but no pill can change the basic fact that pain and suffering are a part of life.
Read the rest of this entry »

Is the devil real?

February 18, 2010

I confess that I strongly believe he or it is. If you’ve been to Vinebranch these past couple weeks, you know that I’ve laid bare this conviction. We Methodist ministers don’t talk about the devil very much. Maybe for good reason: the Bible doesn’t say much on the subject. Mostly, its writers just assume his or its existence without much elaboration. However the devil or demonic forces manifest themselves—and to what extent they can be said to be “personal” as we understand the term—they don’t cause sin. We are fully responsible for that. And I strongly reject nearly all popular culture depictions of the devil (although I think the little Underwood guy is cute).

I didn’t always believe in the reality of the demonic, so I am very sympathetic if you don’t share this belief. (I refuse to say I “believe in” the devil, merely that I accept the reality of demonic or Satanic or evil spiritual forces in the world.) My “conversion” on the subject happened over time. I was a skeptic through several Disciple classes as a layperson. Even the various episodes of demon possession and exorcism in the gospels—which embarrass many modern believers—I dismissed as pre-modern descriptions of epilepsy and other mental illnesses. Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon for 02-07-10: “The Prayer Jesus Taught Us, Part 5: Deliver Us From Evil”

February 9, 2010

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:13

[Please note: Due to operator error (i.e., I forgot the recorder), there is no audio of the sermon this week. Sorry!]

A time of testing is in the air. Last week, one of you told me that your daughter is taking the Kaplan course for SAT preparation. I know the SAT has changed over the years, but the propaganda used to be that it’s not a test that you can study for. But of course you can study for it, and you ought to. How many of you are taking the SAT this spring? God bless you. Testing doesn’t end when you’re out of school, unfortunately. I might have mentioned this recently, but I would appreciate your prayers as I prepare to be “tested” by the Board of Ordained Ministry. I turn in all of my paperwork tomorrow for full ordination, and then I have to go defend myself before the Board in the spring.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my apprehension over the Board has manifested itself by these recurring nightmares I have about academic failure. I had two dreams last week about it. In one, I was back at Georgia Tech, taking a calculus exam. The test was being proctored by ministers on the Board of Ordained Ministry! In the other dream that I can remember, I was in a cooking competition, and the meal I was frantically preparing was being judged by these same ministers! Testing! Read the rest of this entry »