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Category: Scripture

Giving the devil his due: the art of the lie

As I stood at the top of the staircase in the academic building at my august British university, the voices began: “Failure. Flunkie. Flop.”

I had just experienced what was, and remains, the most awkward, humiliating moment of my life. In the final hour of my seven years of effort, my two oral examiners had just rejected my PhD work. After hearing the news, I had to stand up in front of them, cram my useless 400-page paper into my briefcase, and exit the room in heavy silence. One of them had simply stared at me without expression; the other never made eye contact.

Classes were letting out, and the atrium below bustled with throngs of students, chattering and laughing. Their journey of chasing their dreams was just coming to birth, whereas mine had just died.

Carefully I descended the stairs—ashen, weak, almost too stunned to breathe—out of the building, down the path, and through the front gate, never to set foot on that campus again.

And the voices followed me: “Screwup. Moron. Misfit.”

I flew home to my dream job as a Christian high school teacher and soon learned that, for reasons I still do not know, my contract would not be renewed. So – on the last day of school there – I exited in shame from that campus too, never to return again.

And the voices continued: “Worthless. Washout. Idiot.”

Those voices would continue in my head for many years after that disastrous winter of 2008. I heard them in the quiet of solitude, whenever I was alone. I heard them in the dark while falling asleep, and again upon waking in the night. I heard them in the shower and while walking the dogs. And I heard them in waiting areas before job interviews. (Interviewer: “What would you bring to this organization?” Me: “I don’t know…a pulse?”)

I was so devastated by my losses that I figured there must be some truth to these voices. They became extremely hard to ignore.

Further, I truly believed (and still believe) that God had led me to that PhD program and that dream job, both of which began well but ended in disaster. And for a long time afterward, this belief led to even more accusations: “God tricked you; he led you into a trap. You have a right to be bitter toward the university, your advisors, your examiners, your boss, and even your God. Go ahead, curse them.” In an odd way, I am grateful that I was too numb, too paralyzed to act on those voices. But I still had to hear them.

Since that painful year, and the death of my life dreams, I continue to get questions from caring people who can’t understand why it all happened, but they try. The most frequent theory is that Satan caused me to fail because he was threatened by what I might have accomplished If I had succeeded.devil's horn

Yet to me this explanation doesn’t wash, because it makes God and Satan sound almost like equals. You know, thrust and parry: God tries to advance his plans, and Satan counters to thwart them. Superhero vs. arch-villain. But this view gives too much credit to Satan, and far too little to God.

True, Scripture teaches that Satan is very real and powerful, and that he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8, NIV). But it also teaches that God alone is almighty, and Satan is simply one of God’s created beings. He can only do what God allows; he is not capable of creating obstacles or countermeasures which can successfully thwart God’s will.

In fact, Satan is not nearly powerful enough to do most of what we attribute to him. Even the trials of Job are credited not to Satan but to human attackers (vv. 14-15, 17) and freakish acts of nature (vv. 16, 18-19) – except for the trial of painful sores, with which Job is “afflicted” by Satan (Job 2:7, NIV). Still, Scripture consistently teaches that Satan’s power is limited, both in scope and in nature, and that even the limited power he does have is further limited by what God allows.

apple-and-snake_1280x1024_2988But Satan does not need to have power over circumstances to stop us. Instead, his weapon is words. Everyone takes a beanball to the head now and then, and Satan doesn’t necessarily throw the ball; he just messes with our minds after it happens. In fact, the primary power attributed to him in the Bible is the power to deceive. Jesus calls him “the father of lies” (John 8:44, NIV). His first words in Genesis are a lie: “You will not certainly die…” (Genesis 3:4, NIV).

And when he goes out roaming around, “looking for someone to devour,” his roar is dressed as a whisper.

He whispers to a lonely spouse, “Have an affair – what’s the harm?” He whispers to a depressed elder, “Go ahead, swallow the pills; everyone will be better off.” He whispers to a bullied teen, “Kill them all – they deserve it!”

He coaxes unsuspecting people to do his dirty work for him, causing waste and destruction in our own lives and in the lives of others.

And he whispers to all of us:



“Waste of oxygen.”

Which brings me back to the words in my own head: “Stupid. Nobody. LOSER.” When I was smashed into the canvas by a series of deadly blows to the head, Satan did not deliver the blows. No, instead he was the one kneeling over me, sneering, “Stay down, you piece of trash.”

His attacks were—are—just words. Powerful, persuasive words.

For me, sometimes those words were almost persuasive enough to make me slam my car into a retaining wall on some desolate highway.

But lies are just that: lies. They are not truth. And truth is the greatest defense against them.

So if Satan’s weapon is lying, and he’s very skilled at it, how do we win against it?

As with everything else, Jesus shows us how.

temptAfter Jesus fasts and prays for forty days in the wilderness, Satan comes to him (Matthew 4:1-11) – but again, not as a peer, like a strong villain overcoming Superman with kryptonite. No, Jesus is God, and Satan can’t match him head-to-head. So, true to form, Satan fights him with lies alone.

And Jesus responds not with lightning bolts or heavenly armies, but simply with truth. Of course, it helps that Jesus is truth (John 14:6). But that same Jesus – the Word of truth – lives in us as we are guided, counseled, and comforted by the Holy Spirit. So we have direct access to God’s pure truth.

The key is listening through the din of lies to find that truth, which is often much quieter – like the still, small voice heard by Elijah (I Kings 19:11). And learning to hear it usually happens over time.

When I was nearly overcome by Satan’s deceptions, even in my numbness I had the presence of mind to surround myself with truth. While I did almost everything I could to withdraw from the world, I also joined a home community – a small group of believers who shared their own brokenness and stepped into mine. I went to church. I read scripture. And I started to write. As I typed Satan’s lies and saw them onscreen, their falseness was exposed in the light of truth.

The truth of redemption is woven throughout the entire Bible story, which shows ordinary, broken, sinful people being loved, rescued, and used by God. As I studied how gently and persistently he worked with them, I began to trust that he is constantly doing the same with me.

So, over time, I am being rescued from lies by Christ Jesus, who himself is the truth (John 14:6), the Word of God (John 1:1). This Word created me, loves me, and came not to condemn me but to save me (John 3:17).

Gradually, over a period of years, he is giving me new words. Words of truth.

I hear the words: “Failure. Flunkie. Flop.” But God’s Word says: “Failure isn’t the end; I have a future for you” (Jeremiah 29:11).

I hear the words: “Screwup. Moron. Misfit” and “Worthless. Washout. Idiot.” But God’s Word says: “My grace covers every misstep, every sin” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I hear the words: “Guilty. Garbage. Waste of oxygen.” But God’s Word says: “I love you, and I died to forgive you and bring your life meaning” (Romans 5:8).

And finally, I hear the words: “Stupid. Nobody. LOSER.” But God’s Word says: “Precious. Beloved. Child of God!”

This truth is life-changing. And we are not meant to experience it in parsimonious sips, like wine-tasters. We’re meant to dive into it, bathe in it, gorge on it—fully baptised in it, heart and soul.

Satan’s power is the power of lies. And our weapon against him is truth.

In truth, one heals.

In truth, lies are silenced.

In truth, Satan is defeated.­

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Hearing the prophets: What could they possibly say to us today?

9d43523b09f7b5f24a22d3e6f4dbcc39Every so often in my personal devotions, I decide to read the Bible cover to cover. Starting with Genesis 1, I work my way through, reading three chapters a day and five on Sunday. That’s no magical, spiritual formula, just a tip I got from one of my college professors for how to get through the Bible in about a year. When I do a read-through like this, I do so without any commentary or teacher holding my hand. I simply want to allow God’s word to speak into my story right now.

Often a verse leaps out at me, and I post it on my Facebook page. I include no added thoughts, no set-up, no discussion questions. I just let God’s word stand on its own, as it is more than capable of doing. Frequently, individuals respond with a simple “Amen,” which speaks volumes. Sometimes, people share more.

Currently I am working through the Hebrew prophets, which use rich poetry and imagery to illustrate God’s loving relationship with his people—and also, in some cases, with the surrounding nations. These writings are bold and fascinating – a joy to read. But reading these ancient Middle Eastern prophets from my little corner of the twenty-first century America makes me wonder: What could they possibly say to me today?

The context of the prophets is one of judgment. Israel and Judah—respectively, the northern and southern kingdoms of the Hebrew nation—have not simply ignored the teachings of Yahweh but have openly rebelled against them (think in terms of God’s chosen people giving God the finger). During this time, in a remarkable act of grace, God raises up a group of prophets to reveal truth. All of these prophets expose sin, warn of judgment, offer a way out through repentance, and preach the abundance of God’s lovingkindness and forgiveness. But, typical of human nature, his people don’t listen—in some cases even beating up these messengers of God’s mercy (ironic!). Finally, just as they predicted, God’s righteous judgment comes:

-First, Assyria invades and destroys the northern kingdom, dispersing its people (later referred to as the ten “lost tribes” of Israel).

-Eventually Babylon invades the southern kingdom and its capital city of Jerusalem, carrying the remaining tribes (of Judah) into exile.

So in ancient times, God’s purpose in sending the prophets was to warn his people to repent of sin, in order to avoid judgment and be restored to relationship with him.

Nowadays, however, Christians seem to read something different into these Old Testament books of prophecy. First, some use them to try to “decode” the future and God’s plan for the “end times.” These folks interpret all Old Testament books of prophecy as predictive of things yet to come: they believe the prophets spell out God’s plan for the future, and it is our job—our duty—to unlock the secrets. While I agree that the prophets do contain many prophecies about the future, particularly messianic ones, I think these books are meant for more than mere eschatological (end-times) proof-texting.

Second, some use the prophets to claim that God’s wrath is coming against unbelievers, or even against believers with whom they disagree. This approach may have a bit more validity since the prophets are obviously writing about God’s judgments, specifically against Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations. But using the prophets to deflect blame onto others seems a little self-serving.

So how do we read the Hebrew prophets? Do we just ignore them—like, say, Leviticus? My answer is that I don’t think we should ignore any part of the Bible (including Leviticus!). Besides, many sections in these prophetic writings start with phrases like, “The word of the Lord says…”, indicating the importance of what comes next. For these reasons, along with others, we should read the prophets and meditate upon them.

But what do they mean to us today?

I don’t pretend to be Dr. Hebrew Scholar; I know these writings have deep layers of meaning, and I always enjoy reading the many scholars who know more about them than I. At the same time, I don’t think a degree is necessarily required to mediate on any part of God’s word.

So as I read the prophets, I try to focus on two simple questions: What was the purpose of the prophets’ message in their own time? And what is the purpose of their message today?

What was the purpose of the prophets’ message in their own time? Like all of the books in the Bible, the writings of the prophets were originally written for a certain group of people in a certain historical context. In other words, each prophet’s message had a clear meaning for his contemporaries – not just a cryptic message to be decoded centuries later, woven in and out of today’s headlines. It is always important to reflect on who the recipients were. What were they doing to warrant such strong words of warning? One need not be a Bible scholar or commentator to find out. The time during which the prophets spoke occurred primarily during the books of 1 and 2 Kings. In fact, the Jews have always considered 1 and 2 Kings as one book, and they list it not as a history book but with the prophets. So reading 1 and 2 Kings provides a good overview of people’s behavior during the time of the prophets, and of the context in which God was speaking.

By showing how messed up the people were and how they continually chose sin over God, the prophets clearly explain the justification of God’s judgment. However, in doing so, they also reveal the extent of God’s love.

-First, according to the prophets, God is offering his people a lifeline: Judgment will fall—but not without a clear and concise warning, and not without the chance to escape it through repentance.

-Second, amidst all of this judgment is a promise of redemption and restoration: the people’s defeat and exile would be severe, but also temporary, after which they would return home and rebuild the temple—God’s symbolic dwelling-place, and thus a symbol that he would come and live among them again.

What is the purpose of the prophets’ message today? After a quick run-through of the headlines from any typical news source, I always feel like society has “jumped the shark,” so to speak. I can hardly wrap my mind around what’s happening around me. It seems everyone’s gone crazy, and every day brings news that is crazier than the day before. Just as in the days of the prophets, people seem determined to come up with new ways to rebel against God, each one with a darker, more perverse twist than the last. The world is so screwed up, I tell myself, and so richly deserving of God’s wrath that no one should be surprised when it comes.

So it’s tempting to pull out a verse about God’s judgment and launch it against other people or groups.

For example, consider Ezekiel 24:14 (NIV):

“‘I the Lord have spoken. The time has come for me to act. I will not hold back; I will not have pity, nor will I relent. You will be judged according to your conduct and your actions, declares the Sovereign Lord.’”

Hooya! I could post that on Facebook, with my own little social commentary: “Ha ha! See, America? See, people I disagree with? See, sinners who aren’t me? That’s what happens when you kick God out of the culture! You really have it coming!”

But to do so is to remove myself from the equation. If I delight in the thought that God will judge others’ sins, I’d better be ready for him to judge mine too. So, instead of reading the prophets as a brilliant spotlight of judgment to flash into the eyes of others, I should reflect on my own life first.

The truth is, reading the prophets for ammo to attack the sins of others is the wrong motivation. The Bible has this incredible rhetorical ability to circle back to my own sin whenever I try to point it out in others.

So, just as the prophets had a two-fold message for their contemporaries, they have a two-fold message for us today. It’s a message of repentance and redemption.

-First, repentance: How is God convicting me personally through the prophets? How am I worshipping idols of pride and greed, like Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 23:30)? Where am I ignoring the poor, the sick and the helpless, as they did (Amos 5:11-12)?

-Second, redemption: In my brokenness and rebellion, how is God’s judgment redeeming me? How is he leading me through repentance and back toward restoration?

So this is the message of the prophets: They were relevant in their time, and they are still relevant in ours. They reveal the depths of human sin and rebellion, but also of God’s never-ending love and pursuit of sinners. They communicate the overall message of God’s relationship with his people, which is that we continually fail, but God redeems. He is always present to convict, to judge, and to restore those who will listen to him.

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New life in the zombie apocalypse, part 4: Spiritual weapons and sustenance

Note: I love zombie apocalypse stories because they are a great metaphor for life crises. This blog series on the topic has four parts: 1) waking up in the crisis; 2) defining “alive”; 3) abandoning self-sufficiency; and 4) spiritual weapons and sustenance. All scriptures are NIV unless otherwise noted.

To conclude our journey through the zombie apocalypse, we’ll discuss the two most important keys to survival: What about weapons for self-defense? And what about sustenance (food and water)?

So, what about weapons?

ZSNTransparent3a3fd3-300x285Would I choose a projectile-type weapon (for example, a gun or crossbow), or a melee weapon (such as a hatchet, sword, or dagger) for close, hand-to-hand combat?

There is no better reassurance than having a gun hanging off one shoulder—the bigger, the better. However, a gun is loud (zombies can hear, you know!), bullets could be hard to find, and a lot could happen in the moment it takes to reload. In fact, in a 2013 television episode of Mythbusters, Jamie and Adam took on the question of weapons in the zombie apocalypse. They compared a melee weapon (an electronic axe that registered fatal hits) to a projectile weapon (a gun which did the same) and found that the former kept a person alive longer, because the latter took too much time to reload. So if they say so, it must be true.

Similarly, in our daily spiritual battle against evil, the Bible recommends a melee weapon—the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17) against Satan’s projectile-type “fiery darts” (Ephesians 6:16). This sword (the word of God) is silent, precise, and strategic. It requires getting up close and personal, rather than rushing in with guns blazing and possibly attracting more enemy attention. And, although this sword must be kept clean and sharp through regular maintenance (that is, scripture reading and study), it never requires a reload.

Finally, what about sustenance?

zombie kitFood is a huge question—so big that I won’t even try to touch it here. But water—water is everything. Even with the best living space, the greatest community, the strongest defenses, and the most inexhaustible food supply, no one survives without water. And the lack of it can drive people mad with thirst.

Without water, the Hebrews in the wilderness cried out to return to slavery in Egypt, arguing that being slaves with water was better than being free people without it (Numbers 20:5).

Without water, Hagar abandoned her own son, Ishmael, in the desert because she could not bear to watch him die of thirst (Genesis 21:13-16).

Without water, Elijah became so depressed that he didn’t want to live (I Kings 19). He was also suffering from lack of food, rest, and encouragement; but water is such a basic physical need that I’m convinced the lack of it was a factor in his depression.

In the same way, water is the top priority in the zombie apocalypse. And again, there is a spiritual solution: Christ, the living water.

During the insanity and desperation of my own personal apocalypse, I was pulled every which way from thirst. I was in a spiritual desert. I wasn’t living; I was merely surviving, just trying to get by. But somehow Jesus quenched my thirst. I never asked him to do so; I never even thought to ask. But in mercy and love he got me through each day, giving me just enough hope to keep going. I see that now, but I couldn’t see it then. It is difficult to see his goodness in the midst of the apocalypse. Somehow, you just have to know that it is. That he is.

As Jesus told the woman at the well: “[W]hoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

We Christ-followers must continually drink of Christ himself, the living water.

So, from this post and my last one, let’s recap the conventional wisdom on how to survive the zombie apocalypse: Leave the “city” of self-sufficiency and learn to live “in the country,” depending on God every day. Join a small, close-knit community for support. Keep the sword of the Spirit sharp, clean, and ready to strike at the enemy. And above all, stay close to the source of living water, which is Christ Jesus.

I’m living proof that, if you do all of these things, when you awaken in your own personal zombie apocalypse you will get through it.


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