“Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him.” 1 Peter 5:8
Whenever the GraceWaves topic is God’s love, presence, and caring I will receive many thankful e-mails. More than 25 years in ministry have convinced me that Christians are desperately in need of encouragement, and I am equally convinced that God has given me this part to sing in His chorale.
This week, however, the topic is the devil, and I doubt it will be greeted with warmth and abiding appreciation. People will be interested in the topic, for we are generally more fascinated by evil than by good. But I doubt this edition will be one to adorn refrigerators and be reread for enduring encouragement. So be it.
But encouraging it is, for I am encouraging you to heed a three-fold warning from Peter to be sober, watchful, and resist the devil. Each one is an imperative. Part of our growth in grace necessitates dealing with evil, and in this arena we make three common mistakes.
First the devil is topic about which Christians usually make too much or too little. We certainly make too much of him when we constantly talk about spiritual warfare and tend to assign every moral failure to the specific temptation of Satan or one of his minions. He is not omniscient, omnipresent, or omnipotent. We make too little of him if we dismiss him as a reality. Peter believed he was real. So did Paul. So did John. So did Jesus.
I am not comfortable assigning their beliefs to an ancient mindset from which we moderns have been delivered. I take their assessment at face value without wandering too far down the road of trying to figure out the devil’s every attribute and action. “Satanology” does not interest me one bit. But I do believe simply dismissing him as real renders us spiritual vulnerable, for we are liable then to take temptation lightly, and then sin itself. Peter wanted us to resist the devil, not a generalized evil force. I believe recognizing the reality of a personal, antagonistic evil strengthens our will to resist. But do not spend much time worrying about him. Simply resist him.
A second mistake we often make with evil is to constantly locate it outside of ourselves. This tendency to evaluate and criticize everyone around us delivers us from the annoying discipline of locating and resisting the evil within us. Surely this habit is part of the focus of Jesus’ warning to “judge not” (Matt. 7:1). I am much more adept at identifying the evil in you than in the mirror.
I have known a good many Christians who appear to be blithely unburdened by self-evaluation and not terribly concerned about residual evil in their lives. We must face this problem squarely. The Bible is full of warnings to flee all forms of evil. While Paul listed nine fruits of the Spirit, prior to that he listed fifteen works of the flesh, even adding “and the like” to indicate the list was not exhaustive. We find these “vice lists” throughout the New Testament for a reason. The vices are too often in us. If this evidence does not sway you then recall the Lord’s Prayer contains a petition for forgiveness of sin and a plea for deliverance from evil. You must not become consumed with dark thoughts of every spiritual failure, but surely a more prevalent spiritual danger is to ignore them altogether.
A final mistake we make is to rationalize or even glamorize evil around and within us. Sex and the City used to be my standard illustration until my daughter said I really needed to update my database. I do so reluctantly and admit to watching just enough of the VMA awards and Lady Gaga to become convinced the Nero might blush at the level of raunchiness many people accept as the norm (need I cite Snooki, or Howard Stern?).
Perhaps especially among the young, though we older ones are certainly not immune, there is the tendency to view these youthful passions as inevitable and therefore somewhat neutral. The danger here is great, for evil never seeks to serve but only to rule. You cannot engage in evil of any form as merely an expression of youthful exuberance or adult indulgence. The stakes are far too high. Evil may appear even as an angel of light, but its designs are nothing less than spiritual ruin or at least ineffectiveness. We risk sacrificing not only our holiness but also our joy.
This danger does bring us back to grace. The warnings throughout the Bible are certainly not due to God’s desire to mute our fun, but due to His passionate desire to fulfill our joy. I don’t know of any spiritually neutral areas of life. We can either move closer or further from God with every attitude and action. So engage regularly in the spiritual disciplines of watchfulness, confession, and commitment to holiness, and know that in doing so God will not only deliver you from evil, but more fully take you into His gracious embrace.
Dr. Terry Ellis
January 24, 2011