A lengthy comment was left on the post why are we not good at the central thing. It is a stream of consciousness that aptly expresses the angst that many of us, who are sincere about following Christ, feel as we live day to day in the real world. Specifically, the author of the comment asked (pardon my grossly abbreviated summary): How do I follow Christ and yet behave in a responsible way? The next few posts will unpack the issues swirling around this question. The unpacking is required because, perhaps surprisingly, the question sits on top of a host of hidden assumptions and unexamined beliefs to which many Christians subscribe.
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As I discussed in the post for which the comment was written, some Christians notice that they live superficial lives, but do not have a clue what to do about it. It is as sad as it is likely that they will die having never moved beyond their current state. Going to church, Sunday after Sunday, does not address the problem (if it did, it would already have done so). Sunday school offers no solutions to the perceived issues. Listening to sermons or reading books informs, but does not transform. After taking in all the religion of our day, some of us for decades, we are left with a nagging emptiness and an uncomfortable number of serious questions to which we have answers that may satisfy the intellect, but do not bring a deep sense of peace and satisfaction, meaning and significance, or lives characterized by “power and love and discipline.”1 The Scriptures call this state “hunger.” How can it be that churches offer the Bread of Life to their congregants and yet so many walk away hungry?
Yes, indeed, how can it be? Books, many books, have been written about the subject. I dare say that there is a simple answer, though, an answer that is surprisingly old. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity.”2 We live in a world where two entities are at work. Different cultures and religions call these entities by various names, but in Christianity they go by the names of Satan and God. Satan, on the one hand, is the prince of the power of the air, the prince of the kingdoms of this world. He has an army that is fully equipped and highly skilled. Satan’s principal weapons involve deceit and lies, which he uses to warp our sense of reality and confuse human beings, leading to their ultimate destruction. On the other hand, Jesus is the great Shepherd, Creator of all things. His weapons include faith, hope, and love. His army? …well, he’s pretty much stuck with us.
The world in which we live is divided in two: God and Satan. Life and death. The blessing and the curse. Prosperity and adversity. The narrow gate and the broad road. The Spirit and the flesh. Not only is the world characterized by and defined in terms of two major entities, but there is a “way” associated with each one. The concept of “two ways” is ubiquitous in Scripture. Importantly, there is no third way, no middle ground. It is either/or, yes or no, black or white. No “and.” No “maybe.” No “grey area.” No waiting around to see if something innovative will show up on the scene. Two ways. (There are certainly other ways of seeing the world around us. The history of philosophy attests to this. But the “two way” view of life is the one that Jesus told us about. Do we believe him? Or are there parts of us that subscribe to other ways of thinking about the world?)
Looking around, I would have to say that Jesus is out-manned and out-gunned. Regardless, they say that he will win the war. Hard to believe, because the enemy is doing a fine job of destroying much of what is in and around us in both blatant and insidious ways. What he doesn’t destroy he uses to advantage to destroy something else. Of particular note about the nature of Satan is that “the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field.” We underestimate Satan’s subtlety, but he is so subtle, that the Scriptures must specifically point out this attribute for our benefit. Religion is no kind of protection. As C.S Lewis has observed, getting people involved in religion is the best way to keep them from God. Now, that is subtlety of the most audacious kind! Christians are generally inclined to acknowledge Satan’s ploys, but just like everyone else and despite the fact that we have been forewarned, we very easily fall prey to Satan’s tactics. Judging from revealing personal stories that I have read in the blogosphere and elsewhere, many Christians have been lulled into complacency, even irreligion, by their religious experiences. Subtle, indeed.
Organized religion is not entirely to blame. The fact of the matter is that Satan has power partly because we give him power. He cannot force a person to choose against her will. (Read the book of Job.) We willfully sin. We choose to sin. We fall for Satan’s deceits willfully. The problem is so universal that it would be easy to conclude that we sin because we are destined to sin as human beings. What a convenient excuse to keep sinning! “The devil made me do it!” “I can’t help it.” “That’s just the way I am.” Jesus was 100% human, and sinless, because he chose correctly. We do not sin because we are human. We sin because we humans will to do so. We choose to sin. (Theologians may argue these points, but I have found that operating under any other doctrine leads inexorably to making excuses for my sin. I prefer not to live that way. If we are concerned about doing God’s will, then know this for sure: we do God’s will best by not sinning.)
There are two ways. By default, we initially choose Satan’s way. We might not like to think of our lives that way, but there are only two ways, if Jesus told us the truth, and if we have not chosen God’s way, well, then, there is only one other option. “He who is not with me is against me,” Jesus says. Not only do we have to choose to follow Christ (we never follow by default or by accident), but we have to choose every day, every hour, every minute, until we are dead. In my experience, the choosing is very difficult because, as shameful as it is to admit, I have a strong proclivity towards Satan’s ways. At any given moment, the deal he lays on the table (a.k.a., temptation) is usually very attractive.
Unfortunately, it is the nature of temptation to be a trap. Temptation would not be temptation if it were not associated with a trap, a final outcome that is different from what I expect. By “different,” I mean an outcome that hurts rather than helps someone, or an outcome that takes me away from God rather than toward Him, or an outcome that reduces rather than strengthens my faith or my hope, or an outcome that results on me relying more on my own resources (which I do not, in reality, possess anyway) rather than on God’s resources, or an outcome that leads me to worship or adore something other than God. I think about the last time I had an argument with my wife. Satan used the “truth” as a hook to set me up. By pursuing defense of what I believed to be the truth, I followed his way, not realizing that his way would ultimately lead to someone getting hurt. I did not believe what Jesus told me. I believed Satan.
You see, Christians are not kept from following Satan’s ways by virtue of being Christian. Most of the epistles written by the apostle Paul were directed at Christians who were following Satan’s ways. We don’t like to characterize our choices in life in such stark (awful) terms, but there are only two ways, and if a Christian is not following God’s way, patterning his life after Christ, then there is only one other way to choose. And we face this choice day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Frequently, we choose badly. And that has far-reaching consequences in our everyday lives.
1 For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)
2 Deuteronomy 30:15