March 10, 2014
In his preface to the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis famously writes,
“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.”
How do we develop the proper approach to dealing with Satan and his demons? I think our approach must be informed by the Biblical witness regarding Satan and his kingdom. Satan and his demons play a role from Genesis to Revelation—from the Fall to the end of the age, they are present in God’s creation.
Most people have a familiarity with Satan’s temptation of Eve in Eden that led to the fall of Adam and Eve and their descendants into sin. This event is recorded in Genesis 3. God had created Adam and Eve, placed them in a garden of paradise, given them all things and especially eternal life in his presence. God gave them many trees from which to eat and springs of water from which to drink; however, he forbade them to eat from one tree called the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God warned Adam before the creation of Eve that if he ate of it he would “surely die.” Adam or God must have given Eve this same warning.
The Biblical introduction to Satan comes as he appears in the form of a crafty serpent bent on leading the newly formed humans into sin, death and eviction from God’s paradise. Satan succeeds in leading Adam and Eve into disobedience by seducing them to eat from the forbidden tree. The method he used to tempt them illustrates the same method he uses today. What’s worse today is that we are already fallen, broken, wounded, vulnerable and apart from God. We are naturally much more like Satan than we care to admit.
Consider Jesus’ rebuke of Satan when Jesus was tempted to forgo his march to the cross, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mark 8.33) In addition to other lessons we learn from Jesus’ rebuke of Satan, we learn that the mind of people and the mind of Satan are similar corrupted. The commonness includes the exaltation of self in rebellion against our Creator God.
In the garden, Satan presumes to speak in the place of God. He sets himself up as judge and arbiter of what is good or evil. In response to Eve’s recitation of God’s prohibition against eating (now touching) the forbidden fruit, Satan says, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Satan gets behind God’s words, contradicts them and reissues a false assertion as truth. Jesus confirms his deceptive character when he says of Satan, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8.44) He always lies in pursuit of committing murder and damning others to death and hell.
Immediately after entertaining Satan’s conversation, Eve exalted herself to the place of God, evicting him from the throne of her life and usurping his authority to command and instruct. She says to herself that the tree seems good for food, delightful in appearance and desirable for making one wise. She deludes herself into thinking she has the authority over herself and creation to dictate what is good and what is wise. She rejects God and submits to herself, which the reader knows is really the mind of Satan.
She gives the fruit to her husband who also eats it. Their eyes are immediately opened to a world of sin and death. They are evicted from Paradise and the intimacy of their heavenly Father. This was Satan’s goal, and he achieved it. He is achieving it everyday.
The Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas describes Satan’s temptation, “In short, the devil’s question invited them to assume that they were equal with God.” This invitation comes to the door of the heart and mind of people everyday. It comes in many forms. The messengers change, but the invitation’s host is always the same.
Let me give you an example of one such messenger. Former Roman Catholic priest Eugene Kennedy is an American psychologist, bestselling author, columnist, and a professor emeritus of LoyolaUniversity in Chicago. The seasoned theologian recently published a book titled Believing. I assumed the book would be something about the nature of faith, how people believe and why, and the outcomes of belief versus unbelief. Rather, the author encourages readers to believe in themselves as the source of the abundant life about which Jesus taught.
“Human beings need to believe,” asserts Eugene Kennedy in his book. Kennedy suggests that the human destiny depends on our learning to believe. Kennedy confidently claims that the “pervasive and intense” hunger of humans for belief is best satisfied by believing in themselves. He asserts that “the emerging consciousness of our time turns humans back to themselves.” For Kennedy, the Christian Gospel “bids us to go deeper into ourselves and our experiences, to find the kingdom within ourselves, in the powers that we can draw on to achieve what St. John describes as `life to the full.’”
This philosophy of believing may appear insightful. It is certainly written with gusto and eloquence; however, it delivers a prescription for either delusion or despair. It is faith anchored in self and perhaps other people rather than the firm foundation of the Biblical Creator God and Savior Christ, as taught by the historic faith. Kennedy explains that “Faith makes us whole because it draws forth the realization of the fullness of ourselves through our true personalities.”
Kennedy adeptly transcribes the message of Satan to Eve. He continues to convince people to follow and serve the exalted self. This corroborates the overwhelmingly narcissistic ethos of our culture that depends on therapeutic affirmations and pseudo-authoritative self-reasoning for escape from the miserable state of our souls. It is rare that I rate a book a one-star on Amazon.com; it is even rarer that I toss a book in the trash. Kennedy’s book earned both. You can read my full review on Amazon.
Martin Luther describes the state of the fallen world, “The world is insane. It tries to get rid of its insanity by the use of wisdom and reason; and it looks for many ways and means, for all sorts of help and advice on how to escape this distress.” Imagine the insane world looking into its own insanity for rescue. That is the world of Satan and his kingdom.
In his Preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis describes Satan’s world as “a world of misery and a world of lies and propaganda, wishful thinking and incessant autobiography.” This is the default world of humans, and Christians are susceptible to it as long as we are in it.
Here is one more example of how we are influenced by Satan to think for ourselves. This comes from the issue of abortion and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who shares the insane reasoning behind killing the unborn. Kennedy offered the opinion in the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey that secured more foundation in America for unrestricted abortions.
In explaining his “reasoned judgment” in support of abortion rights, he opined, “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code. At the heart of liberty, is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
That is the thinking that leads to holocaust in any form. It also leads to our private sins—be they in our homes or in our minds. This self-assertion and deluding pride only leads to misery, defeat, death and damnation.
What else does the Bible teach about Satan and his demons? Here are some revealing Scriptures:
Matthew 13:19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart.
Luke 22:31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.
Acts 5:3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?
1 Corinthians 7:5 Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
2 Corinthians 2:10-11 If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven– if there was anything to forgive– I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
2 Corinthians 11:13-14 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
Ephesians 4:26-27 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.
1 Thessalonians 2:18 For we wanted to come to you– certainly I, Paul, did, again and again– but Satan stopped us.
2 Thessalonians 2:9-10 The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing.
1 Timothy 5:14-15 So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.
2 Timothy 2:24-26 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
1 Peter 5:8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
Revelation 12:9-10 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.
The above Scripture from Revelation indicates four significant truths about Satan and his demons. Christians need to keep these truths in mind.
1. Satan is the deceiver. The devil’s main mode of operation is to tempt people through deception. This is confirmed throughout Scripture. Living the Christian life depends on living according to the truth. Jesus encourages us to follow him—the Truth and to continue in his word that we might know the truth. He gives us the Spirit of Truth to be with us, and he prays that we might be “sanctified by the truth.” From the position of truth, we can identify and reject the enemy’s lies. He is an expert liar. He speaks eloquently and subtly makes his words sound like our thoughts or even like God’s thoughts.
2. Satan is the accuser. He levies accusations against believers about themselves and about others. I think these accusations make up many of the “fiery darts” we deflect with the “shield of faith.” He has been thrown down and out of the court of heaven. He no longer has an audience with the Almighty God. As Jesus said prior to his death and resurrection, “Now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” (John 12:31) And he was. He still accuses and causes havoc among Christians who listen and internalize his words. We are given ears to hear the voice of God and the gift of discernment so that we can reject Satan’s voice. We have work to do, though. The author of Hebrews identifies mature Christians “who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14) We must all strive to become such Christians.
3. Satan and his angels have been thrown down. There is a horde of demons who follow Satan in the world. I imagine them like a marauding gang of hoodlums who are constantly running rampant seeking open doors and windows through which they can enter to cause destruction. If they check a house that is secure, they will be back during the next round to canvass it again. Christians must be constantly vigilant to give these demons no foothold, no opportunity, no voice, no access and no time except to rebuke them, bind them and send them away. All of our figurative doors and windows must be locked and the alarm system turned on.
4. Salvation, power and authority have come through Jesus Christ to his followers. Through the cross of Jesus Christ and the resurrection, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them.” (Colossians 2:15) Satan and his demons are defeated foes allowed to function in the world according to God’s sovereign wisdom. Jesus has given believers power and authority over demons, just like he had and demonstrated during his ministry. Satan will lie, accuse, tempt and oppress as much as he can, but it is to no avail when we use the power God has given us to renounce ungodliness. (Titus 2:12)
In his book, Worship as Repentance, the theologian Walter Sundberg encourages the Christian response to the world and mind of Satan. He writes, “If one accepts a fallen world, subject to the devil, deserving of judgment, where people waste their lives and find no ultimate satisfaction. Into this world comes the promise of release, the offer of the grace of God. To receive this grace requires one thing and one thing only: repentance.”
I think James says the same thing in this way, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7-8) When we repent of following our own wills and sinful ways and turn to God, God draws near to us with Salvation that includes healing and deliverance.
Jesus overcomes the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, on the road, in Gethsemane and on the cross by resisting the temptation of the devil to follow his own will. Jesus rather submits to God. He always obeys his Father. This posture is revealed in his prayers from Gethsemane, “Not what I will, but what you will.” This is the assertion of God’s will and victory over Satan.
The early 17th century Italian Jesuit Robert Bellermine summarizes the victory Christians can experience in their victory over Satan. He writes, “From that victory of Christ it came to pass that not only men, as was Adam, but even women and children insult the devil and triumph over him. He is overcome by the grace of Christ, and so overcome that many display trophies of chastity, patience, humility, charity, although the devil eagerly and constantly casts his fiery darts of temptation and persecution.”
Christians overcome the devil in and through Jesus Christ. The victory for Christians is demonstrated by living holy lives of Christian discipleship that are lived by grace for the sake of others and the glory of God. Bellermine also emphasizes the reality that the devil does not give up his assault on Christians. He will not give up his fight until he and all of his demons are thrown into the lake of fire that is his end. (Rev 20:10) The above Scriptures indicate that the enemy seeks to devour, to oppress, to hold our wills captive, to slander, to tempt, to shame and condemn. Without our fierce resistance, we will be victims of these during our lives in this world.
Christians can and do reign in life. We can only reign by God’s grace, through living in the righteousness of eternal life freely given to us through Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:21) Through Jesus, we must, in fact, exercise this dominion against the enemy.
From the Book of Common Prayer
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
How do we begin and where do we aim our journey of Lent? I believe we can find the answer when we look at the beginning of Jesus’ own journey of Lent. His Lenten journey was not only the 40 day fast in the wilderness but was the entire trek from his baptism to the cross. Jesus began his Lent when he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. At this pinnacle of his life, Jesus accepted the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the Father’s will to enter testing in the desolate place of the fallen world. Jesus could have done anything as the Spirit-empowered, beloved Son of God. He could have gone into the heart of Rome and begun to reign. He could have ascended to heaven. He could have indulged in whatever the flesh desires. Rather, he began his self-denial of Lent. His step toward the wilderness was a step toward the cross followed by one after the other into the desolation of sin and death.
Lest we be deceived into thinking that Lent is an arbitrary suffering for the sake of itself or that the cross is the end of the story, we look to the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ journey of self-denial and resisting temptation takes him to the cross of sin and death and to the resurrection from the dead. Likewise, our Lenten journey begins and aims at the cross and the resurrection. It is in Jerusalem that Jesus will die and be buried; it is also in Jerusalem where Jesus will rise from the dead.
Satan tempts Jesus to doubt his relationship with the Father and to entice him with promises of fulfillment and happiness. Whereas at his baptism the Father embraced the Son, in his wilderness temptation the Son embraces the Father and the Father’s will.
He returns from the desert “in the power of the Spirit.” His ministry begins demonstrated by miracles, authority over Satan and demons, authoritative teaching and love for people. He begins his mission, that is still toward the cross and resurrection, by proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)
In Jesus’ proclamation, his command of repentance coincides with the command to believe in the gospel—the good news of salvation in and through himself. This gospel becomes defined by the early church as the salvation story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mk 1.1).
No matter how it has come to be characterized, repentance is best defined as a turning or changing of one’s life. Christian repentance involves a grace-empowered turning away from temporal attachments toward Jesus Christ and toward the kingdom of God which is present in Jesus. The season of Lent only makes sense if our eyes, heart and mind are on the crucified and risen One in order to cling to him and to be conformed to his image.
The term “gospel” means good news and glad tidings. We are not called to turn from this world to something of similar value as it. We are embracing good news of great joy. (Lk 2:10) We are turning toward eternal life and rewards in a kingdom that will one day be the only kingdom that exists. What we repent of and what we turn to fail to balance. The scales are infinitely weighed in favor of the kingdom of God and salvation.
The Anglican Church’s traditional Ash Wednesday gospel reading is from Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. This series of teachings of Jesus exhorts his audience to give up the rewards of this world for the rewards that come from the Father and exist in the eternal kingdom of God. That is what Lent entails—a turning from the attachments of this world whatever they may be in order to receive the rewards that come from an intimate relationship to the Father who sees all and alone gives eternal rewards.
Jesus says and repeats that “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He encourages us to give up storing treasures in this world that will dissolve and disappear—treasures of the world will be destroyed, stolen, lost or consumed no matter how you hold onto them. Rather, he offers eternal treasures in heaven. Jesus knows that this first heaven and earth will pass away, and a new heaven and a new earth will come. Lent involves seeking and receiving the treasures that belong to the new heaven and new earth—the holy city, the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21).
So let’s begin our Lenten journey acknowledging the goodness of God–that he is, in fact, a God who rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6) At the center of our journey is the One we follow, Jesus Christ. As we follow him, we affirm God’s grace and love demonstrated in the gift of Jesus. We affirm the subsequent truth that the Father who gave us his one and only Son also graciously gives us all things. (Romans 8:32)
We give up the lesser to receive the greater. We let go of the temporal to hold onto the eternal. We turn a deaf ear to deception to grasp the truth. We turn from the broad road to destruction to take one step after the other on the narrow road to life. As it did for Jesus, that narrow road to life leads first to the cross of self-dying, self-denial, suffering and sacrifice for the glory of God. But just like repentance does not occur in isolation without the gospel and kingdom, the cross does not occur without the assurance of the Easter resurrection. The Easter resurrection would never have come if the Christ was not crucified on the cross; we don’t enter the kingdom of God and receive salvation unless we repent of our sins.
What is God calling you to do during this Lenten season? We know that it will be congruent with Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news of himself and his kingdom. If we give up earthly things during this Lent, may we also take up heavenly things and live according to our citizenship in heaven. This Lent, may our lives anticipate the new earth and the new heavens by living according to God’s rule now. In that city, the light will be the light of God who dwells in the midst of it. The water will be the water of eternal life. The air will flow from the leaves of the tree of Life that are for our healing. The food will be the fruit of the tree of life that gives abundant life.
Something that is often overlooked when it comes to repentance and especially during the time of Lent is that as we turn to God he heals us. We are repenting (turning from and giving up) of those sinful things that cause death which is the punishment for sin. When we turn to God in repentance, God heals our woundedness and brokenness.
John records Jesus citing Isaiah 6:10, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” (Jn 12:40) In our repentance and turning to Jesus, our eyes our being opened, our hearts softened and enlightened, and we are being healed spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. The Father is a rewarder of those who seek him and serve him. He rewards us with what only he can give…eternal, abundant life and the treasures of heaven.
The historical event of Jesus’ transfiguration is one of the seminal events recorded in the New Testament. The image of Jesus on the mount clothed in glorious light, talking with Moses and Elijah and the overwhelming voice of the Father startle readers of the Bible. We become like the three disciples, Peter, James and John who stumble and bumble in their bewilderment. Matthew, Mark and Luke all recount this story with similar words in their gospels. Peter verifies its accuracy and glory in his letter. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
Like many of the events and parables of Jesus, the narrative accounts of the transfiguration of Jesus reveal endless riches, mystery, and instruction for the church today. I want to explore the events relation to prayer and communion among the followers of Christ in the context of the noisy, crowded and busy world.
Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray. Jesus must have been praying for a while during which the disciples fell asleep. As he is praying, his countenance becomes brilliantly bright, his clothes become dazzling white and he is clothed in splendor. Moses and Elijah appear also in the cloud of glory, and speak with him about his departure. The disciples who were asleep suddenly wake up and fearfully behold this. As the cloud of glory covers them, they hear a voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5) And then it is quiet and the disciples are alone with Jesus.
Wow! What is the meaning of this? That is what Peter, James and John wonder, too. This glorious event occurs while Jesus is in prayer. In one sense, we see the kingdom of God that is present and active whenever Jesus prays.
Jesus has communion with his Father whose presence and glory are revealed to the three witnesses. This event also reveals what is within Jesus. Jesus’ being displays the bright glory of heaven that is within him. Here, we and the disciples get a glimpse of who Jesus really is. He is the one from heaven where he has lived in glory with the Father for eternity. As the early church Fathers proclaimed, “There was never a time when he was not.”
Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Moses, author of the first five books of the Bible and conveyor of the law and Torah of Israel, represents the authority of the law and teachings of Israel. Elijah is one of the greatest prophets of Israel. He never died. He was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. He represents the prophets of Israel’s Scripture. Jesus fulfills the words of the Law and the Prophets. Here he is in fellowship and communion with the greatest of Old Testament saints during a prayer event over which the Father presides.
The cloud of heaven is the glory of God’s presence. The voice of God from heaven declares that Jesus is his beloved and chosen Son, and he commands the disciples to listen to him. This confirms what Peter confesses in John’s gospel, that Jesus has the words of eternal life. The way to life is to follow Jesus and to keep his word. After hearing the voice of heaven, only Jesus and the disciples remain. Jesus, embodying the Law and the Prophets, is the way, the truth and the life. The disciples must follow him.
John later writes of Jesus’ glory in his own gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Jesus is the tabernacle of God, he is the tent where God meets with all people. Jesus is the gate and ladder between earth and heaven. He is the Word and the person in whom we must abide. All that has ever been holy on earth finds its fulfillment in Jesus the Most Holy One of God who makes people holy.
This, however, is not the mountain top experience for which Jesus came to earth. Even in the midst of the glory, he is speaking to Moses and Elijah about how he is going to fulfill their words by his departure in Jerusalem. Jesus is about to perform a new exodus that will deliver people from their bondage and slavery to sin. Like all of Jesus’ life and ministry, his transfiguration is pointing to the cross and the resurrection.
This prayer event occurs in the context of a fallen world that Jesus will die to save and renew. He follows his Father’s will and walks off the mountain into the valley of human sin and despair. What he is on the mountain, he is in the valley of the cross—the Son of God and man, fully God and fully man, obedient to the Father.
Immediately after he came down from the mountain of his transfiguration, Jesus enters the midst of a chaotic scene of conflict, arguments, failure, despair and finger pointing. All of this is indicative of the enemy’s territory. The enemy has possessed a boy. A demon flaunts darkness’ power and slams him to the ground at will. The boy suffers seizures and the humiliation and abuse of being thrown to the dirty, rocky ground.
The boy’s dad brought him to the disciples for healing and deliverance, but they were unable to help. Their failure led to controversy and conflict. The boy’s father is one of the most desperate people in the Bible. Upon his arrival and assessment of the situation, Jesus seems to rebuke them all for their unbelief and impotence in the face of Satan’s realm.
The father pleads with Jesus that, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” (Mk 9:22)
Jesus responds with a measured rebuke of the man, “‘If You can?’ All things are possible to him who believes.” (Mk 9:23)
The father answers hopefully, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mk 9:24)
Jesus, of course, rebukes the unclean, tormenting demon and heals the boy instantly. Upon his healing, the boy lies stiffly on the ground for a few seconds causing the crowd to assume and announce that he is dead. Jesus alone takes him by the hand and raises him up and returns him to his father.
Once away from the crowds, the disciples eagerly question Jesus about why they could not accomplish the healing and deliverance. The gospel accounts record Jesus making two points in explaining their failure: because of a lack of faith and because of a lack of prayer.
On the other hand, faith and prayer are two elements that are not absent from the transfiguration event of Jesus. The event establishes Jesus’ own faith in the Law and Prophets and in the Father. The event itself is Jesus’ prayer life—earnest and consuming.
Regarding the lack of faith, Jesus explains that they could not cast out the demon and heal the boy, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20-21)
Mark records Jesus also answering the question by explaining that, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.” (Mk 9:29) Most Bible editors will comment in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels’ notes that some manuscripts include something like “this kind cannot or never comes out except by prayer and fasting.”
I want to relate the above narrative to our contemporary Christian culture and context. In this story, there is a stark contrast and dichotomy between Jesus’ experience in prayer and ministry and the disciples’ and crowds’ experiences. Both instruct us regarding the power of prayer versus the experience of chaos and impotence without prayer and faith.
Jesus prays anywhere and everywhere. Here it is on a mountain in the midst of a wilderness. When the followed Jesus up the mountain, the three disciples had no idea what was about to happen. Heaven was about to open to them. The inner circle of Peter, James and John get up on the mountain and appear to be hanging around until they fall asleep, as Luke reveals in his account. In fact, Luke writes that they were “overcome with sleep.” The phrase implies that sleep took control of them, and they were helpless in the face of it. It is not until they are “fully awake” that they see Jesus in his glory with Moses and Elijah.
I believe that the Bible and Christian Tradition teach us that when Christians pray we are in the midst of the kingdom of heaven with all of its glory. We pray in communion with the saints of God before his throne. As we pray, angels surround us ministering to us and guarding us. We pray in the midst of God’s presence—his very glory. Experience of Christians, teaches us that when we ought to pray, we are too easily overcome by actual sleep or a figurative sleep that precludes earnest prayer and revelatory discernment. If only we could become fully awake, alive and aware of the kingdom of heaven in our midst.
Imagine having a call to prayer. Announce it like a worship gathering. We don’t categorize worship music as for some specific purpose. We just say, “Let’s worship God.” What if you announced, “This Friday night we are going to gather and pray to God for an hour.” Or “This Sunday, we are going to begin the service with 30 minutes of quiet prayer. We are bringing in a great prayer leader who is going to pray with us.” Have you ever seen a church position description for “Prayer Leader?” Either have I. I believe there is a deficit of sustained, earnest corporate and individual prayer in the church; therefore, there is a deficit of faith and power that has led to a derelict and impotent church in general.
Our Christian media culture has produced celebrity worship leaders, preachers, pastors, speakers, authors, etc. Something cool about prayer is that any Christian can do it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have skill or eloquence, you can join with Jesus in prayer. You can have stage fright and be the most earnest prayer warrior in the church. It doesn’t have draw, though. We associate prayer with a lack of sensory stimulation. We can’t look at pretty or cool musicians, no lights, no smoke, no slides or videos, no joke or stories—just quiet stillness…and God.
In the centuries of humanity, the transfiguration event must be in the top ten of sensory-stimulating events. The cloud of glory, Jesus’ brightness, seeing “dead” people and hearing the voice of God! It doesn’t get much better. Yet, pastors can’t get more than a faithful few to a prayer meeting where this happens every time on a spiritual level at least.
We choose encounters with touchy-feely sentimental stuff everyday over encounters with the heavenly. Christians have to train and discipline ourselves to engage with the Almighty and the servants of heaven on a regular basis. On the Mount of Transfiguration, we see what happens in prayer and what exists around and within us. Jesus Christ, our hope of glory, lives in us by the Holy Spirit. The Father hears us because of Jesus. In prayer, we are before the Father’s throne.
It is in prayer where we move mountains and overcome the kingdom of Satan. If you have faith, you can move mountains. If you pray, you can overcome the most dug-in demon.
In the gospel accounts of the transfiguration, due to lack of prayer and to being out of tune to the kingdom of God, the disciples and crowd are in chaos, disarray and defeat. That is a picture of the church that does not make prayer a priority. By making prayer a priority, I mean the church that prays collectively and individually as much as it does anything else. Have food fellowship, a concert, men’s breakfast, women’s tea, youth party night, Bible lesson (to a lesser extent) and regular Sunday service, and people come. Have a prayer meeting, and what happens? Where is everyone? Why don’t we deem it as important?
“This kind does not come out by anything but prayer.” Jesus says. What in your life and in your dreams and hopes is never going to happen or come out except by significant prayer time? What will your church never accomplish except it pray in the desert and on the mountain top. What will never change in your family or community, unless the church prays and enters the cloud of the kingdom of heaven? What will you never know, unless you hear God’s voice in the midst of prayer?
We either feel fine with where we are at life, or we may depend on ourselves with a little help from God – the kind of help one can expect to get by showing up to Sunday service and maybe one other thing during the week. We learn to live in the rut. We accept the normalcy of oppression and worldliness. We demonstrate complacency with the suffering and persecution of Christians around the world, as long as it is not us. We convince ourselves that the poor and needy are not that bad off. The church anywhere ought to be desperate about the suffering and persecution of Christians anywhere.
Any hint of the devil’s presence in our lives, our families, our churches or our communities serves as a red flag to alert us to ask for God to move in our midst. The reality of the harm the devil and his cohorts do to people around us is reason enough to pray for the sake of others. Where is the compassion in our hearts that would inspire us to pray? Where is the devotion that leads to us walking into the crowd of chaos and oppression with the power of God’s kingdom’s to heal and deliver people.
The reality of the transfiguration event invites us to enter into that realm of God in prayer knowing that he is with us and hears us. The value of hearing God’s voice in prayer giving us sure and solid truth and counsel cannot be overstated. We have got to stop sensing with only our physical eyes and ears and discern with our spirit the reality of things around us.
The experience of God answering our prayers and empowering us will increase our faith. The meditation on God’s word in his presence will grow our faith. The reality of the saints and angels of God that exist around us in the kingdom of heaven will encourage us to move mountains and assert God’s victory over the enemy around us. I guarantee you that if you live a life of mountain top and desert prayer, you will have to go looking for the enemy, because he will run from you
Jesus ascends the mountain seeking God’s will. He does the same thing in the Garden of Gethsemane. He seeks strength to go forward and fulfill God’s will and establish God’s kingdom. We think that if we are currently content, have what we need, not in immediate pain or danger, then we don’t have much to pray about. We might say a quick prayer…but no need to climb a mountain to pray today–“I’m good,” we say. If that is truly the case, then get up the mountain, into your prayer closet, into the garden, to the church, wherever, and pray for others. Pray for God’s kingdom to come in the world. Pray for the persecuted church, for the unsaved, for your enemies, for the sick, for the poor, etc. The list of prayer needs in this world is endless. Pray for our country or for a country like N. Korea or Saudi Arabia where a Christian can only live his or her faith secretly for fear of death, and where no freedom exists for the gospel proclamation.
Jesus does not ascend the mountain or enter the garden for his sake but for our sake. May the church today turn off the noise and enter into prayer for our sake and the sake of others. For God’s sake, let us pray!
In his times of glorious blessing and in his times of tumultuous trials, Jesus prayed. The door of heaven was always open for Jesus, and he was in constant communication with the Father. Because of his work on the cross, that door of heaven is open to us too. So, let us also pray on all occasions, scheduled and spontaneous, comfortable and grueling, alone and with others. Add more prayer to your life. If you are busy with anything, be busy praying. Not only can your prayers change the world, they can contribute to changing someone’s eternity.
As the politicians and pundits offer words honoring Nelson Mandela, I wonder if their remarks will prove to be only empty platitudes. I suspect they will return to partisan posturing before they are done patting themselves on the back. Remembering Mandela’s sacrificial leadership ought to inspire courageous stands by our elected leaders in the cause of freedom. Those in the media ought to demand such leadership and highlight the atrocities of oppressive countries with whom the United States interacts.
Our nation’s leaders too often placate the enforcers of the kind of division and oppression Mandela decried. We have seen our Presidents hold hands with and bow to Saudi royals who do not tolerate the existence of Christians or Jews in their country. We turn a deaf ear and blind eye to their funding and exporting of extreme Islamic hatred for those of other faiths. In this day and time, why on earth do we accept rampant religious genocide by any country?
Our nation has given hundreds of millions of dollars to regimes in Egypt, Pakistan, and Palestine where Christians are harassed and oppressed and Jews are not tolerated. We have taken over Iraq and Afghanistan and set up democracies in which Christians have been harrassed and brutalized and Jews are absent. Prior to our invasion of Iraq, it is estimated that Christians numbered 1.2 million. Today that number is around 200,000. Thousands have been killed. In Afghanistan, members of the parliament have called for executions of converts to Christianity. This is already the law and norm in Saudi Arabia.
Where are leaders who have the guts and courage of Mandela? What leaders in our country are willing to sacrifice for the cause of freedom? Would Nelson Mandela negotiate with the current leaders of Iran without demanding that a fellow citizen imprisoned for his faith be released? Our leaders need to stand up for freedom and religious tolerance. Before negotiating concessions, President Obama ought to demand outright the release of Pastor Sayeed Abedini (below with his family), an American citizen imprisoned and tortured in Iran for his faith.
Religious apartheid ought to be treated with the same disdain and sanctions as the apartheid that existed in South Africa. Whether it is in China or Saudi Arabia, we must demand the end of oppression, persecution and execution of Christians, Jews and anyone because they practice a different faith. Without taking such stands our leaders prove themselves unwilling to follow in the steps of Mandela whom they claim to honor.
This photo below of the President at Mr. Mandela’s funeral does not inspire hope that any commitment informed his eulogy. I hope he will pursue the fulfillment of his own call for religious freedom, care for children and equal rights of women around the world. Mr. Mandela’s personal discipline and commitment to truth, forgiveness and reconciliation stands as a banner for all of us to follow.
November 24, 2013
Given abortions’ finality, informed choice needed (Title by Daily Advance)
A few years ago, my family and I were at The Magic Kingdom watching the show at Cinderella’s Castle. I remember that, along with others, we watched a nearby young woman dressed in a princess outfit dancing and waving. Her joy was palpable and contagious like her smile. The young woman had Down syndrome and expressed a true child-like enthusiasm. Statistics tell us that in many areas of the country, up to 90 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. What a shame to void such people and millions of others from our midst by abortions.
In a recent editorial by The Charlotte Observer reprinted by The Daily Advance, “Courts skeptical of abortion rules,” the author criticized “inappropriate and dangerous” laws requiring that pregnant women receive ultrasounds prior to abortions. The editorial considers ultrasounds as serving no purpose other than shaming pregnant women.
I imagine a pregnant woman leaving the Albemarle Pregnancy Resource Center carrying an ultrasound image of the baby in her womb. The mother would have experienced loving hospitality and kindness. The natural response is for the mother’s heart to melt with love for that child.
Conversely, I can imagine a recently pregnant woman leaving an abortion facility following an abortion. She leaves holding a receipt for her abortion promising no refunds, no returns, only regrets. Which mother has been shamed?
Most states have “lemon laws” that allow used-car buyers to return cars that turn out to be “lemons.” No such solution exists for women who regret their abortions. Why not help pregnant women make an informed decision? Ultrasounds reveal the reality of life in the womb. The truth is that in the light of ultrasounds many pregnant women choose to give birth to their babies.
Abortion advocates quoted in the editorial do not want abortion-minded women to see that ultrasound. The alternative is to keep them in the dark and to deny the reality of life in the womb. Sadly, women who have abortions will also be encouraged to deny the pain and regret that may follow abortions. No returns. No refunds. No acknowledgement of painful reality.
Women regretting abortions are unlikely to find comfort from the facility that provided the abortion. However, at the local pregnancy resource center and at life-affirming churches, they will find the affirmation, forgiveness and healing.