Know your enemy–the flesh

Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it.”

As much as we would like to blame the devil or the sinful world for our mistakes–our sins–we must confess that each sin is a deliberate act, a result of a choice which we have made. The devil and the world are God’s enemies, and they tempt us to join their rebellion. Sometimes we resist temptation, but often we give in to temptation and do the wrong thing instead of the right thing.

Paul wrestled with this tendency in his letter to the Romans, chapter seven. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” In language that would inspire Sigmund Freud’s depiction of the ego, the superego, and the id, Paul insisted that part of his person was evil, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing. Even though Paul knew God’s commandments and wanted to obey them, his flesh continued making him do the wrong things.

As with the word “world” in the Bible, so the word “flesh” has more than one meaning. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he did not become a sinner. But when Paul speaks of his flesh, he describes a sinful nature. I do not want to debate the origin of that sinful nature. It suffices that the flesh exists. John knew that the flesh is real. He wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Even Christians sin. We sin every day. The devil, the world, and our flesh confront us every day until the day we die or until the Day Jesus appears in glory, whichever comes first.

We do not alternate between being sinners and being saints. At every time each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and is a saint who knows the Savior. The sins we commit show that we are sinners, but our faith is in Christ Jesus. The Bible describes the work he has accomplished as our Savior. The Bible promises that through the work of Jesus we are forgiven all our sins and have victory over all our enemies.

This forgiveness and victory give no one license to sin. Since our flesh was conquered by Jesus on the cross, we do not want to strengthen it or encourage it by following its suggestions. Yet, as Paul and John remind us, we still are under control of the flesh. The flesh that was drowned in Baptism continues to bob to the surface and inhale another gasp. When we look at ourselves, we see the flesh and can find no hope of salvation. Only when we look to Christ do we understand that we are already rescued, that we are already forgiven, and that we are more than conquerors over the devil, over the world, and over our flesh.

Acknowledging the reality of our flesh is called “repentance.” We repent not only of specific sins, but also of a sinful nature that makes us God’s enemies. The Holy Spirit guides our repentance through the commandments of God as he also builds our faith through the promises of God. Therefore, the devil and the world and the flesh battle against the Spirit. They entice us with temptations; and when we sin, they strike us with guilt. Guilt from the Spirit moves us to repent, but guilt from our enemies makes us doubt God’s promises. Like a dog dragging the trash from the curb back into the house, our flesh stirs up memories of past sins and renews our sense of guilt. When that happens, we are free to resist. We remind our flesh that every sin is already forgiven by God and even forgotten by God. God cannot lie. He is so powerful that anything he says becomes true. God says we are forgiven. God says we are saints. God says we are his children. When we remember and repeat what God says, we battle effectively against the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

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Know your enemy–the world

Although some people blame the devil for all the problems of the world, he is not capable of causing that much evil. He is not almighty like God, nor is he present everywhere like God. However, the devil has help in his rebellion against God and against all that is good. Traditionally, Christians speak of three enemies that work together to oppose the will of God. They are the devil, the world, and our flesh.

In the Bible, the word “world” can be used in different ways, just as the word “heaven” has several different meanings. The world that works with the devil and opposes God’s will is not the same world that God loves so much that he sent his Son to redeem the world. The world that needs redemption consists of sinners, and so does the world that opposes God’s will, but the sinners who oppose God’s will are using what they have to tempt other people to sin.

This sinful world includes politicians, entertainers, and many other kinds of people. The world confuses selfishness with love and composes poems and songs that talk about love as a feeling people can catch or lose. The world also includes schoolchildren who encourage one another to steal from the store or to try illegal drugs. The world includes parents who set bad examples for their children. The world even includes children who shock their parents by repeating profanities that they heard at school or on television or from the mouths of their parents.

Any material thing that might tempt you to sin is part of this sinful world. We cannot avoid temptations, so we must resist them. Even Jesus was tempted in every way, as we are, but he did not sin. A saying about temptation has existed for hundreds of years: “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” Whenever a Christian enjoys temptation and keeps returning to situations where he or she might be tempted again, that Christian has already crossed the line into sin.

We resist temptation from the world in the same way that we resist temptation from the devil: we stand on the Word of God. God’s Word tells us what is right and what is wrong; God’s Word teaches us what we should do and what we should not do. God’s Word also promises forgiveness to sinners. Tempters from the world might say, “Why don’t you do this thing that you used to do?” The power of God’s forgiveness sets us free from sinful ways; we do not have to remain slaves of sin after God has set us free.

In some places the world’s powers persecute Christians. In many more places, the world’s powers tolerate Christians while trying to seduce us away from faith. Jesus wants us to stand firmly on his Word, and he gives us the power to remain firm. The world may be stronger than we are, but the world is not stronger than God. Through him we are always safe, even while living in the world. J.

Christ in Genesis:The Better Garment

Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, disobeying God’s command and bringing sin, evil, and death into his creation. Their first sin did not happen when their teeth touched the fruit and they bit and chewed and swallowed. Their first sin did not happen when one of them reached out a hand to pick the fruit. Their first sin was the decision to doubt God’s word, to believe that he had been less than truthful with them, and to test him by breaking his commandment.

Genesis describes the tempter as a serpent. Revelation 12:9 gives us his full identity: “the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” Satan was one of the good angels God had created, but through pride he rebelled against God. A Muslim tradition states that Satan rebelled when God told him to worship and serve Adam. I suspect that the devil’s pride and arrogance are the result of a lack of understanding. He has contempt for the love of God. He understands power and authority, but not love. He thinks that he can run the universe better than God is running it, so he is trying to take authority over creation. One of his first acts of rebellion was to invite Adam and Eve to join his rebellion.

God had commanded Adam and Eve to do several things: to be fruitful and multiply, to care for the earth and its living creatures, and to rest every seventh day as God had rested on the seventh day. Any of these commands was an opportunity for temptation to disobey. Satan chose the fruit as the easiest way to challenge Eve’s faithfulness to God’s commands. His suggestion that God had forbidden them to eat from any tree in the Garden seems ludicrous, but it shows his usual procedure. He wants to make God seem overbearing and unloving. By twisting God’s commands, Satan hopes to inspire resentment and rebellion in our minds.

The devil misquoted God’s command. He showed that he knew exactly what God had said—when Eve said, “lest we die,” Satan responded, “You will not surely die.” Even as he calls God a liar, Satan corrects Eve’s recollection of what God had said. Of course they did not physically die the day they ate the fruit; Adam lived another 930 years. There are worse things than physical death. Spiritual death is separation from God. Adam and Eve spiritually died with their first sin. Whoever is spiritually dead when he or she physically dies will be eternally dead. Whoever is spiritually alive when he or she physically dies will have eternal life. Jesus experienced spiritual death on the cross when he was forsaken by his Father; he went there so that Adam and Eve and each of their descendants would not have to go there.

Satan persuaded Eve that eating the forbidden fruit would make her and Adam more like God. They had already been created in God’s image. There was no way for them to become more like God. Eve saw that the tree was good for fruit and pleasing to the eyes. Believing that it would also make her wise, she ate and she gave some fruit to Adam and he ate. Being separated from God by their sin, they observed their nakedness and were ashamed. Therefore, they made loincloths for themselves from fig leaves.

A fig leaf loincloth will not last very long. The leaves quickly wither and crumble, leaving the maker naked again. All our efforts to fix our own lives are equally futile. We cannot hide our sins from God, even if we think we have hidden them from ourselves.

After God had confronted them about their sin, he also provided for them. In place of their fig leaf loincloths, God gave them garments of animal skins. The clo0thing that God provided was more useful than what Adam and Eve made for themselves. However, this gift from God meant that some of the animals Adam and Eve had known now were dead, just to provide them with clothing. Physical death was made real to them in this way, now that they had experienced spiritual death. The animals gave their lives to clothe Adam and Eve for their protection and for the sake of decency.

These animals that died are images of Jesus, who would also die to cover our sins. We are clothed in his righteousness, which makes us acceptable in the sight of God and protects us from evil. Throughout the Bible, clothing takes special significance, picturing a life that is pleasing to God. Jesus was stripped of his clothing on the day he died; it was claimed by the soldiers who executed him. Yet Jesus has also clothed us, surrendering his life so we could inherit his righteousness.

Christ in Genesis: A Tale of Two Trees

The Garden of Eden included an orchard of fruit-bearing trees. Perhaps there were apples, oranges, cherries, or mangoes–the Bible doesn’t say. The only trees it names are the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Evidently the fruit of the Tree of Life provided its eater with unending life. I am not a biochemist and cannot explain how it did that; but, after their sin, Adam and Eve were barred from the Garden so they would not eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. Although this ban seems like a punishment, it actually was a blessing. Living forever as sinners in a sin-polluted world would not have been heavenly; it would have been the opposite of heaven. By making death available to Adam and Eve and to their descendants, the Lord is able to lead his people through the valley of death and beyond it to the house of the Lord–a new creation unstained by sin and evil.

The notorious Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was named in retrospect. It had no magical ability to impart knowledge; the Bible does not say what purpose God had for this tree. Whatever its purpose was, it was not yet ready, so God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of that tree. To suggest that God was testing Adam and Eve, wanting to know if they would obey him, is ludicrous. God knows all things; being timeless, he has already seen the future. Moreover, God does not tempt people to sin. The tree was created for a good reason, but we have not been told what that reason is.

Other writers have compared the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to a large pot of soup being heated on the stove. Mother tells her three-year-old son, “Don’t touch the pot, or you’ll be burned.” Against her warning, he touches the pot, spilling its contents upon himself, and he is burned. In fact, he is so badly burned that she must rush him to the hospital for treatment. She did not heat the pot to test his obedience; she was making lunch for the family. At the hospital, though, she does not explain that to him. Treatment for his burns is more important than explanations. In the same way, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we all got burned. God has provided a way to be healed, but he has not told us why the tree was in the Garden.

Trees, like gardens, are frequently mentioned in the Bible. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 proclaims a curse on anyone who dies hanging from a tree. The first Psalm compares a righteous man to a fruitful tree. A rebellious son of David was killed while hanging from a tree. Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus, but Jesus called him out of the tree. Jesus was going to hang on the tree of the cross, receiving the curse deserved by sinners, dying to grant eternal life to his people. He called Zacchaeus out of the tree because he–the ultimate Son of David–would go to a tree for Zacchaeus.

Jesus wants his people to bear good fruit. His orchard is filled with trees, but by ourselves we bear no good fruit. We have sinned, doing what we should not do, and failing to perform the good works we were created to do. Of all the trees in the orchard, only one tree bears good fruit. That tree is Jesus Christ. This one fruitful tree accepted the curse of the barren trees to reverse the condition of the orchard. Now all the trees in the orchard bear good fruit except for one dead tree in the middle of the orchard–Christ’s cross.

His cross is our tree of life. Through the cross where Christ suffered and died, we receive eternal life. Because he has given us life, we are now able to bear fruit; we are able to become the people God intended when he created us.

Jesus once told a parable about a fruitless tree. The landowner was prepared to remove the tree and change it into firewood. The gardener asked for one more year; he offered to prepare the ground around the tree with the hope that it would bear fruit (Luke 13:6-9). Each of us is that tree, and Jesus is the Gardener who pleads for us. He does all the work necessary to make us able to bear fruit so we will not be thrown into the fire. Instead, our future home is the garden of the new creation. According to Revelation 22:2, the Tree of Life will be available to us there, ensuring that we will live forever.

Know your enemies

I seem to be having a devilish week. First insanitybytes writes a post about the devil called “The voice of the enemy”—I tried to create link to it, but failed . Then, while the oil is being changed in my car, I read a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1926, called “A Nursery Tale,” in which the devil plays a significant part.

One commenter to “The voice of the enemy” reminded IB that the devil is a created being, not omnipresent throughout the universe; the commenter questioned the ability of the devil to put thoughts into the minds of people. From there the conversation went askew, and rather than adding my voice to the din, I chose to visit the topic here.

A long-standing tradition in the Christian Church speaks of three enemies to the Christian: the devil, the world, and the flesh. “The world” does not mean the planet, but it describes all the temptation and opposition to the faith that comes from the people around us. “The flesh” does not refer to the Christian’s physical body, but rather to the evil thoughts and impulses that still exist in the mind or heart of the Christian.

From time to time, small groups of Christians insist that the flesh no longer exists in a saved Christian. Quoting a few verses out of context (particularly some from I John), they claim that a true believer no longer sins and that a sinner is not yet a true believer. They overlook I John 1:8—“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”—and they distort Paul’s description of the paradox of Christian living in Romans 7. No, the devil does not need to be everywhere to accomplish his evil goals; the devil has a willing accomplice inside each of our minds and hearts.

The world is polluted by sin, causing us to be tempted every day. From Elizabeth Taylor to Taylor Swift, men’s minds are led astray—not because these talented women are part of some massive conspiracy to promote evil, but because the entertainment industry uses attractive and skilled performers to give us what we say we want. The flesh is eager to be tempted. The world is eager to offer temptations. The world would rather drag Christians down to its level than see us rise by God’s power to the level of Jesus Christ.

I picture the devil, not as a mastermind steering all the evil in the world, but as a mafia boss or gang leader sitting in a prison cell. He is “a roaring lion seeking someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8), but he is a caged lion, and we can resist him when we stay out of his cage. He is pictured as a dragon bound in chains and sealed in a pit (Revelation 20:1-3), but because the world is polluted by rebellion and evil, the devil’s schemes continue to succeed.

When did the devil fall from power? When was he chained and caged? When seventy-two missionaries reported to Jesus about their work, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). From this we learn that Satan falls from power and is bound whenever God’s Word is preached and believed. When is the dragon loosed? He is released from bondage whenever people turn away from the Word of God. When they call the Gospel “ancient myths and legends” and deny the cross of Christ and his resurrection, they unchain the devil. This unchaining is not some future event—it has been happening for centuries and continues to happen today.

The devil has several names. He is called Satan, which comes from the Persian name for a prosecuting attorney. Not only does the devil tempt us to sin; he also reminds us of our sins and calls on God to punish us as we deserve. He is called “Beelzebul,” meaning “master of masters,” a title given by Canaanites to their god Baal. The name is often changed to “Beelzebub,” meaning “master of flies,” a reminder that, even though at times he is called the king of this world, he has no real power. He took the form of a serpent to deceive our ancestors and to draw them and all humanity into his rebellion. (Only in the book of Revelation does the Bible explicitly say that the serpent is the devil.) God told Satan that he would “eat dust” and that his head would be crushed by the Christ—this first preaching of the Gospel is the time Satan first began to fall.

Jesus has defeated the devil by dying on a cross and rising again from the dead. The devil continues to be defeated whenever people hear and believe the good news about Jesus. If the devil and the world cause a Christian to suffer, hoping that the Christian will doubt God’s goodness or his power, their attack is defeated when that Christian allows his or her sufferings to be a reminder of the sufferings of Christ.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus has redeemed sinners, and he has redeemed all of creation. The devil took the form of a snake, but a snake became a picture of Jesus (Numbers 21:8-9 and John 3:14-15). The devil is a roaring lion, but Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The devil is a prosecuting attorney, but Jesus is our defense attorney, pleading his case before his Father and reminding his Father that our penalty has been paid in full.

Yes, in this sin-polluted life we still battle the devil, the world, and our flesh. One cannot sort the struggles to know when a temptation or an attack came from the devil, or from the world, or from our own sinful flesh. They work together, and the source of our problems does not matter. All that matters is the victory that is ours through Jesus Christ. J.

 

Did Jesus ever have a panic attack?

Some Christians would say “no.” After all, the Bible tells God’s people not to be anxious. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God” (Philippians 4:6). “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). If the Bible tells us not to be anxious, and Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15), then it appears that Jesus never worried and was never anxious about anything.

As I have written before, “don’t worry” is not the eleventh commandment. When God tells us not to worry, he is promising to take care of us. We can tell God about anything that worries us, and we can trust him to take care of our problems. Worry and anxiety can be powerful temptations to sin, but anxiety in itself is not sinful. It is part of what happens in this world, more to some people than to others.

Anxiety is like anger. Anger can cause people to sin, but anger itself is not a sin. Evil things in this world make God angry, and they should make us angry. At times Jesus was angry. He was angry that the teachers of God’s Word were misunderstanding the Word and teaching others to misunderstand the Word. He was angry that the Temple was being misused. Jesus never sinned, but he was tempted by anger. Instead, he used the energy of his anger to fix the problem that made him angry.

Was Jesus ever tempted by anxiety? Did he ever have a panic attack? Jesus knew that he was on his way to the cross, but he did not dwell on what was going to happen. He was able to take one day at a time, just as he teaches us to do. He says, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). He taught his followers to pray for “daily bread.” Taking one day at a time, Jesus was able to bear the coming torture of the cross, remarking on occasion, “My hour has not yet come.”

Finally, though, his hour came. Jesus had the Passover meal with his disciples and then went with them to a garden called Gethsemane. There he was “sorrowful and troubled” (Matthew 26:37) or “deeply distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). The Greek words used by Matthew and Mark are significant. The word for “sorrowful” is somewhat common in the New Testament and covers a range of sorrows. The word for “deeply distressed” is used only by Mark. In addition to the distress of Jesus in the garden, Mark also uses it to describe the surprise of a crowd when Jesus arrived unexpectedly, and again to describe the reaction of the women who found the tomb of Jesus empty. The word for “troubled” is used by Paul (Philippians 2:26) and is also translated “distressed.” It is a compound word suggesting “away from home,” or feeling badly out of place. Jesus, then, according to Matthew and Mark, was feeling a deep and powerful emotion of sorrow, trouble, and distress. He did not keep his feeling a secret, but told his disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).

Luke uses an even stronger word, “agony” (Luke 22:44). In fact, the Greek word chosen by Luke is the source of the English words agony and anguish. It refers to intense suffering, but only of an emotional nature, never to physical pain. Luke adds the detail that “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In the garden, Jesus was tempted to leave his mission. He was tempted by sorrow, distress, and agony. Given the descriptions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus was suffering from an attack of anxiety, a genuine panic attack.

Other people in the Bible faced anxiety and depression. Elijah was depressed and wanted to die. The book of Job contains nearly a complete medical description of clinical depression. Paul in some of his letters expresses his melancholy feelings. Even Jesus, the sinless Son of God, dealt with powerful emotions of distress and agony.

Jesus prayed for help. He asked first if the mission could be changed, so he did not have to endure the cross. But Jesus also prayed the words he taught us to pray, “Your will be done.” Jesus was strengthened in his agony and was given the strength to complete his mission. Sinners are forgiven because Jesus resisted the temptation that came with distress and agony and continued to walk the path that leads to our salvation.

Jesus has not forgotten how he felt in the garden. When we pray about our feelings, he understands. He is able to help us, because he has faced every problem he allows us to endure. I find comfort in knowing that my Savior understands me so well, that he even knows how my anxiety feels.

J.