I had to go to the mall the other day. I went to collect something and was amazed at how many people were there just carrying on with life as normal.
People everywhere acting as if nothing was happening – as if there wasn’t an unseen virus lurking which there is at present with COVID-19.
People were eating at restaurants, having a baby shower celebration, shopping. There were a few people taking precautions with masks and gloves, but they were in the minority. To see such precautions in a mall would normally have been strange; however, even this attire has become our new norm as we carry on with everyday things.
It occurred to me that this is what we are sometimes like concerning the spiritual battles taking place around us. We can’t see our enemy, and we don’t see the battles going on. So we carry on as if they aren’t happening.
It says in Ephesians 6:12 that our fight as Christians is not against flesh and blood enemies, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world.
Whether you believe the COVID-19 virus exists or not is irrelevant. Similarly, whether you believe the unseen spiritual world exists or not is irrelevant. Whether we believe or not, the spread of the virus continues. Whether we believe or not the battle continues.
However, we have been forced as a country to change our daily routines because of this real and unseen threat to our lives and those around us.
What will force us to be aware of the war happening in the spiritual realm? Perhaps when the Devil’s attacks get our attention, and we’re forced to bend our knee and come before our Father and ask for his help.
Our Father in his grace, love and kindness towards us has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). He has given us his Spirit that lives within us and is our Comforter, our Helper, our Counselor and our Encourager. He has given us weapons to fight in this war. We are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus because we have been saved from the enemies camp, we have the word of our Father that is truth, he fills our hearts with peace, and he even gives us faith to believe in him.
Living as though you’re not in a war does not mean it’s not happening!
So, read your Bible so that you can know the truth and fight off the enemy when he attacks you with lies. Meditate, think about and remind yourself of who you are because Jesus died in your place. Ask God to fill you with faith so that you can believe him and trust him with your life. And speak to him, ask him for help, look to Him as your source of comfort, encouragement and wisdom. Be alert and don’t listen to the enemy when he lies to you about no threat of war, he’s then got you exactly where he wants you, vulnerable and unprotected.
The apostle John’s longing has been that those who have believed in Jesus would KNOW that they have eternal life through faith in Jesus (1 John 5:13).
Now he goes on to write of three additional things that Christ Followers know also;
1.We know that we are from God.
So many personal problems begin when this truth is not firmly grasped and held on to by the believer in Jesus. The devil repeatedly tries to undermine the truth that we have been adopted as God’s beloved children through faith in Jesus (see John 1:12, 1 John 3:1).
Assurance, security, peace, acceptance, love, protection, hope for answered prayer…are all rooted in this truth. God being our Father changes everything – it’s a classic case of; ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’! Even better it’s not about who you are but who’s you are!
If you are battling with feelings of fear, anxiety, rejection, or loneliness or feeling under-valued or over-looked or unseen, you need to tap into this truth, again and again, the sons and daughters of God most high need never struggle with questions of this nature.
If God the Father loved you enough to send Jesus to the cross to die in your place for your sin while you were still His enemy, then having already done that, how much more will He not also along with Jesus give you all things? (Romans 8:32). Know these things.
2.the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
Know also, however, that in this present age post-Christ’s resurrection but before His return the world around us is under the control and influence of the evil one – the devil.
Although the devil has been triumphed over by Jesus on the cross (Colossians 2:14-15), although his days are numbered, and his final destiny is the final judgement of God in the lake of fire (Revelation 19:20) – he still has power in this present age. And so the world is full of traps and temptations as the devil tries to derail people from faith, worship and trust in God.
Knowing that you have an ultimately defeated, but real enemy who prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8) will help you to be sober-minded and alert. Remember that ‘He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4) – so do not live in fear but be alert to his cunning schemes and traps.
3. And know that Jesus is the one true God (vs20)
The knowledge that we have a real enemy is sandwiched between knowing we are God the Father’s beloved children (vs19) and that we have believed in Jesus Christ the one true God and we ‘know him’ and so we can know we have eternal life with Him.
Don’t give in to doubts and lies from the enemy about who Jesus is – what you have believed is true, and you will be richly rewarded into eternity for holding on to that truth. There is no god besides our God, Jesus Christ!
Armed with the knowledge of these three things, John concludes with something we ought to DO.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (vs21)
Don’t give your trust, your worship or devotion to anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ. But what is an idol? Is it just a statue of sorts?
An idol is anything that we seek to get significance, meaning, identity, belonging, purpose, security, peace or happiness from – someone or something that occupies the place of God in our lives. Mark Dever said; “Idolatry is sin in its purest form: it is trusting something other than God.”
The apostle closes his letter with a warm warning – keep yourselves from idolatry. Worship, serve and love God only!
Having urged us not to befriend the world (in the sense of compromising so that we live like the world & or putting our trust in worldly things rather than in God), now James urges us to befriend God.
The God of the Bible is not dispassionate; instead, He is righteously jealous for us, yearning for a relationship with us (vs5). God wants us for Himself; He went to great lengths to send His Son Jesus to die in our place for our sin SO THAT we could be restored to a right relationship with Him, so it is unsurprising to learn that God is jealous for us.
And yet our relationship with God is a strange unequal relationship. He is holy God almighty; we are tiny little people, sinful people. It’s like a friendship where one person always does the giving! They take all the initiative; they are continually blessing their friend, paying for everything, lifting the other friend around, giving, giving, giving. And yet both want the relationship.
Because of who we are, because of our frailty and our failings, for us to stay in relationship with God needs God to be continuously gracious towards us. And that’s precisely what He is and does; God gives more grace, all the time (vs6), God lavishes grace on us. He can handle our need of grace, is even drawn to our need of grace, but is offended by self-reliant pride.
So surrender and receive His loving disposition towards you. Tuck into His care and protection, thank Him for and receive His grace. As you do, you’ll become closer and closer to God, which will enable you to resist your enemy.
I think of the tiny weedy Grade 8 at High School who looks like they belong in Grade 6 still because the testosterone hasn’t kicked in yet. They are vulnerable to bullying by the thugs of the school, a target for abuse and taunting. But they have this massive gentle giant of a Grade 12, the Head Prefect of the school. And he wants to be their friend; if only they would stick close with him, the resident school thug won’t risk coming close because they know the Head Prefect will defend his little friend and they know he is in authority at the school and so can’t compete. That small Grade 8 just needs to say; ‘I need help’ and the Head Prefect will rush to his side to help, and the thug won’t dare come close.
If we would just humble ourselves and call out to God, He will rush to our sides. And with God by our side, who can be against us and succeed (Romans 8:31-32)? We have a promise here, that if we draw near to God, if we stay tucked into our relationship with Him, near Him – then the devil will flee from us, will leave us alone because God is greater and more powerful than him.
So, every day. Draw near to God, reach out to God in prayer and worship, knowing He will respond and come near to You because He loves you and is jealous for you. And with God by your side, you won’t have to fear anything or anyone (read Romans 8:31-39).
We are meaning-makers. We want to know, love to know, try to know – why? We look for cause and effect, we are inquisitive. Now this is mostly good, but it can get us into trouble too! As we all too often from our limited finite human perspective reach the wrong conclusions!
The man in John 9 was born blind. The meaning-makers wanted to know why? Who’s fault was this? Was he blind because God was punishing him or punishing his parents in some way? Sound familiar?
As a pastor, I often encounter people who have had something hard happen to them and often the big questions are something like; ‘Why did this happen?’ or ‘Why has God done this to me or allowed this to happen?’
Jesus answered their question with an emphatic “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) This will not always be the reason for sickness or suffering, but it was the reason given by Jesus in this instance. ‘This man is blind SO THAT I can show God’s power over sickness and suffering’ – Jesus essentially said.
Jesus’ answer wasn’t one of the potential causes they had thought of. And maybe there is a hint there for us: we often will not know. And so the trite little answers like those of the people surrounding this blind man, are often just unhelpful as they don’t help us to know the ‘why’. It’s tough for ‘meaning-makers’ but it is true, we will not always know or be able to answer the ‘why’ questions fully. However there is a grid that might be helpful:
The 3 possible sources of pain/hurt/suffering:
In my experience and from Scripture, I believe that one can understand there being three potential sources for pain/hurt/suffering:
1. Our own sinful actions
One of the sources of pain and hardship in our lives is in fact ourselves, our own actions. We do at times bring pain upon ourselves! We make bad mistakes, we have character flaws, we make bad/ungodly/unwise decisions and do sometimes suffer the natural consequences thereof.
So many of the pastoral issues we end up dealing with as a church leadership are the result of ungodly decision-making and the mess that inevitably follows. But, think about this for a moment. This is the one source of pain and suffering/hardship over which we have some control. There is not a lot you can control in your life, but you can seek to grow in godly wisdom and it will have a direct positive impact on your life.
2. The Age we live in
Much of what is hard in our lives can simply be put down to this BIG category in which a number of sub-categories or sources of pain fit. This age we live in post-Fall & pre-Jesus’ Second Coming:
- Is an age in which we have a very real enemy who can bring suffering (Job is an example)
- Is an age in which the systems of this world are impacted by sin and so cause inequality, poverty, oppression, injustice
- Is an age in which the natural world itself is impacted by sin and so there are things like erosion, pollution, natural disasters…
- Is an age in which our bodies are decaying (death, sickness is part of the curse), and so in this age we are struck down by sickness & disease battling scourges like cancer and HIV…
- Is an age in which the sinful actions of others impact us; hijacking, robbery, relational hurt, rape, abuse…
3. God’s loving Fathering of us
Hebrews 12:5-11 teaches that part of the plan of our loving Heavenly Father is to produce holiness & Christlike character in us and to use us to fulfill His good purposes on the earth and to ultimately bless us in eternity. Sometimes, God is at work in the trial or the pain in order to accomplish something in us or through us. The John 9 man is an example of this potential source of trials, as Jesus Himself declared that to be the reason for his suffering up to that point.
Knowing the potential source of the pain, should inform our best response to that pain. If it’s self-imposed then stop it, repent and change. If it’s the age we live in, you might need to pray more for God’s guidance as to how best to respond. If it’s potentially your loving Father at work in some way, you need to ask Him to help you know how best to respond or what to do or pray.
The John 9 man gets healed miraculously and his previous disability becomes his powerful testimony to the rulers opposing Jesus!
Three passages, three encounters that Jesus had with three different people who all had different struggles with the demonic realm. The constant is Jesus Himself and that the result of each of the people struggling under some demonic influence or another, was that they were instantly freed by Jesus!
There are two equal and opposite errors we tend to make regarding the demonic:
- We give the devil and his demonic minions too much focus, fascination and airtime
- Or we effectively deny the existence of the devil and demonic influence
May we always be way more focused on Jesus and His glorious victory on the cross, focussed on His resurrection and the resultant victory in which He defeated sin, Satan and death and made a public spectacle of them (Colossians 2:13-15)! You and I as believers have no need to remain in fear, we ought not remain in a state of being influenced by or even bound by demonic forces since Jesus is our Lord.
On the other hand, to deny or to ignore the reality of the existence of Satan and the demonic realm and its ability to influence believers is to foolishly ignore clear warnings and exhortations of Scripture and to potentially allow the enemy to keep impacting you or those you love.
These three encounters in the Gospels are so helpful as they are all so different. Because of this, together they help us to have a balanced understanding of the whole range of types & degrees of demonic influence (‘demon possessed’ is an unhelpful translation in the NIV Bible translation as it indicates total control and has no room for degrees of influence) that is evidenced in Scripture.
The Mark 1 man (subtle under the radar influence): It seems likely that this man was influenced by the demonic to a limited degree. I say this because he was there in synagogue seemingly unbeknown to those around him, seemingly behaving himself in socially accepted ways, until he suddenly cried out because of Jesus’ presence! He had a demonic presence influencing him but it was undetected until the man came into close proximity with Jesus. There are lots of things we don’t know about how this influence worked itself out in his life, did he battle with fear, depression, a destructively low-self esteem, panic attacks…….? We don’t know, but he is helpful to us in that Scripture is clear that he had some form of demonic influence in his life – and so his example helps us to see that some demonic influence could be ‘under the radar’ because it doesn’t appear too bad, or isn’t too socially obvious. Are there maybe things we just accept as ‘normal’ or ‘this is who I am’ but in fact it is an area in which we as believers are just not free? The great news is that one encounter with Jesus and this man was delivered and set free from that influence.
The Mark 5 man (overt control and intense demonic influence): This man probably fits your prior notion of what a person with a demonic influence would present like. This is an extreme case of demonic influence, even a destructive one – the great news though is that one encounter with Jesus and this man is set free and left ‘clothed and in his right mind’ (Mark 5:15) – what a contrast to the description of him just moments sooner! No demonic influence is beyond Jesus’ instant transformation.
The Luke 13 woman (sickness attributed to demonic influence): Jesus healed many people of sickness and most times it was not attributed to demonic influence, it was just sickness as a result of the impact of the fall on all of humanity. However, in Luke 13, Luke (a medical doctor) recorded very specifically that this woman’s ailment had its source as being spiritual not medical, “And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years.” (Luke 13:11) Jesus Himself said; “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16) In our secular society and in the minds of many believers in the church today – her symptoms would not have been even considered as having a potential spiritual source! But that is exactly what Jesus and what Scripture attributed her symptoms too a demonic influence. The great news is that Jesus loosed the hold that this demonic influence had held over her body for these many years in an instant feeing her from her disability and the bondage brought from Satan (Luke 13:16).
Never be looking for a demon under every bush, never get fascinated with the demonic – be enamoured and amazed and secure because of Jesus. But also never underestimate or deny the ability for demonic influence and the spiritual realm at work in lives, in minds, in bodies. Know however that regardless of what influence their might be – we have been given all of Jesus’ authority to set people fee (Matthew 28:18-20) just like Jesus did.
Our enemy is patient. He is happy sometimes to bide his time, he lays down land-mines in our lives (if we let him) but then waits to detonate them at some point in the future when the impact will be greater than it is now.
Solomon becomes king as a young man, he loves God Scripture says, and is even a humble young king at this point (1 Kings 3:7). But sadly he is already making some wrong choices, disregarding the charge given to him by his father David (1 Kings 2:3) to walk in God’s ways and commandments.
Solomon unwisely, disregards God’s commandment to not marry foreign women. Through Moses God had warned about not doing this because these foreign wives would cause God’s people to compromise and end up worshipping their false gods (Deuteronomy 7:3-4). Solomon however marries Pharaoh’s daughter in a political move designed to give him political allies.
Solomon loves God (1 Kings 3:3) but again he is unwise not paying attention to God’s commandment in Deuteronomy 12:1-8 to not worship or make sacrifices anywhere they pleased but rather to only worship God in the place God had chosen (where the tabernacle was at any given time). Solomon does exactly what Deuteronomy 12:8 specifically instructs not to be done and makes sacrifices at the ‘high places’ of worship used for worship of other gods (1 Kings 3:3).
The remainder of chapters 3-4 record Solomon’s good request from God and the blessing that flows from this request for wisdom. God blessed Solomon in incredible ways with wisdom (we see this in his adjudication of the difficult scenario of the two women in 1 Kings 3:16-28), prolific writing and song writing and blessed the whole nation with peace and prosperity.
And yet the seeds of compromise had been sown! Solomon didn’t know it but his compromise was germinating beneath the surface and would later result in his effective downfall. Satan is patient, happy to sow sin-seeds and to leave them there for a later time for greater impact.
How many church leaders or prominent people have years later when they have profile been exposed for some thing that was private that they never dealt with which then later becomes public only to destroy them?
So what relevance does this have for your life and mine?
What might there be in your life that seems small to you at the moment but is in fact an area of compromise?
Is there anything in your life that you are tolerating or turning a blind eye to even though you know God’s will for you is contrary?
I urge you to never see sin-seeds as small things, but to see what they become and to deal with them as soon as the Holy Spirit points them out to you. Remember that Satan is patient, happy to wait for the moment when detonating that land-mine, causing that seed to germinate will have greater impact on you and on others.
The Christian life isn’t like a battle, it is one. Christ Followers have an ever present enemy who will resist us, obstruct us and try to discourage us at any opportunity.
Most significant advances for God, whether those be personal in nature or corporate, will attract the attention and opposition of our enemy. In fact if there is no opposition it’s worth asking whether you’re attempting anything great for God in your life!
Nehemiah chapter 4 is an example of kingdom advance being opposed:
- In Nehemiah 2, Nehemiah called for the people to join together in rebuilding the wall
- In Nehemiah 3 we read about the rebuilding project having begun in earnest
- Yet as soon as that rebuilding project had begun opposition to it arose (Nehemiah 4:1-6)
Analysing the Opposition:
Anger/Rage (vs1) – the more you love God and serve God’s purposes the more you anger/frustrate and irritate the enemy. Advancing God’s kingdom through your life shrinks his kingdom’s influence. Don’t try to make people agnry, but anger in others isn’t always a sign that something is going wrong, but rather might well be that you’re doing something right as you serve God.
Jeering/Mocking (vs1-2) – opposition often takes the form of an attack on one’s identity, character, wisdom or ability. “What are these feeble Jews doing?” – said Sanballat. This is designed to humiliate, to influence the perception of others and to insert doubts into the mind and heart of the person being derided. We do well to remember that our enemies name is the “Accuser” of the followers of Christ and so ought not to be surprised when we face such opposition.
Doubt (vs2) – Another one of the enemies favourite tactics is to get into our minds and sow seeds of doubt. “Will they restore it for themselves?”, Sanballat questioned. Such questions can set off doubts that can cause the ones being opposed to back off, pull-back, to reconsider thereby capitulating to the opposition and being controlled by it.
Misrepresentation (vs2) – “Will they finish in a day?”, Sanballat said. At no point did Nehemiah or the Jewish people rebuilding the wall claim that they would be finished in any short-time frame. Opposition often takes the form of misrepresentation and distortion of what one has said or claimed they would do. Unjustified misrepresentation cuts deep as one often isn’t afforded the opportunity to correct misrepresented facts about oneself. Again the strategy here is to pull the rug out from underneath the person being opposed, distracting them from the task at hand and undermining their will to proceed.
Gossip/Slander (vs2-3) – Sanballat is making these comments and accusations in the company of his brothers, the army of Samaria and Tobiah. Opposition often takes the form of slander and gossip. When we face such things, we need to be careful not to get drawn into ourselves sinning too against those who slander against us.
Criticism & Exaggeration (vs3) – Tobiah joined the chorus claiming that the wall they were building was so weak that it would break down with even just a fox walking on it! We need to know who we are, we need to also know what we are doing to allow unfounded criticism to not disrupt our progress or sow seeds of doubt.
Responding to criticism
1. Take it to God! “Hear, O our God, for we are despised…” (vs4) Your Father is large and in charge of everything. You have free access into His presence because of Jesus and your faith in Him. You are the beloved child of the most high God. So take the opposition you face to Him, lay it out before Him because you can and because He loves you.
Their prayer at this point essentially was; ‘defend us God & vindicate us Lord’. When you take criticism and opposition to God in prayer it relieves you of the need to try to defend yourself or vindicate yourself. Letting go of your right to feel wronged helps one to keep focussed on what you have been called to do and to keep focussed on being like Christ in the midst of this opposition.
2. Get back to the job at hand. “So we built the wall” (vs6) After praying, they got back to the work at hand in spite of the opposition. Isn’t that the best response to opposition, to proceed with the course of action you know God told you to proceed with?
We will all face opposition to the mandates God gives us personally and corporately to advance His kingdom in our lives and through our church. May we never get drawn in by the tactics of our enemy, distracted from the task, tempted to sin, but may we take it to God in prayer and may we get back to the job at hand!