The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Christian Living (page 1 of 20)

Imitating the Devil

Introduction

A central Christian teaching is that for those who are in Christ, our lives are spent in the process of sanctification—in conjunction with our own efforts and desires, God’s Spirit works in us to transform our lives into conformity with that of Jesus Christ. In short, we seek to imitate Christ, and the Spirit helps us to do that.

While this is the goal, the sobering reality is that if we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves imitating someone very different—the Devil. That perhaps seems like a sensationalistic claim—what Christians actually set out to imitate the Evil One? By intention, it may not happen, but by action, it happens all too frequently. Let me explain.

Titles, Not Names

It will be surprising to some to hear that the Evil One mentioned in Scripture is nowhere given a name; he is repeatedly given titles and descriptions: the dragon, the serpent, the devil, the father of lies, etc.—even Satan is not a name—in the original language, it is used with a definite article (“the Satan”).[1]

What I think is helpful about realizing that this murky character is only described with titles is that these titles tell us something about his character—a character that Christians can emulate if we are not careful.

The Father of Lies

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in 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)

This one is pretty obvious: the Evil One is a liar. We see it in his deception of Adam and Even in the Garden, and we see it on a regular basis as he whispers to us that the ways God has laid out for us aren’t really the best ways, or that we are too broken to be loved by our Creator and to be used by Him. He is a liar and the father of lies.

And here is the scary part: when we lie, not only do we fail to imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the father of lies. Being people of integrity is such a fundamental characteristic of Jesus’ disciples that He specifically addressed it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.33-37), but we easily resort to being people of evasion, partial truths, and outright dishonesty. When we do this, we may not be intentionally imitating the Devil, but in our lack of careful intention to be people of absolute integrity, we imitate him nonetheless.

The Devil

This one may be less obvious to us because we tend to associate devil with a red creature with horns and a pitchfork, but really, the Greek word that is translated devil is διαβολος (from which we get our word diabolical), which means “the slanderer.” Obviously, this term is also related to the notion of dishonesty, but slander is more specific. Slander is “the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.”[2]

Interestingly, this same word is used in Scripture to describe people:

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

1 Timothy 3.11

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

2 Timothy 3.1-5

Depending on translation, this Greek word can be rendered as “slanderers” or “malicious gossips,” but the basic idea is clear enough: talking bad about people is diabolical. The Evil One is a slanderer. He is the Devil.

And here is the scary part: when we slander, when we talk badly or share untrue statements about people, we do not imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the Devil. Being people who consistently speak in God-honoring ways is a huge challenge for followers of Jesus, and Scripture is full of admonitions regarding how we use our tongues and words (Ephesians 4.15; Colossians 4.6; James 3.6). This does not mean that we can never say anything negative about another person, but I do think it means that we should refrain from saying things about people that we wouldn’t say to them, that we should make sure that what we say is true, and that we should make sure that what we say is said in love. 

The Satan

This one may be the hardest of all for us to see initially, because we are so used to thinking of Satan as a name. But it is actually a title. Ha satan (הַשָּׂטָן) literally means “the adversary” or “the accuser”. It can be used in a general sense:

And the LORD raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite.

(1 Kings 11.14a)

The Angel of Yahweh is referred to this way:

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary.

(Numbers 22.22a)

But when the term is used with the definite article (“the”) before it, it specifically refers to the rebellious spiritual being who has set himself in opposition to the will of God. This is how he is described at the beginning of the Book of Job, as he brings the case of Job before God and stands as an adversary against Job, accusing him of possessing a love for God that is shallow and deficient. We see a similar characterization in the Book of Revelation, where the evil creature variously described as the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil and Satan hurls accusations against God’s people day and night (Revelation 12.9-10). The Evil One is an adversary of God’s people, who lobs accusations against them.

And here is the scary part: when we oppose and accuse God’s people, we are not imitating Christ, but rather, are actively imitating the Satan. This is challenging for me. There are a lot of believers who are different than I am in various ways. Some of these differences are significant, and at times it is tempting for me to magnify the differences and question the hearts and motive of people with whom I disagree. But this is dangerous spiritual ground to occupy. I am sometimes humbled by the words of Jesus in Mark 9.40: “For the one who is not against us is for us.” I struggle at times to know how to apply these words, but I know that my perspective is often closer to that of the disciples than Jesus. And I know that I don’t want to be an accuser or adversary of God’s people. I don’t want to imitate the Satan.

Conclusion

This has not been an exhaustive post—there are other titles of the Evil One (like, for example, “Evil One”!) that we could look at, but I think the general point has been established. Rather than talking about an evil figure named Satan, Scripture uses lots of titles to describe this character. These descriptions let us know what he is like and what his motives are, and should also provide conviction for us that, if we are not careful, we can in a very real sense imitate the Father of Lies, the Devil, the Satan. For those of us who are instead called to be imitators of Christ, this obviously will not do.

Father of mercies,

Forgive us our sins and shortcomings.

May your Spirit,

Day by day,

Transform us into the image of your Son, Jesus Christ.

Amen.


[1] I don’t have issues with people using Satan as a name; I am just pointing out that this is not a name in Greek or Hebrew, and is not how biblical authors used it.

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slander

Self-Denial in a Self-Discovery World

One of the advantages of being a youth minister is that I have the opportunity to read and hear a lot of good teaching from a variety of different sources. Some of these are basically available to anyone (books, sermons, podcasts), while others I gain access to by traveling to different youth events and hearing gifted and thoughtful speakers.

A while back, I was blessed to listen to my friend Shannon Cooper, who made the point that we live in a society that is obsessed with self-discovery: for many, the central goal of life is to “find out who we are” so we can “be true to ourselves.” Self-help books constitute a lucrative industry. Discussions related to sexual and gender identity become issues of the utmost importance. We seek to define ourselves by our hobbies, or the music we listen to, or our peer groups.

There is a problem with this, though: self-discovery leaves us with no point of reference beyond ourselves. Fundamentally, it is limited, subjective, and, ultimately…selfish.

It is also not Christian. A more Christian way of thinking about identity is not based on self-discovery, but on self-denial and the imitation of Jesus.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

(Matthew 10.38-39)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

(Matthew 16.24)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 11.1)

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

As Christians, we cannot force our worldview on nonbelievers (nor should we try to), but we should certainly hold ourselves and one another to that worldview. And the way of Christ is not about finding purpose and meaning through discovering “who we really are,” which is another way of saying “doing what we want to do.” Rather, it is about denying the urge to do what we want to do and instead to prioritize what Jesus wants us to do in partnering in His work to reconcile the world to Himself. This is where purpose and meaning is found.

Unsettled (And Why That Is A Good Thing)

It has been just over three weeks ago that my family and I moved to begin a new youth ministry work at a different congregation in a new city. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming, and we are so excited to be where we are. We were in a great place before, working with a great church, but ultimately, we decided to move because we became convinced that it was God’s will that we do so, and that decision has been affirmed and reaffirmed in so many ways since our move.

Having said all that, it has been challenging as well. One question I keep getting over and over is, “How are you settling in?”, and the best answer is probably that I am still very much unsettled. I knew this before, but I have come to realize just how much I am a product of routine, and virtually all of those routines have been interrupted. The familiar faces have changed, I am not sure which keys unlock which doors, and I have swapped a host of activities and trips that I could plan and lead in my sleep for others I have not experienced before and know little about.

For a person who likes to be in control, it’s all a little unsettling.

I suspect that I am not alone in this—either my desire to be in control, or my feelings of discomfort when I realize that I am not.

But what a valuable reminder this season of life is providing me! God does not ask me to construct a façade of control around myself seeking to find comfort in routine. Rather, He asks that I give up the notion of control itself, and place my trust, and indeed, my life, in His capable hands.

The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps.
(Proverbs 16.9)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4.13-15)

It is unsettling…but I think the life that Jesus asks of His followers is supposed to be exactly that.

The Full Tomb

Christianity is, fundamentally, about an empty tomb. Following His crucifixion, Jesus was raised from the dead, and as I have written before, this changes everything. This is the central feature of the Christian faith, and the veracity of any of Christianity’s claims depend upon this, first. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then our faith is worthless.

Having said all of that, I think we are sometimes so quick to emphasize the empty tomb that we fail to truly appreciate that there was a time—even if it was a relatively brief time—when the tomb wasn’t empty. It was occupied. It contained the beaten, battered body of Jesus, and the shattered hopes and dreams of His followers.

We like to rush from the crucifixion to the resurrection, and I guess that makes sense, because the in-between time wasn’t easy. For those who had left all they had to follow Jesus, a Jesus in the tomb meant that they had backed the wrong horse; they had gambled everything and lost. The One who they thought was the long-awaited Messiah was just another in a long line of failures.

We live in an in-between time, too, and it isn’t easy, either.

The resurrection of Jesus is the first-fruits of our own, and points ahead to a time when sin, Satan, and death will be defeated, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes. But in the present, many of us mourn beside tombs that are as full as the tomb of Jesus was prior to His vacating it. Many of us stumble through our days, staggering under the weight of shattered hopes and dreams.

Just as Sunday came for the disciples of Jesus, and Jesus Himself was vindicated as the risen Savior when it did, so, we, too, await the coming of a Someday when our faith will become sight, and all of God’s faithful will rise as Jesus did.

But until then, it is worth reflecting on the fact that there are many full tombs, that evil maintains a foothold in our world, and that we weep with those who weep.

Resurrection is coming, but you have to wade through the in-between time first.

Book Review: “Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery”

I recently finished reading Amazing GraceEric Metaxas’s biography of William Wilberforce and his work to end the slave trade. A former New York Times bestseller, this was a book that I had looked forward to reading for quite a while because I enjoyed the Amazing Grace film so much when I watched it a decade ago or so. Unfortunately, this joins a very short list of books that I find to be inferior to films based upon them (The Last of the Mohicans is probably the best example of this).

There were a few things about the book that bothered me:

  • I found much of Metaxas’s prose to be cumbersome. He tends to use flowery language and also makes random asides that seemed out of place in a biography, and cluttered up his paragraphs.
  • Amazing Grace read less like a biography, and more like a hagiography, where Metaxas’s obvious admiration for Wilberforce led him to be less than objective in his evaluation of him (and also resulted in some of the flowery language that I complained about above).
  • Metaxas, who is a politically conservative evangelical, has been criticized for idealizing the characters about whom he writes and making them look very much like himself theologically and politically. This criticism was especially strong after his biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I felt that I could catch glimpses of this in his discussion of Wilberforce’s faith, and especially in Metaxas’s caricatured portrayal of the religious faith of Wilberforce’s day. Though to be fair, having been exposed to this particular criticism of Metaxas’s writing, I was probably looking for it.

Having said that, there are some really good things about this book, and the primary one is that it helps to make accessible the life story of a remarkable man who, driven by his devout faith, worked to bring about profound changes in British society that rippled across the world. Wilberforce is famous for his fight against the slave trade, but was also very involved in the quest to reform British society and to improve British policy in India.

I’ll close by sharing some of my favorite quotations from the book, with brief commentary. In trying to explain that the legacy of Wilberforce is greater than the simple abolition of the slave trade, Metaxas writes:

To fathom the magnitude of what Wilberforce did we have to see that the “disease” he vanquished forever was actually neither the slave trade nor slavery. Slavery still exists in the world today, in such measure as we can hardly fathom. What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery, something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world. Included in the old way of seeing things was the idea that the evil of slavery was good. Wilberforce murdered that old way of seeing things, and so the idea that slavery was good died along with it. Even though slavery continues to exist here and there, the idea that it is good is dead. The idea that it is inextricably intertwined with human civilization, and part of the way things are supposed to be, and economically necessary and morally defensible, is gone. Because the entire mind-set that supported it is gone.

(Amazing Grace, xv)

Wilberforce grew up religious but basically fell away in his late teens and early twenties before experiencing a significant revival and deepening of his faith. When that took place, he was tempted to back away from politics (he was already a member of Parliament at the time), because he thought it to be an improper place for a person of strong religious conviction. His good friend William Pitt, the Prime Minister, did not want to see his friend check out of politics, and suggested that his newfound faith could find much to do in the world of politics:

Surely the principles as well as the practice of Christianity are simple, and lead not to meditation only but to action.

(Amazing Grace, 58)

Ultimately, this advice would prove influential for Wilberforce, who remained in politics and used his platform and influence to do kingdom work and bring about a profound change in the lives of millions.

Part of Wilberforce’s work in his opposition to slavery was educating the British population of the horrors that slaves faced, about which many were genuinely and totally ignorant (slave traders commonly argued that slaves were happy or at least better off in captivity, and many people naively believed it). Wilberforce investigated the living conditions of slaves and knew better, and widely disseminated the information. In a parliamentary debate, Wilberforce explained his motivation for seeking abolition:

…When we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is here in this life which should make any man contradict the principles of his own conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this Trade are now laid open to us. We can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it.

(Amazing Grace, 136)

Metaxas portrays the Britain of Wilberforce’s early years as one which claimed to a form of Christian civil religion, but that it was a watered-down faith that brought little to no leavening influence on the nation as a whole. Wilberforce, who spent a long career as a respected and powerful MP who was famous for his faith and his political stances based upon his faith, was instrumental in changing the religious environment of his day:

When Wilberforce entered Paliament, there were only three MPs who would have identified themselves as seriously Christian, but half a century later there were closer to two hundred. Politics had come to be thought of as a noble calling. There would always be self-seekers—and few individuals could be entirely free of selfish motivation—but the idea that politicians should be free of that motivation and work for the good of society was something new, and Wilberforce’s influence in introducing it is hard to avoid.

(Amazing Grace, 234)

If you are a believer, William Wilberforce—a man of devout faith whose faith and love of neighbor prompted him to act in unpopular ways for the good of others—is a man you need to know well. Amazing Grace is a book with some flaws, but it does a great job of helping the reader to do that—getting to know a man who spent his life working to make God’s kingdom come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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