Once a year we deliver a course in a weekend retreat format called Encounter God. My job in that course is to
teach the first three units. The first one sets up the weekend and teaches a very basic truth: life is a battle.
I know this is not news, but my perception is that most of us forget that we are in a fight, and on the flip side, those who focus on being in a fight tend to project what looks like anger at people who are not like them. I think most of us are on the journey to learn to identify and fight the right enemy.
The battle we are in is against evil, not against other people. I agree with N.T. Wright when he said “The big question of our time, I have argued, can be understood in terms of how we address and live with the fact of evil in our world.”
Wright believes we are facing a “new problem of evil” which is characterized by three things: “First, we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face. Second, we are surprised by evil when it does. Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.”
Most of us like to see ourselves and others as basically good, and we react in horror when it becomes apparent that “they” are capable of evil. We want to pretend that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, and that its possible to divide the world like that.
The problem we have is that while we are usually pretty good at feeling guilty about our past mistakes, we don’t quickly acknowledge the life and death struggle that each one of us faces every moment of every day. The Christian faith is the only one that gives language to describe the reality that all of us know, but most of us avoid acknowledging.
At the heart of the Christian story is the acknowledgement of a double sided reality of what it means to be a person. On one side, each one of us is made in the image, in the very likeness of God (Genesis 1:26) and that part of us is beautiful and good. On the other side, however, there is part of us that is self interested and broken. We don’t do the good we want to do, no the evil we don’t want to do, that is what we keep on doing. (Romans 7:19).
The battle that each one of us face is very real, but the battleground is not ‘out there’, it is in the very fabric of who we are as people.
Knowing this truth though, doesn’t free you from the reality of it. While Christians might have good theology, their theology doesn’t make them good people. As Tim Keller writes:
The doctrine of sin means that as believers we are never as good as our right worldview should make us. At the same time, the doctrine of our creation in the image of God, and an understanding of common grace, remind us that nonbelievers are never as flawed as their false worldview should make them.
The double sided reality of Creation and the fall means that there are some Christians who are small minded, self-centred bigots and there are people of other faiths, and also of no faith, who are large hearted, wise and loving. Just because you might have the right idea of reality, doesn’t make you right.
I understand that many Christians have backed of talking much about sin because past generations have used the language of sin as emotional leverage to produce guilt in overly simplistic presentations of the gospel. When the real gospel is preached the outcome should be freedom and not guilt.
I think, however, that in avoiding teaching about sin, we have blinded ourselves to the reality of our own lives. Engagement with the topic of sin should actually be a relief as we begin to see the true battle we are in.
The bible teaches that there are three forces out to get us: the world, the flesh and the devil.
The truth is though that it is the part of us the bible calls “the flesh,” the self centred part of us motivated by maximizing pleasure and minimizing discomfort, that is our point of greatest vulnerability.
Satan doesn’t have any real power, except the power we give him. James 4:7 says “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” And while Satan might be the prince of this world (John 14:30), the world can only tempt us based on our desires for pleasure or comfort.
Satan and the world make false promises, but it is only as we buy into the reality of those promises that they become a problem for us.
Each one of us believes lies about ourselves, about others and about the world, but we have lost sight of the fact that they are lies and they form the broken foundation of our character. N.T Wright says:
“it is possible for humans to be taken over by evil, to believe a lie and then to live by it, to forget that it is a lie and to make it the foundation of one’s being.”
The truth is that the process of becoming free is just that: a process. Becoming free requires me to continually relinquish my distorted way of seeing the world and face the brokenness at the centre of who I am. This process is not automatic, and there are plenty of people who might have the right theology but spend a lifetime avoiding the pain of giving up their coping mechanisms. As Galatians 6:8 says:
Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
All of us know that we simply don’t have what it takes. We know we are self centred, we know we avoid pain and reach towards inappropriate pleasure, but the fact that we know that indicates that there is more to the story.
We also know there is part of us that is bigger than all of that and wants to be free. It is that part of us that knows the truth that “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1) The gospel is good news because it promises freedom from the lies that keep us in locked in a small, self centred and broken world, but it is a freedom that requires a choice:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love
(Galatians 5:13 NIV)
Tonight I will be talking about the reality of this battle. The reality of the forces that want to hold us back from being free. But I will also be talking about the fact that freedom is possible and fully available now, it is a freedom that we will only gradually apprehend as we step out on this complex journey of life.