Sunday, September 21, 2008

Stumbling in the light

This morning I was feeling a little bit spiritually isolated, having recently tripped over a common stumbling block in my life. In spite of this initially muted state of mind, the service really hit home for me today. Coincidence? Maybe not. The sermon was given by my favourite English pastor, Quang Nguyen, who was speaking on Dealing with the Demonic.

The passage he was speaking on was Mark 5:1-20, where Jesus drives a legion of demons out of a man into a flock of pigs. He opened with a discussion of how these days, many people reject the idea of Satan (even some professed Christian groups). These people view Satan in the Bible as a representation of mankind's sinful nature and that believing in Satan as a living entity is grounds for absolving ourselves of blame for our wrongdoings.

Yet the demons in this story are not just an analogy for sinful nature. They had a genuine manifestation. Quang cited C.S. Lewis as describing the two most dangerous views about the demonic:
  1. That demonic powers do not exist at all (the materialist)
  2. That demonic powers do exist, and are responsible for everything (the magician)
Indeed, we must guard ourselves from seeing "demons around every corner" so to speak. But I have heard too many stories of spiritual attack from people in whom I trust to disbelieve its authenticity (usually occurring on the front lines of evangelical mission-work).

While most people have not experienced demon possession, Quang went on to outline five ways other ways that Satan attacks:
  1. Temptation
  2. Deception / Lies
  3. Accusation
  4. Disunity / Argument
  5. Physical Suffering
After the first four, I was a little bit worried that Quang was going the route that he had described in the beginning (attributing Satan solely towards attitudes and temptation), but was somewhat relieved that he did at least briefly acknowledge that such influences can at times have physical manifestations.

However, physical suffering was not the topic that I was most interested in. It was the first three attacks that really found a foothold in my heart this morning. They essentially represent a twofold attack. First, Satan tempts and deceives us. He gradually goads us into doing what we know is wrong through soothing temptation: "Who's going to know?" "You deserve this." "It's okay, everybody does it." Once we fall for the temptation, then the strategy is reversed as Satan turns to accusation: "How could you sin again?" "God doesn't care about you, you're already too far gone!" Indeed, this is a precise series of events that plays out in my life time and time again, and the very state of mind that I had walked through the doors this morning with was very similar.

Guilt of this kind is something that I have at many times in my life struggled with: the desire to live a righteous life contrasted with continual failure. Yet it is this continual failure that fuels our need for salvation, and demonstrates God's great love for us in his forgiveness. One time, at least a year ago, when I was struggling with this very problem, my brother offered a wise perspective: A relationship like God is like a relationship with a spouse. You may do something wrong, and hurt your spouse once in awhile... but your spouse does not hate you or forsake you because the general character of your relationship is one of love. In the way that marriage is more than just counting the strikes against your spouse, God's love is not invalidated by our stumbles even after we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.

Quang offered this caveat, however: "Divine sovereignty does not negate human responsibility." Just because Satan exists and tempts us does not mean we are not responsible for our actions. Indeed, we need to actively struggle. While Satan certainly has sway in this world, we have been provided with prayer as a means of combatting temptation and Satan's influence. Oftentimes, this is likely where my stumbles begin: while I recognize the error in my actions as I am pushed towards temptation, I fail to call out to God for help, and on my own, I am overcome.

The sermon's conclusion expressed two different ways we can respond to God's power over Satan: We can recognize his power and reject it out of fear, or we can accept it and be transformed. Indeed, for salvation in Christ, more is needed than merely faith that Christ (for, as the Bible states, even demons have faith in the existence of Christ) but also and acceptance of his gift of forgiveness and acceptance of his Lordship.

At the very end, Quang asked the congregation to keep our pastors in our prayers. He described how pastors often face the brunt of spiritual attack, not because they are more important than other Christians, but because they provide the most visible face of the Church. When Satan causes pastors and leaders to stumble, then the outside perception of the Church is damaged leaving others with sentiments like, "Told you so - they're all hypocrites." He provided an amusing illustration, which I have more or less duplicated below:

A pastor, on their own (top), may be able to defend against some spiritual attacks, and yet may be easily taken unawares and blindsided. Two people together (middle) praying for a pastor, may exert yet further spiritual support. But if an entire congregation (bottom) were to pray sincerely, then a leader should be well protected against attack.

At the end of the service, the worship band played the response song Jesus Paid It All. At this point, I felt pretty moved, and I had this awkward feeling of tears at the back of my eyes (which I held back, of course). But I was really touched by the words in the song of the Saviour speaking (to you, me, to his people): "Thy strength is indeed small," and the crimson stain of sin being washed white again.

Elvina M. Hall, 1865

I hear the Savior say,
“Thy strength indeed is small;
Child of weakness, watch and pray,
Find in Me thine all in all.”

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim,
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calv’ry’s Lamb.

And now complete in Him
My robe His righteousness,
Close sheltered ’neath His side,
I am divinely blest.

Lord, now indeed I find
Thy power and Thine alone,
Can change the leper’s spots
And melt the heart of stone.

When from my dying bed
My ransomed soul shall rise,
“Jesus died my soul to save,”
Shall rend the vaulted skies.

And when before the throne
I stand in Him complete,
I’ll lay my trophies down
All down at Jesus’ feet.

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