Tagged: Spiritual Warfare

You Can’t Have Two Altars in Your Heart

The book of Judges is an account of one of the darkest periods in the history of God’s people. Armed with His promises but weak in faith, the first generation to enter the Promised Land convinced themselves it was too hard to drive out the Canaanites. Defeat became a way of life. Settling down to live with the enemy, God’s people continued to speak His name, but they forgot who He is and what He had called them to do. The God of Abraham and Moses was reduced to a place of mere recognition among the gods in this world. Exclusive devotion to God disappeared.

But the God of grace and mercy did not forget His people. Keeping His promises to their forefathers, He pursued a very lost generation. Sending years of pressure into their lives, the Father waited on His people to cry out to Him… to genuinely turn away from all of the gods of Canaan, and to return to Him with all their heart. Hearing their cries, the Father would then send a deliverer – called a “judge” — to go against and remove the disciplinary oppression of God’s people. This cycle of forgetting God when at peace and remembering God when under distress is repeated by the people until it seems darkness has triumphed. However, by the end of the book, God’s people have stopped crying out. There is no happy ending… Judges is not a “feel good” story about the natural condition of the human heart.

During one of the cycles, the Midianites were invading the land during the annual harvest. As soon as the Israelite crops were ready to be brought in, the parasitic oppressors would arrive, driving God’s people into the hills, and destroying everything Israel had earned in that year. This went on for seven seasons. Then the Bible reports: “And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD.” (6:6)

And He heard their cry.

A young man named Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press. Hiding his meager efforts to keep some of the harvest for his family, Gideon was not on a mission to oppose the enemies of God’s people. He was just trying to get ahead. He was a product of his age. A farmer. A survivor. An idolater.

To get ahead in Gideon’s day meant doing business with the local gods. Asserting that they controlled the weather and the harvest, Canaanite deities had to be appeased if you were going to be successful. If you wanted to trade with Canaanites and marry their daughters, you had to show some respect for their beliefs and values. So you kept your identity as a devotee of Yahweh, but you engaged other gods too, unconsciously embracing a Canaanite worldview.

Years later the Psalmist described the creeping syncretism that was blinding the people of God…

They did not destroy the peoples, as the LORD commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.” Psalms 106:34-38

The altars of Canaan were used for child sacrifice and sexual perversion on a massive scale. The people of God had become Canaanized in every aspect of their lives. In the sight of God it was sin (3:7, 12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, 13:1). In their minds, it was the right and sensible way to live (17:6, 21:25).

In order to go on God’s mission, Gideon first needed to know God. God cannot be just another “priority” in a busy life. God does not hang around just to bail us out of our latest predicament. God does not exist for us.

We exist for Him.

He will never be satisfied with the tiny spaces given him by His people (then or now)… to exist as one god among the “gods” in our cultural pantheon. I can’t give him a few minutes of reflection on Sunday, and then live as if He doesn’t exist the rest of the week, sacrificing my life on a dozen other altars in my heart, and doing what everyone else does (unthinkingly) to be happy and get ahead. He will not accept anything less than all of my devotion. Jesus said it this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

As Gideon begins to understand this truth, he builds a personal altar to Yahweh. But it’s not enough. He has other idols roaming around in his life. Listen…

Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD and called it, The LORD Is Peace… That night the LORD said to him, “…pull down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it and build an altar to the LORD your GodJudges 6:24-26

There can only be one altar in my heart… not two. If Gideon… or anyone… begins to draw near Him, the other gods of the heart must be decisively evicted. Why? If He is who He says He is… the one true God and Creator and Sovereign Lord of all creation (including me)… then He alone can be trusted to tell me the truth about my life.

All the other “gods” are nothing more than powerless pretenders and silver-tongued liars to the human race. Fake gods are not worthy of my faith. All they can do is promote a self-actualized distortion of my humanity, pushing an illusion of happiness to dispel the deep foreboding undertow of hopelessness… calming me with a few fairy tales on the road to hell.

Yes, every other altar must be torn down until only one remains.

His.

Sacred Space

I walked into the drafty motel room on a cold Saturday afternoon, pushing the door closed with my foot and setting my bags down on the thin, worn carpet. Surveying the room in the dim light, there were two double beds with a nightstand, a small round table and chair, and a long bureau with a TV sitting on top. Nothing unusual, but a little more drab than usual… think early sixties “Bates Motel” decor and you’ll have the picture. Traveling over 40,000 miles a year in Arkansas, I spend several nights each month on the road. The year is 2006.

We serve church leaders and pastors. The Arkansas Baptist State Convention is composed of dozens of men and women who are truly passionate about helping churches fulfill their mission to spread the powerful, life-changing truth about Jesus. Based in Little Rock, we go in-person to train, speak, and encourage Christians in over 1,500 churches. We do it out of a sense of divine calling.

But we still get tempted to do things we shouldn’t. I do, anyway.

It was in that particular motel that God spoke to me about the temptation to watch things on television where no one else could see what I might be doing… except Him. As I stood there looking at the room, He brought to mind how many times I had been tempted before. How I would often call my wife as an escape, exposing the temptation by telling her about it. It worked. By uncovering instead of hiding a temptation, I found that I didn’t “want to” anymore (Ephesians 5:11, 1 Peter 5:9, James 4:7). The “attraction” and “pull” of the sin dissipated and became more manageable. Jesus did that when He was tempted (Matthew 4:3-4). He became adversarial and so should I. But this moment was different.

You don’t know what has gone on here in the past, but I do. And they haven’t left.” The thoughts that formed in my mind were His thoughts. He was showing me something I needed to understand. God speaks in many different ways in the Bible, and He does speak and He speaks clearly still, whether…

  • through prayer (an ongoing inner conversation between Him and me),
  • through the Scriptures (an awareness that the text I am reading is something He is speaking to me),
  • through the church (those moments when through a believing friend, a pastor’s sermon, or a small group discussion I realize He is speaking), or
  • through circumstances (reaching a conclusion that God is guiding through my experiences).

Frozen in place, standing in the middle of that motel room, I began to understand that I had been experiencing a pattern of temptation that was more intense in some places than in others. Hundreds of people had stayed in that room before me. Hundreds of nights. Hundreds of temptations. It was a place where a husband had cheated on his wife; where a woman had degraded herself; where a young man had tried to drown his troubles in alcohol or drugs; and where a child had been abused. I don’t know the details. I do know that in some hotels, I experienced much more temptation than in others. It was happening there.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am culpable for my response to temptation. In fact, I cannot be tempted unless some part of me “wants” to do it. James writes, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (James 1:14). Nevertheless, there is an ancient, intelligent, and unseen personality at work behind many of our temptations: Jesus teaches us to pray against the temptation offered by the “evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Sometimes demons take up residence in people. They can also hang out in hotel rooms.

Interestingly, when Jesus cast the demons out of the Gadarene man, the evil ones “begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country” (Mark 5:10). They liked that place. They wanted to stay in that geographical region. And for whatever reason, they were attached to that motel room I was in, exacerbating the away-from-home temptations of every man and woman who stayed there, night after night, and year after year.

In Ephesians 4:26-27, Paul writes “Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil.” The Greek word simply translated “place” can refer to someone’s territory or a dwelling, but in some contexts it can also describe a sanctuary or a holy place. Paul is teaching that strong, out-of-control emotions (like anger) can create a point-of-entry for the devil into a person’s life. If I fail to process my emotions and hurts before the Lord, letting Him into my hurts, and exercising forgiveness, then I am allowing myself to be unduly and persistently influenced by a demon… seriously. To give in to sin is an invitation to the enemy to come and “camp out” in my life. I knew this, standing there in the middle of that motel room.

So, I didn’t call my wife that night. I called on Him. I prayed, “Lord, I don’t know what’s gone on in this place before I got here. But I do know I am being tempted to use this place as a hideout for my own sin… and I don’t want that. So Lord, I want this to be holy ground. I want to be alone here with You. I want this room to be a place where–at any time–You can speak to me without interference from the enemy. Just You and me, and nobody else.”

And everything changed. The demons had a bad night. I had time alone with Him. The dreary room had become a sacred space… and so did my heart.

[Author’s Note: This post was originally published January 19, 2013 at DonPucik.com and later migrated to EquippingSaints.com]

The Theology of Yard Work

Genesis 1:28 Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Today is Saturday… the day I love to hate when the weather is warm and the sun is shining… and the grass is growing. Yard work is not my thing. It has become something I work at really hard, but it is a supernatural thing… not an act of the flesh.

The struggle reaches back to a childhood. I mowed, did the hedges, edged the lawn, and bagged the cuttings — only to watch it all come back next week (we lived in the South where everything grows with gusto). My attitude did not improve for many years. Well into adulthood, I found myself dreading the day when the yard would have to be tended to… again.

I hated yard work.

I grew conflicted, then convicted, when I realized that my Father cares about the way I care for my yard. It is a theological statement about what I really believe happened at creation and where I think He is taking the world in the future. The world was a place being threatened by chaos and by the enemy of our souls. He creates man and woman then tells them (in the Hebrew verse) to subdue the earth — to subjugate the earth, placing it under their directive influence. An Aramaic form of the word contains the idea of beating down a path — a place where you can walk at will in an environment under your control.

The world now is a very dark reflection of the Creator’s intent. Marred by sin and Satan’s dominance over the ages, mankind gave up his assignment in the Garden, yielding rule of the earth to the one Jesus called, the “ruler of this world.” Now we have man-eating creatures, blood-thirsty cycles of life, and killer forces of nature. It’s not okay. It is a world running amok.

Like my yard.

Jesus restores things. He puts people back into the physical and emotional state that the Creator intended. He un-does the work of the enemy. Ultimately, the earth itself will be restored to a new form, alive again with vibrant colors, arresting smells, and luscious tastes of the Garden. He calls His people to a ministry of restoration. He announces that God reigns and the kingdom of God is pressing into this world once again. But He does more than just talk, He also demonstrates the reign of God over and over and over again.

So shouldn’t my work reflect His work? Shouldn’t my yard reflect something of His creative intent? Shouldn’t my yard point to a future when He will restore the earth to a state of unutterable beauty?

Gotta run. Time to get into the yard… again.

Living in Enemy Territory: Reflections on the Tragedy at Virginia Tech

Originally Published by Baptist Press on April 18, 2007

It has happened once again. Evil has surfaced unmistakably in a form everyone can see. The world will struggle with this for days to come, asking “why would a good and loving God allow such evil to happen?” Meanwhile the parents and friends will weep, struggling with their own questions drawn from a darkened, bottomless well of unspeakable pain and disorientation.

For believers it is a harsh reminder that the world we live in is at war. Evil is not simply an idea or an act. Evil is fueled by an individual consciousness nearly as old as creation itself. The early Christians never asked “why did God allow…?” They knew better.

The world we see is profoundly affected by a world we cannot see.

    • And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Ephesians 2:1-2
    • Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:11-12
    • For we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, more than once—and yet Satan hindered us. 1 Thessalonians 2:18
    • Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. James 4:7
    • Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8

We tend to see everything bad that happens in terms of something God allows or disallows. Yet, we also fiercely (and correctly) hold on to the idea of personal choice. We choose–which makes us responsible for our actions. We can be influenced by evil, but we are ultimately responsible for the evil we choose to do.

Angels make choices too, just like us. Millennia ago, the Bible explains that some of God’s creatures rebelled. The angels sinned. Man sinned. The world as God intended devolved into moral and spiritual chaos.

Jesus came to rescue us from the enemies of our soul, both in this world and the world we cannot see.

It is true that God is sovereign. He is the Lord of Lords. He is the King. Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God (Matthew 4:17). He taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would break through into this world, demonstrating that He is the King (Luke 11:2). He “bound the strong man” and demonstrated God’s reign by restoring creation and creatures to a condition reflective of God’s rule (Matthew 12:28-30), then expects you and me to “gather with Him” — doing the same kind of ministry today.

Jesus calls the devil the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). The devil tempts Jesus by offering Him the very kingdoms under his control in exchange for worship (Luke 4:5-7): if the devil does not control the kingdoms of the world, how could Jesus be tempted? He was tempted only if it was legitimate offer by the ruler of this world.

Jesus calls Satan a liar and a murderer (John 8:44), who steals truth from the hearts of people who do not know God (Matthew 13:19), keeping them blind to the reality of a living God (2 Corinthians 4:4). He animates evil in the world, influencing and empowering those who do not know God to reject God and do everything that is offensive to God (1 John 5:19).

In the face of clear, biblical teaching, the church too often slumbers on, fumbling around trying to answers questions about “why did God allow this to happen?” rather than running to the secret place, combating the mortal enemy of the souls of mankind. We are called to do battle.

When we are responsive to Jesus and doing life under His directional control, Jesus said the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the forward movement of the church (Matthew 16:18). Far from being on the defensive, the church Jesus builds goes on the offense against an unseen army of evil at work in this world.

C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is.

Do you realize where you are living today? The horrific acts of violence at Virginia Tech are a reminder that there is no place where you and I can sit down, relax, and forget about the imminent threat of evil. You and I are doing life in the middle of a battlefield that is raging… all around us… every day… right now.