Mar 30, 2023

Victor or Victim?

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by Jay Ferguson

I’m sitting in my office with a heavy heart tonight, grieving the loss of three students and three adults shot to death at Covenant School, a private Christian school in Nashville. All such events weigh heavily on me as a school administrator, feeling the weight of the lives of so many. Yet, this one feels closer to home than others. It serves as a painful reminder of how much sin still lives in and among us, and how desperate we are for the only one who can give us what we need to defeat that sin and make things right.

Hamartiology is a ten-dollar seminary word for the study of sin: its origin, nature, and impact. I’m reading a very accessible treatment of the whole topic of sin by John Mark Comer called Live No Lies. Comer observes that the source of all sin are lies, an offense to the truth. And, Jesus tells us that the father of lies is Satan, the devil.  In John 8, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “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.”

 The devil is the originator of all lies. Truth is God, His very nature, ultimate reality. The devil stands against the truth, against reality. Therefore, a lie is anything that is not real. The devil convinces our first father and mother that a lie was true: that God really did not have their best interests at heart, and that he couldn’t be trusted. Listening to and acting on that lie, they disobeyed God, crossing the one boundary God set in place for them, for their security and well-being.

That disobedience, that sin, had catastrophic results. It fractured their relationship with God forever, creating separation and death where once there was intimacy and life. It fractured their relationships with each other, causing manipulation and abuse, disunity and strife. The disobedience of God’s stewards over creation was so cataclysmic that it broke the created order, leading to disease and natural disaster, possibly even from a system where all living things were in harmony and balance to survival of the fittest. And, sin destroyed human’s understanding and relationship with themselves. They became self-focused, rather than God-focused. They weren’t designed that way, so all sorts of havoc erupted, from anxiety to depression to selfishness to idolatry to narcissism and everything in between.

Through this destruction, the father of lies became ruler of the world. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by the devil, who offered him the kingdoms of the world, Jesus didn’t challenge that they weren’t his to give. They belonged to him, through the brokenness and rebellion of human beings, misled by the father of lies. And, so the devil’s lies infect all humanity. Our inward beings are broken and distorted. Even as redeemed followers of Jesus, we battle and war with our inner selves, because although we’ve been born again, as long as we inhabit these corrupted bodies, we’ll still struggle with that nature. The Bible calls this “the flesh.”   And, as corrupted, fleshly human beings act together and do what God made them to do, create culture, but do so in broken, distorted ways, they create culture and systems that are sinful, broken, and distorted, that themselves are subject to the devil’s lies. These culture and systems cause us to manipulate each other, to gain power and use it to abuse, rather than to promote flourishing, to create dissension and taking, and to feed the lusts of the flesh. The Bible calls this earthly system, living in rebellion against God and in submission to the father of lies, “the world.”

The devil, the flesh, and the world are our enemies, not individuals. And, terrible things like what happened this week occur because all three of these insidious enemies work together to wreak havoc on our souls.  Although I’m using some imagination now, it’s not difficult to see how this happens. The devil lies to a girl about herself, about her identity. In her flesh, she believes the lie, and begins to live as if it is true. The sinful world around her reinforces the lie, normalizes the identity she is lying to herself about, convinces her that the lie is true, and that she should be living the lie, that doing so is being true to herself, and finding her own truth, which will make her happy. But, it doesn’t make her happy, because she is actually living a lie. It makes her angry and discordant, instead.

The devil then tells her that those who have suppressed that truth (lie) within her for so long are her enemies, actually meant her harm, and are part or all of the source of her unhappiness. It is they that deserve her wrath. The selfish flesh within her feeds on that lie, and becomes embitterment and anger, convincing her that the only way to be free is to release her anger by taking her vengeance. The world reinforces that message by telling her that Christians are narrow-minded bigots who are dangerous and represent a threat to culture. And, so, she begins her plan, possibly actually convincing herself she is doing a good thing, a service.

I may be off on this, but I’m probably not far off, and it’s not because I’m some kind of FBI criminal profiler. It’s because I’m human, and if we’re all honest, we’ve seen our three enemies operating on our own hearts and minds regularly. We’ve hopefully never thought of going to these extremes, but if we pause and think for a minute, the devil, our flesh, and the world have taken us to some pretty dark places.

And, if we feel angry and sad about this, even to the edge of despair, we should. Because all of this is tragically, obscenely wrong. It’s not the way it was intended to be, not the way it should be.  “Where is God in all this, we might ask?”  “Why has He not spoken?”

He has, and His answer is the Cross.

The Cross doesn’t rob the devil of his power to lie; but, for us, it robs his lies of their ultimate power. He seeks to kill and destroy, and while he may even get to our already-dying flesh, he can no longer really have us. The Cross doesn’t burn the sin out of the flesh, but it eradicates the flesh’s power to take our life from us, and gives us a way to put it to death. Finally, the Cross doesn’t immediately transform the world, but it does cut off its head and begins to rearrange the house while the world as it is now lays writhing on the floor.

The Cross also serves as a painful but healing reminder, a memory of the sin that lurks so readily inside all of us, those “civilized” sins that, unchecked, lead to terrible things. Morton Kelsey reminds us that Pilate didn’t want to condemn his prisoner; he was simply a coward. He was more concerned with maintaining his comfortable position than ensuring justice was served. Caiaphas was a very respected, religious leader among a very religious people. And yet, he was too rigid, believing that he had the whole truth and that his need to protect God was greater than mercy and kindness. Judas wanted and expected certain things from his rabbi, and when those expectations weren’t met, he either rejected him or went to extremes to provoke and manipulate the response he’d hoped for. Finally, the cross maker was simply doing his job, earning a living and supporting his family. If other people used his work for evil purposes, could he really be blamed?

Civilized sin- cowardice, rigidity, impatience, and indifference–those everyday sins in you and me, are the ones that crucified Jesus. And the devil, the flesh, and the world conspire against us every day, just like these guys. Just like that woman this past week in Nashville.

But, the victory of the Cross, the power that raised Jesus from the dead and dealt the devil the death blow that he’s bleeding out from now, is yours. You have to avail yourself of it, though, picking it up daily. No one will do it for you. Steeping yourself in God’s Word, letting its truth soak into you until you become a person of truth who can turn back lies. Shutting out the noise and distractions, the devil’s greatest tools, and letting silence and solitude with God align you to His Spirit so you can hear His voice. And, fasting from those things that tie you to the world too tightly from time to time, so that your flesh and the world lose their hold on you.

These are the same means of grace Jesus used to defeat the devil, to resist his schemes and conquer him. Victor or victim? The choice is yours.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, Elder of Grace Community Church writes regularly on his blog,