When the Devil Seems to Win


A little country church tucked just off Main Street, Trinity Fellowship had served the community for years and did it well. They had experienced growth over the last year—eight new families—but they had also experienced something less encouraging.

Rebecca Simms worried that her youngest daughter would end up in jail. She did.

Mike Travers heard about the layoffs a month ago. The pink slip came yesterday, his third in three years.

Emma Andersen, two semesters away from graduating from college (the first in her family), got that fated letter saying her full-ride scholarship money had dried up due to tough economic times.

Bryan and Lydia Preston found out two weeks ago they were expecting their first child. This morning, they learned something was wrong with the baby.

Between the six people on the leadership team at Trinity, they suffered a miscarriage, cancer, a bankruptcy, the suicide of a child, crippling depression, and an affair that led to divorce. Three are no longer in ministry and may never return.

Last Sunday, Daryl Wells, the worship leader, led a song that contained a lyric out of Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against you shall prevail.” More than one person singing that morning wondered if the words were true.

Sometimes, the Devil seems to win.

Trinity Fellowship and the people who comprise it are the product of this writer’s imagination. But they might as well be real, because their stories are. Every Sunday in America, someone, somewhere, is sitting in church wondering how it all went wrong. For some, it’s a question asked many times.

It’s not enough to say we live in a fallen world. That brings no comfort at all. Nor does it make sense of the mountain of Scriptures that say that God rescues His people from calamity. Let’s be honest here: More than once, you’ve wondered why the Scriptures don’t line up with your experience of life.

I’m not wise. I make a lot of mistakes wise people wouldn’t make. But several decades of observation take me back to the same answer for this issue.

The Devil seems to win for one major reason: We don’t pray.

I think we’ve all learned that when someone says he will pray for us, he probably won’t. It’s not a malicious promise, though. The intent is there, but we all know how life intrudes and the best of intentions remains nothing but intentions. Angelic warfareIt seems to be the human condition.

Succumbing to the human condition is not what the Church is supposed to be about, though. Our God is not a god of settling.

I used to think that my condition was largely due to my own prayers—or the lack of them. I don’t believe that anymore.

Sure, what we pray for ourselves matters. But God means the Church to be a Body, a collective, a community that lives and dies by what the whole does. If I’m not praying for you and you’re not praying for me, then the Devil wins.

Several years ago, I attended a Christian Camping International conference, with Leighton Ford as the keynote speaker. He told us about a flight where he sat next to a man who prayed the entire flight. Ford assumed the man feared flying, so he broke in at one point to offer some comfort. Only then did he notice the sheet of paper the man clutched. On it were the names of many prominent Christian leaders. When Ford questioned him about this, the man confessed that he had been praying for the downfall of the people on the list.

Ford informed us that, with the passage of time, all but one of those leaders had seen their ministry—and their personal lives—destroyed.

I don’t think Evangelicals take the Devil seriously. We don’t see life as a battle. We blithely float here and there, mostly prayerlessly, and let the river carry us wherever it may. Then when we wash up on the rocks, we wonder what happened.

It’s not enough that we pray for ourselves. We need others to watch our backs for us, because many times we are too close to our own lives to see where we may be exposed to enemy fire.

People in ministry positions are the prime targets of the Enemy. Take down a pastor and an entire church can go down with him. I recently heard that a thriving, well-known church my wife and I visited a few years back blew up entirely after the pastor screwed up. And don’t think that doesn’t wreck a lot of bystanders, because it does. Maybe not at first, but that kind of disaster eats at people’s spiritual guts, fosters corrosive cynicism, and does enormous damage.

Really, how hard is it to pray for others in our churches, especially for those in prominent roles? Isn’t it much harder to fix the craters and wounds from shrapnel when a life blows up due to the lack of a prayer covering?

Kind of a Pentecostal term there, prayer covering. Regardless of whether or not it’s Christianese, it’s reality. When bad things happen to people, be they lost or saved, the holes in their prayer covering—if they even have a prayer covering at all—may explain everything.

I’m to the point in my life where I honestly believe that almost all of the hardship we see in life is due to a lack of prayer. Those Scriptures that don’t align with life don’t because we’re just not taking prayer as seriously as the Scriptures do.

Resigned to a Powerless Christianity?


I talked with fellow believers a few days back after hearing a message about forgiveness. The topic is a standard in Christian circles, but the speaker was well known, so I thought we might hear something new.

The speaker talked about the power of forgiving another person and how freeing that is to the soul. No arguments from me.

But I think that people today don’t need to hear more messages about forgiving individuals. I think many of us realize that we are dust and so are the people who oppose us. How can we be mad at other people then?

When I look around America today, I don’t see people who are mad at individuals. I see people who are mad at systems.

A system is hard to define. It’s more than just a mass of people. It’s a way of doing things. It’s the collective processes that lead to a result, often which is unintended, which in turn causes anger. And sometimes those systems possess an almost palpable malevolence.

Americans today are mad about out-of-control health care systems. I know I certainly am. My health insurance company sent me a note a couple weeks ago saying they will be raising my premium 30 percent March 1. They raised it 30 percent back in September.

Yet to whom should I direct my anger for this? At motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets and don’t have insurance so that my rates go up to compensate their lack of payment to hospitals when they sustain a costly head injury? Or should I blame doctors who order round after round of tests just to ensure they account for that one percent chance at catching a rare disease and thus avoid the inevitable malpractice lawsuit? Should I blame Congress for not removing state-imposed protections for insurance companies, thus preserving high premiums due to a lack of open, national competition?

If I don’t know at whom I should be angry, how do I know to whom I should offer my forgiveness?

Aren’t we all more likely to feel anger at entrenched systems we seem to have no ability to change? Doesn’t that define the corporate anger Americans are feeling right now toward Wall Street, Capitol Hill, and the world at large?

I brought this up with these other Christians. I asked them how we can forgive systems. And if that’s what many people are angry at, why aren’t Christian leaders addressing that anger—and the subsequent means by which we can forgive nameless, faceless systems?

The answer, I was told, is found in the classic “Serenity Prayer” of President Obama’s favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

I want to focus primarily on the first section of that prayer.

My issue with American Christianity today is that you and I have somehow taken that idea of acceptance and “gigantified” the bucket containing “the things I cannot change.” In short, our “wisdom to know the difference” between the alterable and inalterable is hopelessly broken.

I’ve had some very sad conversations with young, 5-point Calvinists in the last few years. I’ve never met people so resigned to “fate.” Their concept of God’s sovereignty has gone so far off the deep end that they see no reason to ever wrestle in prayer for anything that seems unchangeable. In truth, they are nothing more than nihilists. I have no idea what they must think of Abraham’s pleading before God in Genesis 18 for the sake of Sodom. They resign themselves to think that God has set the top in motion and nothing can be done to alter its course. They are like the unbelieving leaders in John who asked,

“Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
—John 9:19b

How indeed.

But it’s not only the young Calvinists who seemed resigned that nothing can be done. It’s us other Christians too involved in our own lives to lift a finger to make a difference. Our inaction in the face of evil systems will cry out against us come Judgment Day because we loved our own lives too much to become martyrs for some “unchangeable” cause.

Folks, where is the Christian battle?

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
—Ephesians 6:12

Look, you and I can’t change our chronological age, our ancestry, the era into which we were born, and a few things like that.  But nearly everything else is up for grabs. Ours is not a calling to serenity but to go out there and fight systems, no matter how innocuous they may seem.

And we can do it too:

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
—2 Corinthians 10:4

So how is it that so many Christians just roll over and play dead?

If Christians in Rome didn’t fight the prevailing evil Roman system of leaving the old, infirm, and sick to die, how would the Church have grown so rapidly?

If Martin Luther didn’t pound his worthy complaint to the door of the monolithic Roman Catholic ChurchSword-wielding soldier, where would the Church universal be today?

If William Wilberforce rolled over and relented to the seemingly unchangeable slave trade in England, where would our world be today?

If Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t stand up for the cause of civil rights in the face of catcalls, baseball bats, and the ever-present threat of a noose on a tree limb, where would American society be today?

And that list can go on and on.

When I hear Christians telling me nothing can be done, the simple answer is that they don’t want to be bothered. They won’t put in the time, energy, prayer, and faith to help make change happen. They don’t want their status and incomes threatened by standing up against tough, systemic opponents.

Increasingly, resignation seems to be the state of much of the Church in America. Doesn’t matter that the Bible repeatedly says that all things are possible with God. We keep thinking that some things are beyond His ability to change.

As for me, I contend that such a god is not the God of the Bible.

Christian, the Enemy is at the gate. Don’t resign your commission by resigning yourself to the way things are. Stand up and make a difference.

When the Devils Know Your Name


Any military commander worth his salad will tell you the key to battle is to neutralize threats. Whether  by outright attack, supply line disruption, or distracting threats so they turn their attention elsewhere, systematically taking out each threatening unit wins the war.

Last time I checked, we Christians were at war. Do we realize how ardently the Devil and his minions hate us? To them, we are the enemy as much as they are ours. Just as we have been given weapons of war to wage battle against the chthonic, so the legions of hell marshal their power against us. And their tactic is the classic one: neutralize threats.

Here’s the worst thing that anyone can say about you or me as Christians: “You’re no threat to the Devil.”

Sadly, I believe that large swaths of the American Church are just that. The Enemy distracts us with consumerism, entertainment, fads (even church-related ones), and an all-consuming loathing for anything that even remotely borders on boring. We know the entire storyline behind Lost, can name every contestant on the last American Idol, can’t wait to plop down a small fortune on the next iteration of Xbox or Playstation, spend more on movie theater tickets or DVDs than we drop in the offering plate, and generally run willy-nilly after umpteen thousand things that neutralize our threat on the grand cosmic battlefield. Warring in prayerWithout even breaking a sulfurous sweat, the dark principalities and powers have rendered millions of American Christians fat, lazy, double-minded, and utterly worthless for battle.

But not everyone.

In writing this, I realize that some of the most encouraging words we can give to a fellow believer may be difficult to receive. They may be true in the utmost and a genuine balm to the soul, but that doesn’t make them any less hard.

This post is an encouragement to those who are still a threat, but it’s a realistic encouragement, words of hope that may sound like words of despair at first, but only to those who lack perseverance.

Some of us still threaten hell. Here’s an easy check to tell if we do: We’re being opposed by the Enemy at every turn.

If our lives are peaches and cream most of the time, if we’re poster children for the American Dream, then we’re not a threat. The demonic doesn’t take us seriously, because if it did we’d be feeling and seeing the attacks.

Two Scriptures:

Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.
—Acts 19:13-16

Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
—2 Corinthians 11:23-28

When you’re a threat to the devils, they know your name. They knew Paul’s. He later regales us in 2nd Corinthians 11 with a staggering list of ways in which those evil forces dealt with his threat to their hellish mission.

Now who here volunteers to share the trials of Paul?

It’s a hard word of encouragement, isn’t it?

I can tell you that the closer you are to the heart of the Lord in the work you’re doing for the Kingdom, the more brutal the battle. Things will go wrong that you never expected because the Enemy wants nothing more than to neutralize your threat.

In the grand cosmic battle, evil attempts to take out the Christians it knows by name by attacking what is dearest to them: their families. The Enemy loves to go after children and spouses. It’s the hellfire way to napalm the biggest threats.

With children, the Enemy hurts physically or emotionally. Debilitating sickness or injury in a child will often be all it takes to remove a Christian parent who is a genuine threat. Death of a child, too. As a child gets older, rebellion works just as well. Nothing breaks a parent more than to watch a child go down in flames.

With spouses, the Enemy’s first line of attack is dissension. Turning a spouse against the person who is a threat wounds deeply, often because the spouse has been the only source of consistent support outside of the Lord. The height of wounding would be discovering a spouse’s affair. Fray that most precious bond and many threats to hell will wilt. The Enemy will also resort to physically or mentally wounding a spouse if the marriage is a strong one that would not ordinarily succumb to dissension.

Lastly, the Enemy will assault the threat directly. I believe this is often the last resort because indirect threats can be more effective. The most common lines of attack come against the threat’s livelihood, reputation, and/or physical and emotional health. The Enemy may also try to kill the most powerful Christians simply to curtail that threat’s continued assaults.

We see these attacks playing out in the life of Job. This righteous man buried his children, witnessed his livelihood stolen, had his wife turn against him (“Curse God and die!”), and suffered gruesome physical torment. The unmarried Paul, lacking any indirect chinks in his armor, instead weathered relentless assaults against his person and reputation.

If you are not in obvious sin and are being attacked on every side, the devils know your name. Many of the attacks I outlined above may be your daily bread. You are well acquainted with grief.

Don’t even consider giving up. Instead, I tell you, rejoice! For the devils know your name! That means more than you can imagine in a world where most people receive little more than a “Who are you?” brush-off from the forces of hell.

You see, the Devil has a list. Akin to the FBI’s, it’s filled with the names of his Most Wanted. And it’s no coincidence that the names on the Devil’s list are also found in the Lamb’s Book of Life.