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. It 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.
16 thoughts on “When the Devil Seems to Win”
> I honestly believe that almost all of the hardship we see in life is due to a lack of prayer.
Was it a lack of prayer that caused the hardships of those in Hebrews who were “approved through their faith”?
If you are a regular reader, then you know that I draw distinctions on suffering where many might not. I believe that suffering at the hands of men for the sake of the preaching of the Gospel and suffering because of the vicissitudes of life are two different kinds of suffering. I believe the Hebrews passage you quote refers more to the Gospel persecution. My post refers to the vicissitudes. It is one thing to be beaten senseless by a mob because you told them about Jesus and another to be racked with pain because of a kidney stone.
This is my first comment on your site. I usually read the discussions too late to get involved. I consider myself a former Charismatic. I am open to God intervening in supernatural ways, but I no longer hold to most of the particular theology I see under-girding Charismatic beliefs. Your blog is enlightening and challenging.
That said, what you have written here doesn’t sound too far from blame-the-victim. Separating persecution and vicissitudes as you did might even make it worse. For example, did Stephen Curtis Chapman’s son run over their daughter because they weren’t praying enough? I don’t think you’d say that, but I would like to hear you clarify what you mean.
A few thoughts on your comment:
1. If I’m in an army and the expectation is that my platoon will watch my back, when I make a break for a new position in the battle and my cover men don’t cover me, who is to blame when I get shot down? The situation is no different in the Church. That may be hard to stomach, but it is quite obviously reality.
2. Jesus said that we have not because we ask not. I can’t think of a more powerful statement of personal responsibility than that.
3. I’m going to put it all on the line here and say that any prominent Christian with a national ministry is an automatic target, and we should not be surprised when those folks suffer if they do not have a large group praying for them at all times.
I want to share one more story.
I once worked as the book buyer, Bible expert, and assistant manager of a Christian bookstore. One day, a young couple walked in with that obvious new believer glow. They told me they wanted to buy their first Bibles. The joy was just radiating off them.
Before they walked out, they shared with me that they wanted to ask forgiveness. When I wondered why (since I didn’t know them), they said they’d been part of a well-known coven in the area and had actively prayed and conducted rituals against the bookstore. I was younger then, and this confession came as a shock.
Within two years, the owners of the store (a local chain) divorced and the store went out of business.
Coincidence? I don’t think so.
I have to ask then, if a group was actively praying against the store, who was praying for it? Anyone? And if no one, should we be surprised then at the outcome?
We just don’t take this seriously enough.
Let me be the first to confess that I do not pray as much as I ought, period. I reflect on comments that are seemingly upset at or in disagreement with what you said. However, I wonder who stops and reviews their own prayer behaviors to see if what you are saying is true in their own lives. I ask myself, “Do I pray as I should?” Unfortunately, no. It is easier for many to challenge what you are saying but I wonder if like me they are guilty of…well a degree of prayerlessness. Not just, “God bless me and you” but fervent prayer.
What amazes me is how we call Jesus our Lord and say how we should be like him but how little we truly practice that premise. For instance, Jesus was ALWAYS praying. Yet most Christians, including myself at times, feel that we need to pray less than Jesus. Hmmm. Apparently, Jesus felt the need to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” He must have thought that kind of prayer worked. Right?
In addition, Jesus taught on prayer often with very disturbing boldness. For example, in Mark 11 Jesus says when we stand praying to “believe you have RECIEVED it and you will have it.” I think our other problem is lack of faith. Yes I said it. Lack of faith in the authority of scripture which leads to lack of faith in the teachings of Jesus which lead to lack of faith in Jesus, God the Father and his power to do what he said he would do. Boy us theologians have whole systems for explaining things away that seem too bold. We are trying to tame the teachings of Jesus I presume.
I’d add that it’s just not prayer; people pray all the time. It’s Word-based prayer and Spirit-led intercession.
The old Pentecostals spoke of praying through to victory and the Word folks taught us how to walk in the light of our redemption. Not much on either front these days.
I agree—somewhat. I used to be more disciplined in my prayers, but I have come to see that the “fired off in the heat of the moment” prayer is NOT tossed away by God. The simple prayer asked as a child still has power.
I know what you are saying, though. And we probably err too much on the side of simple prayer. I just would not dismiss it entirely.
I have to admit your comments have got me thinking over the past day. As I pondered this, I recalled a conversation with my wife a few months ago.
In the past 5 years, her side of the family has seen more “suffering because of the vicissitudes of life” than they did in the 20 years before that. It all seemed to fall apart after her Grandpa died. I didn’t know him well – but one thing I do know – he was a man of prayer. And when he passed on, there was no one left who was praying for the family with the same persistence. It’s a sobering thought to consider that his prayers may have been a key to God’s protection of his extended family.
I think it’s time I re-assess my commitment to intercessory prayer.
Interesting take. Bold take. And I have to agree that this is an important part of the “why do bad things happen to good people” discussion. The issue is not just prayer, but prayer for “one another”. The American church has become divided, and, due to the prevailing culture, very individualistic. We don’t have the family reliance that the NT church had, or that other cultures have. Because of that, we don’t look out for each other. For that matter, we probably don’t even know most of those in the pews next to us, because our “service order” doesn’t allow for meaningful interaction.
In the last year the Lord has begun to knit my wife and I together with some other like-minded believers in town. In the last year the care and concern that has grown for one another is just amazing. We are the youngest in the group, and the older ones have “taken us under their wings”, so to speak, and initiate prayer for us on a regular basis. We all share our concerns and needs, pray for each other when needs arise, etc. It truly is a community, and I do believe that this care for one another provides a level of protection from the schemes of the enemy.
I would add one thing to the list of things that contribute to bad things happening: lack of maturity. In general, the body of Christ spends Sunday morning listening to one person give a sermon, but never samples the piece of Christ that is in every other believer. Because we aren’t in a position “where every joint supplies”, the body doesn’t mature into a mature man (Ephesians 4), because the gifts of each believer aren’t being expressed. Our collective lack of maturity limits the growth of our faith, which limits our ability to walk in the promises given us in the NT (healing as an example). This takes away a piece of our armament, so to speak.
I had more to say, but don’t want to clog your blog. Sorry its this long already.
This was a great post, and a great discussion in the comments section. Thank you, Dan, for your reminder about the importance of prayer. I myself know that my mother’s faithful prayer for my brothers and sister has resulted in all of us serving together in the church today. (All of my siblings are pretty much “grown up,” and there were some rough patches.) I’m serving as a lay minister and keenly recognize that even when I sometimes wanted to, something kept me from royally screwing things up–I attribute that grace to God working together with and through many prayers on my behalf. Now that I have a daughter of my own, I hope that I will pray for her just as much.
Very well spoken. And completely true. I can speak of a season when my wife and I had no prayer covering. Also, We can see the perfect example of the One who covered His own in prayer.
9 “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.
10 “And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them.
11 “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.
12 “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
13 “But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.
14 “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
15 “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.
16 “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
17 “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.
18 “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.
19 “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth.
Wonder what the disciples lives would have been like if we were missing this chapter.
I hold the biblically-based opinion that we tend to be spiritually formed through either deep prayer or deep pain, and most of us don’t do enough deep praying to avoid deep pain.
That said, I think there are two things that go unmentioned:
A. Every personal pain leads to an opportunity for personal redemption so it’s really difficult to say that these painful and horrible experiences are indicators that something is WRONG or BAD (except perhaps in some of the cases, the actions of another person who has harmed out of their exercise of freewill). Perhaps our mistake is in the expectation that our lives should be trouble-free and that we do not need the tutelage of life to be formed into the image of Christ.
B. The goodness and faithfulness of God is sometimes overpersonalized in our society. I am grateful for evidence of God’s love and care in my own life, but sometimes the glory of God is revealed in spite of the temporary afflictions of individuals. Satan may make some forward progress, but Satan NEVER wins. His defeat was insured by Christ’s victory. The attitude of Paul toward his hardships might be particularly instructive to us.
I guess sometimes my concern is that we set folks up to believe that Christians shouldn’t suffer and when we do we are surprised and look to blame someone or something or ourselves when we really need to mourn the disappointment and look toward the redemption knowing that God is at work in our pain.
Your first sentence says a lot about spiritual formation.
However, I don’t believe that every personal pain leads to an opportunity for personal redemption. My parents died at a time when we needed them the most, and their untimely passing was harmful for my family in a number of ways. My wife and I still struggle with the aftereffects of their premature deaths. We haven’t seen much redemption out of that situation.
The manner of my father’s passing also seems unredeemable. If I want to stretch for something from it, I guess I could say that I hope to God I don’t do the same to my family.
Suicide doesn’t offer much chance for redemption, either. In fact, it seems like a permanent pall that travels wherever the affected survivors may go. Does the Devil seem to win in that case? I want to say no, but that’s a hard one.
I don’t mean to minimize personal pain as intense as your own and certainly suicide is a permanent solution that sort of delivers a person from even the potential of growing as a result of pain. I wouldn’t even attempt to “prove” my point in light of your experience, nor would I suggest what lessons you “ought” to be learning. Please read that as honest, not smug or condescending.
I do believe, though, that the gospel is relentlessly and prodigally hope-filled. I think that I think part of our responsibility as the body of Christ is to remind each other of the hope we have in the valley of the shadow, without minimizing the reality of each others’ experience in the moment. The other side of that coin is that we have the responsibility to tell the stories of where hope has triumphed over despair–even in the small ways. For example, I was pretty beaten up as a child by my stepfather, and while I have not learned to see that as a blessing, it has given me a heart to speak for children who are voiceless and an understanding of the lengths children will go to in order to protect their abusers.
I pray that as you continue to make peace with the situations you’ve described over time, they will take a place in your life that leads you to something beautiful (though you could never come to see the situations themselves as beautiful–they are truly among the worst of all things to have to bear in life).
Thank you for pushing back on the ideals with real life. I still believe what I originally said about every situation being an opportunity to see redemption, not because it makes sense, but because it is beyond what makes sense. If there is not a peace that transcends all understanding, I could not give myself to being a believer at all in this world that is filled with failure, suffering, disappointment, and evil. I need the promise of more than what is humanly possible.
I know you’re trying to help. But this article does more damage than good. Life is life. Stuff happens. To blame a lack of prayer on it seems elementary. I know many praying men and women who have seen their fair share of hardship. That is life. God is never about this life. He’s about the afterlife. He’ll never aide us here. We need to understand that and take complete and total responsibility for ourselves.
I disagree strongly. God is absolutely about this life! To think otherwise is nothing but asceticism cloaked in spiritual trappings. The entirety of the Gospels is one story after another of Jesus/God caring about the day to day lives of people, not just their ultimate destination. Every miracle is linked to the here and now. It’s all part of the Kingdom here and now.