In a world of cheap grace, where many people foolishly don’t read their Bibles, they tend to think about the forgiveness of God – they’ve heard that preached. They think about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They think about forgiveness of sin. And they think that they can be accepted by God just like they are. They don’t have to do anything. Christ did it all. The problem with that is, in order to be forgiven by God, we must first surrender our lives to Him – that’s the deal – just like Jesus did to God the Father. And when we surrender our lives to Him, He wants us to overcome our sins. Now, He says He’ll help us, and we don’t have to attain perfection – because we can’t – before we die, but we have to try! So the holiness of God is something that we need to strive for.
There’s one thing – one huge thing – that people forget about when they get off on this “I can be accepted just as I am.” Just the way we are causes us all kinds of problems. It’s not a good thing. It’s a bad thing.
So today we’re going to think about how we can efficiently strive to obey God. We’re talking about, today, our part in the process. We’ve heard about God’s part, but today I’m going to talk about our part of it.
Let’s go to Romans 7, verse 18. Paul said:
Romans 7:18 – For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep doing.
Overcoming is hard. Why is it so hard? How do we get to be the way we are? Why are we always burdened down with all the negative thoughts, moods, activities and behaviors?
Well, we’re going to start today where the problem began. We’re going to start with the devil. Let’s go to 1 Peter 5, and verse 8. Peter says to the church:
1 Peter 5:8 – Be sober minded. Be watchful, because your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. So we have been warned!
We’re not too afraid of the devil these days. We don’t know what a lion really is like. We see them in the zoo. We don’t really understand what they are like. But I saw a movie sometime ago that really helped me get the picture. It was called The Ghost and the Darkness. It was about a railroad crew in Africa around the turn of the century, building a bridge across a chasm in Africa – maybe Kenya – I’m not sure where. They had this big crew out there and these two lions were ravaging the crew. They would sneak into their tents at night and drag one off. One would create a distraction and the other one would slip in the back way and grab somebody, take them out in the high grass, kill them, then drag them miles to their lair where they would lick the skin off them, because they loved the blood so much. They killed a lot of people before they were themselves finally killed by a hunter. At the end of the movie, the wise old African crew boss says, “If you want to see the Tsavo lions, you can go to the Natural History Museum in Chicago, because they are on display there. And even today, if you look them in the eye, you will be afraid.” They were very ferocious, predatory, cunning animals. So, does that help? Probably not.
Well, what does the devil do that is so terrible? And how does he do it? How does he devour us? Some people think about that in a very superstitious way. They think he has a magic wand and goes around planting thoughts in our heads – boing, boing, boing. Or they think he works with pagan holidays, and Ouija boards, and Harry Potter. All of that stuff is a part of the world, which is his kingdom. So there are a lot of bad things in the world.
But what we’re talking about today is the main way that he works. A lot of these bad things are really only distractions. The devil would really rather have us spend all our energy worrying about Ouija boards than what he is really doing. He wants to keep our attention off his real area of focus.
So where does he really do his work and how does he do it? Let’s go to 2 Timothy 2:8. Just cutting into the middle of this verse, an interesting statement here:
2 Timothy 2:8 – …that they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil after being captured by him to do his will. So, unlike people that are in jail, for example, when we’re captured by the devil, we don’t know that we’ve been controlled. Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “I want to do the devil’s will today.” The Bible tells us that he deceives us and that we don’t know that we’re doing his will while we’re doing it. He says that we’ve been mentally snared – captured. The word kidnap is not in the Bible, but the word ransomed is. And that’s what Jesus Christ had to do to get us out of this state of capture that we’ve been held in by the devil. So, if He ransoms us, I guess you could use the word kidnapped.
Let’s go to Revelation 20, and verse 1.
Revelation 20:1 – I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon – that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan – and bound him for a thousand years, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer. So we’ve all been deceived, tricked, fooled into thinking in a way that is according to his way, not according to God’s way – contrary to God’s way.
We started this section about the devil and this is the main point that I hope you can take from it – that we have all been deceived and manipulated to think and live the devil’s way rather than God’s. And when we step out of the darkness of his deception into the light of God, then we begin a process of change – or, at least, we should. It’s not like that we’re suddenly different. It’s a lot of work to root out all the erroneous things that he’s put there.
How does the devil do his work? How does he do what he’s done? How does he accomplish that? Does he use black magic in our minds? Well, actually, no. It’s nothing like that. There’s a lot of superstitious thinking about the devil. There’s a place in the Bible where we can see how it all got started. It’s in Genesis 3, and verse 1. Let’s read it. It says:
Genesis 3:1 – The serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made – even more crafty than a lion – more deceptive, more tricky. And he approached Eve and he said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the Garden?’” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the Garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the Garden. Neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” She had a really good memory. She quoted God word for word. But the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not surely die.” Come on, you don’t really believe that, do you? “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you’ll be like God, knowing good and evil!” Wow! “He hasn’t told you the whole story here.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eye, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit and ate. And she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. So he was right there listening. He heard everything.
Okay, so that’s it. Did you catch it? Did you understand what the devil did? What did he do? Did he show a Harry Potter movie? No, he didn’t. No. He just talked to them! That’s all he had to do. Played them like a concerto – manipulated them. It’s hard to believe that that’s all he did. Maybe we should read it again. Do you think you would learn any more if you read it again? Did you miss the Ouija board? No. He just talked to them.
This story is a revelation from God. You know, a lot of people think it’s a fairy tale. This is a revelation from God. He isn’t a deceiver. He’s a revealer. He shines the light of His Spirit in all the dark places so we can understand. And this story is the explanation about how everything went sour. And He’s telling us that the devil just talked to them. He introduced doubt about God’s integrity. And that was a completely new thought to Adam and Eve. “Maybe God isn’t telling us everything. Maybe He’s withholding the good stuff.” And that way of thinking led to a poor choice.
So what happens next? Well, let’s look in verse 8.
V-8 – Then they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the Garden, in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God, among the trees in the Garden. One minute, they’re completely trusting God and now, they’re hiding from Him. But the LORD God – verse 9 – called the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the Garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Now they’re afraid. And they feel ashamed and guilty, whereas they didn’t before. God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of that tree which I commanded you not to eat?” And the man said, “The woman, whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree and I ate.” So he blames his wife and then he blames God for giving her to him. So how do you think that sounded to her? Do you think that really endeared him to her? The protector? So then the LORD said to the woman – the spotlight wheels around to her now – “What is this that you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” So she passed on the blame to the devil, conveniently leaving out the fact that she chose to eat it. So, yeah, the devil was there. He did talk to them, but they made the choice. And that’s how it all started.
What happens next? Well, that way of thinking was passed to their children. Let’s read about that. Verse 3 of Genesis 4.
Genesis 4:3 – In the course of time, Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground. And Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portion. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard. Why not? Well, it doesn’t really specifically say. There are all kinds of ideas about it, but they’re just ideas. Some of them might be right, some of them might not. The point of it is, it isn’t about why. It’s about the attitude that is expressed after Cain finds out that his offering isn’t acceptable. And, after we read what’s next, we’ll see that Cain didn’t follow the rules of acceptability. It was about his attitude. “He was very angry,” it says, “and his face fell.”
V-6 – And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you so angry and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Abel followed the rules. He offered things the way God wanted them offered. And so God says, “If you do well, won’t you be accepted, too? We’re not playing favorites here. I mean, I told you guys what I wanted and now you’re not doing what I asked you to do. So, who’s fault is that?” Cain, apparently, was the kind of guy that wanted to be accepted without following the rules. Do you think that he might have learned that from anybody? Well, he learned it from mom, right, and dad. That attitude that they had he absorbed. So God says, “If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. It’s desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” So there is a warning that this way of thinking is leading to sin. And if followed, it will become a devouring way of life, which it has. Cain’s response to that wasn’t exactly what we would have hoped, right? It says in verse 8:
V-8 – Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother, Abel, and killed him. He gave in to that way of thinking. He didn’t resist it. He didn’t rule over it.
V-9 – And then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” And he said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He was bitter and sarcastic with God.
It’s also interesting – down in verse 13 of Genesis 4 – that Cain said to the Lord, after God told him what was going to happen to him because of what he did:
V-13 – My punishment is greater than I can bear. He broke the rules, got angry, killed his brother, and now he’s complaining that his punishment isn’t fair.
So what’s God’s point? Why is He telling us this? Well, first He showed us that the devil turned Adam and Eve in his direction by mixing truth with lies. And then, in the story, we don’t hear anymore about the devil. God talked to him and told him what He was going to do to him, but he’s not around anymore. And then Cain starts acting in the way he was acting. The point, I think, is that we can see that Cain was corrupted by this same kind of thinking. Where did he get that? Well, it’s not too hard to connect the dots. He got it from his parents. These two chapters tell us how it all got started and how it spread from there – how the devil’s way of thinking is perpetuated in us down through the generations to this very day. It’s the story about how sin entered into the world and how it’s perpetuated from generation to generation in families. We do the devil’s work. It happens in the world, too, but first it happens in the family. We’re going to be talking a lot about this in the coming months. But this story – two stories, actually – is biblical explanation for war, child abuse, starvation, crime, addiction, genocide and all the hideous things that happen. And it’s also an explanation about why it’s hard to believe in God, why it’s hard to have faith, why it’s hard to pray, why it’s hard to stay married, why it’s hard to attend to our children, why it’s hard to make character changes, why it’s hard to face our faults. By the way, is there anybody here who doesn’t need to make some changes? You’re perfectly happy with the way you are? Stay with me. We’re going to go deeper.
Genesis 1:31. I just want to remind you:
Genesis 1:31 – God saw everything that He made and, behold, it was very good. So when God created us humans, we were good. Don’t be deceived about that. But then the devil talked to them and they started thinking his way. And after 4,000 years – there are 4,000 years between the Garden of Eden and the apostle Paul – Paul said, “For I know that in me” – that is, in my flesh – “dwells no good thing.” (Romans 7:18). By this time, Paul is saying that there is something in him that is really, really wrong. The word he used there, by the way, is sarx in the Greek. It’s not the word that is used for body. That’s soma. He’s not talking about his body. God created that. It’s generally considered good. But whatever this sarx is, it’s really bad – all bad.
But I want you to think about – we throw this term around a lot – human nature. Right? I want to tell you some things about the way humans are. Did you know that you have a strong desire to breathe? You can think about it, if you want to, but you can stop thinking about it, and you’ll still keep breathing. It’s automatic – built in. That’s a good thing, right? It’s natural.
I have a client who came to see me, and he said that his legs would jerk at night – so bad that it would wake his wife up. Do you know what causes that? He has sleep apnea. And when his brain realizes that it’s going to die, it starts jerking his legs to wake him up so he’ll start breathing again. That’s a really good thing, isn’t it?
Did you know that after birth, mothers experience an incredible hormonal surge that kindles love for their babies? I heard a lady say just the other day, “It’s hard to believe I can love someone so much,” about her baby. Did you know that we’re all born with an innate desire to love and be loved by parents. Jesus said that He loved God the Father. That’s a Godly trait, isn’t it? Did you know that we’re born with a desire to take care of our children – like God takes care of us? That’s a Godly trait, too, isn’t it? Did you know that we’re quintessentially relational beings? Who else is like that? Well, God the Father is. He created us to be like Him in that way.
But then there’s that something else – that thing called the sarx – they translated it the flesh. Where do you think that came from? It’s pretty simple to realize where that came from, isn’t it? We’ve called it human nature – in fact, Louw-Nida translates sarx as human nature – but, if you really understand it, there’s really nothing human about it. It wasn’t there when God made us. It’s just been with us so long that we think of it as human. But we know where it came from, don’t we? We all got to be flies on the wall and watch it start up – our nature – both good and bad – the good from God, the bad from the devil. That’s what the Bible tells us about ourselves.
Back in the seventies, when I used to watch Phil Donahue on a morning talk show, he was big into this argument called nature vs. nurture. Remember that? Other people have been, too. It’s been ongoing for a long time. But we used to think about how people got to be the way they are through that lens. Nature is your genetics. And then, nurture – or lack of it – is your experience – your environment – the effect the environment has on that. That argument, really, has been proven to be an irrelevant argument. Why is that? Because both our genetics and our experience change our brain in, pretty much, the same way. You can be born with certain characteristics, and your experience can create characteristics, too, in you. They’ve proven that with the new brain research that is ongoing. So the way our brain is changed by experience – and this is interesting – is also passed on to our children through our genes – just like our genetics – but not as much. Experience modifies gene transcription. For example, if a mother lovingly attunes herself to her infant daughter, then her daughter will be a bit more genetically predisposed to attune herself to her infant children. If you want to read more about that, you can Google the Newsweek article, Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny. If you read that, then you’ll realize God has placed in our hands huge power to override our genetics and our past experience.
It’s a common idea that children of abusers become abusers. Many do, but many don’t. We all have a choice about how we’re going to live our lives. It doesn’t matter what’s happened to us. Sometimes, it’s harder to live one way than the others, because of what’s happened to us, or because of our genetics, but we still get to choose. We get to decide how it’s going to be. We have a lot of tendencies, but we can override them. If we do a really good job of overriding them, and they become us, then a little bit of that gets passed on to our children. The down side of that is, the negative things do, too. It’s the whole package that gets transferred. But free will is powerful – very powerful.
So how does that apply to you? Well, do you have trouble with your mouth, or with your eye, or with your emotions, or with your moods? Do you find yourself too angry, too sad, too depressed? Do you focus too much on things, instead of on God? Do you worry about stuff too much? Do you drink too much? Does your temper cause you problems? Are you self-centered? Do you tell lies? Do you have compulsive sexual behavior? There is a way to change. And that’s what we’re talking about today – overcoming. Remember? That is the subject we started with.
So the Bible says a lot about how to overcome the effects of the devil. For our purposes, we’re going to focus on one scripture. It’s James 4, and verse 7. It says:
James 4:7 – Submit yourselves, therefore, to God – right? The good comes from God, so submit to that. Resist the devil – the bad part comes from him – and he will flee from you. You do not have to abuse your child because somebody abused you. Very simple.
That scripture goes right at those two things in us – the good from God – we submit to it – and the bad from the devil – we resist it. It’s not rocket science. But just how do we go about doing that? How do you resist the devil and submit to God?
I had this very nice lady come to me one day. And I said, “Well, what brings you here today?” She was a church lady. She said, “I’m selfish and I’m shallow.” I said, “Tell me more.” She said, “My husband told me I should come see you because I’m driving him crazy.” “Do you think you’re crazy?” “Well, yeah, maybe.” She says, “I always want the best house, the best car, the best clothes. My children have to be perfect angels, especially when we go to church. I think I might be damaging my kids. I put so much pressure on them. I care about stuff way more than God. When I was a child, I was always jealous of girls who had more, and I did a lot of mean things to them. I caused all kinds of problems. Recently, I went into a rage because my husband lost money in a business deal.” She went on with quite bit more, but I think you get the picture. After she told me everything she could think of, I said, “So, what have you done to overcome this?” And she said – are you all ready for this, by the way? Ready? – she said, “I prayed, I studied my Bible, I fasted, I went to church, I donated money to the poor.” I said, “How long have you been doing that?” “Five years.” “What’s happened?” “Nothing. I’m still just as shallow and selfish as ever. Why won’t God help me?”
“Why won’t God help me?” Have you ever asked that question of God? You know, when you’ve prayed about problems you’ve had, and struggled with things you wanted to stop doing, and attitudes you wished you didn’t have anymore, and you could stop causing trouble that you’ve caused? Why won’t God help me?
She donated money to the poor, because she thought that would help her become less selfish. She was really serious about overcoming this problem. For a selfish person to give money away to the poor, that’s pretty committed. Right? Nothing happened. Do you know why God won’t help her? I think it’s fair to say that He hadn’t, right? Why didn’t He? Do you know why? Well, she’s missing something. She’s missing something. You know that equation – submit to God, resist the devil – she’s not doing everything you need to do to do that.
Do you know what it is? I mean, if you don’t, maybe you’re missing it, too. Maybe that’s why overcoming is hard for you. What would it be? Well, hey, I’m out of time. So we’re going to pick this up next time. Be sure not to miss it. What I want you to do – until next time – is, see if you can figure out what she left out, and we’ll pick it up then.