I’m doing one of those Bible reading plans where you read the Bible in a year. Each day you read something from the Gospels, Epistles, Psalms or Proverbs, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible. It’s helpful for me to do this on occasion due to my tendency either to soften my memory of source material or, much worse, invent it. If I’m going to have scripture guide my spirituality it’s a good idea to come to terms with it as it is instead of how I remember it to be.
A few days ago Mark 2:15-17 and I Corinthians 5:9 were up on the same day. In the Mark passage Jesus and his disciples have dinner with tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees ask him why he is doing this, Jesus replies, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (NIV). In the I Corinthians passage Paul discusses the case of a man having sexual relations with his stepmother. To this Paul advises the Corinthians, “You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (NIV).
You’ve got to love the contradictions inherent in the Christian Bible. In the same cannon Jesus proclaims that everyone is welcome at His table while Paul, supposedly speaking for Jesus, says that only the righteous are allowed at his. So whom do we believe? Is the church a school for sinners or a society of saints?
Theologians trying to make sense of these contradictions have spilled no shortage of ink. It’s enough to keep you perpetually curious, confused, and dizzy all at the same time. Of all of the theologians who have wrestled with these issues one of my favorites was Martin Luther. Although I have gained quite a bit from him theologically, it was his ability to let God be God that has always encouraged me. Whenever he seemed to run out of plausible explanations for his adversaries – and it was usually his adversaries for whom Luther wrote – he would pull the God-card. “I don’t have an answer for that,” he would explain. “But God does. I’m trusting Him.” *
Regardless of where we land in our Christian walk, we all must contend with these seeming contradictions. We can ignore them, pick and choose, adopt systematic theologies that try to unify that which seems incapable of unification, create our own theologies, or, in some cases, when the tension between these discrepancies and our consciences get to be too much, we can break from the faith altogether. This happens from time to time.
The tricky thing about theology, especially from my point of view, is whether or not it has “legs.” In other words, it’s one thing to construct philosophically accurate, often beautifully constructed arguments, yet it’s another thing to have a theology that actually helps a person make sense out of his or her life and relationships with people and God. As a pastoral therapist, as opposed to a theologian or even a pastor, I must view scripture through the lens of psychology. Does it help people get better?
Which brings me to the point of this post. In Mark and I Corinthians both writers discuss the devil. For instance, In Mark 3:20-30 the author describes the Pharisee’s charge that due to Jesus’ ability to cast out demons he himself must be a demon, to which Jesus replies, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (NIV). In I Cor. 5:5 Paul advises his church to hand the aforementioned sinner over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh. Once again, two different perspectives on how to deal with sin. Who’s in and who’s out?
If “good theology is good psychology,” which, as I said, is the lens through which I read scripture, I would have to side with Jesus here. If demons and Satan exist – and scripture clearly states that they do – it would be our job not to cast people into their hands but humbly cast them out, even, as the Christ Hymn in Philippians states, “to the point of death” (2:8; NIV).
But here’s my own admission: I don’t think I’ve ever experienced Satan, let alone a demon. That’s not to say that there haven’t been run-ins, just that I wasn’t aware of them. Whenever I stop to think about this, which is rarely, I ease my anxiety by reflecting on James 4:7 – “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” What better way to resist something than to place your focus elsewhere? This would be foolhardy, perhaps, if it weren’t for the fact that I have Someone much more significant and powerful on whom to reflect, that being, namely, God.
So why do I bring all of this stuff up? It’s not infrequent that men and women, either overtly or covertly, in individual sessions or in groups, invoke the devil when discussing their struggles with compulsive behavior, especially sexually compulsive behavior. It comes out in phrases like “I’m resisting powers and principalities” or “The enemy is tempting me.” Certainly they have taken their lead from Ephesians 6:11-13 but also I Corinthians 7:5 where Paul discusses sex in marriage. “Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time,” Paul writes, “so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (NIV).
If we read this passage as the intended audience instead of first-century Corinthians it would suggest that 1) we inherently have no self-control and 2) that which we see or experience in the world that affects us sexually is from Satan. If that’s the case, is a beautiful woman from Satan? If the answer is yes, that’s a sad thought. It’s not a beautiful woman’s fault that she affects us a certain way. To label her as a vehicle for the devil is the equivalent of labeling a blind man useless because he can’t read. The beautiful woman is not defined by what we see her as or need her to be. She is her own person outright.
This means that to understand sexual temptation one needs to look inside oneself to understand the nature of the temptation, the desire, or the drive, not look for scapegoats. Men in particular have done this for centuries and the product has been the subjugation of women. Is Satan more alive in a woman’s beauty or in the abuse that has been inflicted on her because of man’s inability to understand his own emotions?
We are sexually aroused for certain reasons – some physiological, some psychological – and, from my experience, they rarely have anything to do with Satan. To label our sexual desires and the objects of our sexual desires as Satanic can be a cop out. It frequently obscures the truth and doing so will ultimately prevent us from ever achieving the freedom that God promises us.
It does this in two significant ways:
1) Real and lasting change can be a painful process. It can even feel like Satan is at work. To label an inherently healthy and necessary process as being “Satanic” is to keep yourself in perpetual bondage through fear.
2) Invoking the devil as the culprit for your uncontrollable sexual desires is a handy way of avoiding the confrontation that needs to occur between you and the people who cause you to feel the uncomfortable emotions that lead to your compulsive sexual behavior.
As pretty much every post on this site points out, especially Change, Part I, to change from a life of compulsive behavior to real freedom from it is to undergo a significant perspective change. Sure, one can will oneself to stop using a substance of abuse (“White-Knuckle Change”), but if the causes of the desire to use a certain substance aren’t tended to, it’s either a sober life filled with inner turmoil or it’s just a matter of time before one returns to his or her substance of abuse.
What needs to occur for “Real Change” to take affect is what is written in The Crucible of Vulnerability. One needs to venture through a process of realizing the degree to which you are unconsciously trying to maintain a connection with important figures from your childhood by living your life in ways that please them and then go through the very vulnerable experience of learning to psychologically uncouple from them and live your own life.
Since humans are social creatures, and we were created for community, this experience may feel like a sort of death, annihilation even. If it was our relationship with our childhood caregivers that gave us a sense of being, of existing, to recognize that this life-giving connection is actually the source of our inner turmoil is to face existential loneliness head-on. One can interpret this as suffering the torments of Satan or one can interpret this as finally meeting God face to face and having the opportunity to trust Him as you begin to live the unique life only God could give you.
A big part of this process of Real Change is not only seeing the ways in which important people from your childhood exercised, or continue to exercise, conditional love in your life, but also how you have chosen current relationships that mirror this same conditional love as a way of feeling “in your right place.” When this becomes apparent, the road to recovery includes the correction of this conditional love by expressing your legitimate needs and allowing yourself to be who you are. Some people in your life – parents, siblings, girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses – may not like this.
They may not like this because you being the way you have been to ensure connection – maybe meek, maybe closed-off, maybe complacent – is exactly what they need you to be in order to maintain the person that they feel they need to be in order to ensure connection – maybe domineering, maybe controlling, maybe in charge (these are just possibilities). This is a pretty nasty chain of events. For you to change means that they need to change and, as you may be discovering, to change in any significant way is painful. It would be a lot easier for them if you changed instead of them.
With this dynamic in mind, when you’re faced with a difficult confrontation, and you want to disappear into sexual fantasy instead, to suggest that it’s the devil tempting you is to avoid the hard truth that change requires being able to speak up for oneself, maintain emotional boundaries, and work through often difficult relationships directly with the person with whom you are in conflict. To intone the devil is to shirk personal responsibility. The devil isn’t tempting you; you’re just afraid of conflict and the possibility that the person with whom you are in conflict may leave you if you confront them. Maybe they will leave you. Maybe they need to.
One facet of devil talk that hasn’t been considered in this post is the frequent belief that you are demonic because of your sexual desires. If “good theology is good psychology” then I’m holding on to the reality that God is good (Ps. 86:15) and we are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). This means that we are good. Yes, good people can do bad things but doing bad things does not make you a demon. It does mean that if your behavior is hurting you or, certainly, if it is hurting other people, it needs to be managed but it doesn’t mean that you are a demon.
Seeing yourself as demonic because of your sexual desires or behavior is an effort either to punish yourself for what you have come to believe is wrong – and if it hurts you or other people it may be wrong – or it’s an effort to excuse your behavior. If it’s an effort to punish yourself there may be some good in the fact that you have a conscience, but it doesn’t address the issue at hand. How we have been trained as children to give and receive love is the source of our sexual desires. If you want to change your sexual desires you need to change how you give and receive love not senselessly punish yourself.
But some people want to punish themselves, and frequently, as a way of excusing their behavior. If you believe you are demonic, which is a lie, then you have given yourself permission to do “demonic things” – handy justification to continue down the same path. The mind is tricky.
It is possible that as a Christian, to downplay the devil’s existence or involvement in creation is to be reckless and ignorant, even to allow the devil his freedom. In this case, good psychology might not be good theology. But for those called to deal with the demonic – and that might be all of us – what does that entail? Prayer, I suppose. Which I do. But if you’re looking for a way to beat the devil then know what the devil loves most and then do the opposite.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” the author of the Gospel of John states (10:10; NIV). Knowing what I know about physiology and psychology the most larcenous, deadly, and destructive thing that can happen to a human being is disconnection. If you want to beat the devil, for yourself and others, then participate in sources of unconditional love and learn to offer unconditional love. Jesus sure knew how to do this. He loved those whom others deemed unlovable and he changed their lives. Paul, at least if I Cor. 5:9 is any indication, didn’t, and I’m sure it was pretty destructive to those who were cast out.
It may seem that I am discounting Paul in this post, which, I fear, is a dangerous ploy, especially since I am a fan of Paul. His epistles have enriched and strengthened my own faith life, especially passages like I Cor. 10:13. With that in mind, I think it is important to point out that Paul, in I Corinthians, was pretty steamed at the on-goings in Corinth. Paul had laid the foundation for a church based on the freedom found in Christ but “another builder” had come along to twist this message into one of hedonism (I Cor. 3:10).
Paul was hyperbolic, in a sense, to make a point – just because we are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ doesn’t mean that we may behave however we wish. Behavior not only has its consequences but, more importantly, if we focus on God’s abundant grace through Jesus Christ our inherent gratitude for this free gift will naturally change our behavior for the better (Ro. 8:5).
So maybe, in this sense, I am in the Satan-beating, demon-casting business after all. It’s just that Satan is found in giving him more power over our lives than we should and demons are found in self-destructive belief systems inherited from difficult childhoods and relationships, the demons that say you should be this or you should be that. The Satan-beating, demon-casting ministry I’m engaged in involves the creation of unconditionally loving community in which people feel safe enough to make mistakes, look at difficult parts of themselves, take important risks, and ultimately assume responsibility for the one and only life with which God has blessed them.
This kind of community is willing to suggest that the devil that you know– shame, depression, embarrassment, jealousy, compulsive masturbation, porn use, drug use, anonymous sex, alcohol abuse, blame – is not better than the devil that you don’t. More importantly, this kind of community demonstrates that we don’t have a choice between two devils, but instead we have a choice between living an emotional life based on what other people think of us (the devil) and living an emotional life based on what God thinks of us.
There’s unhealthy control in focusing so heavily on the devil and not on God’s provision. To let go of that fear and trust God is to let go of control. In this, who is more in alignment with God, the person who feels he must keep the devil close or the person who is willing to let go of the devil and trust that God will work it all out in the end?
Instead of living in the fear of Satan or the demonic, we can live fearlessly. We can cast off the chains that bind us and live lives of freedom. But it starts with looking carefully at how we have been taught to understand the world and begin to change that. This takes courage. God is with you as you step into the unknown. In fact, that is what God wants from us. To step into the unknown means we have nothing but God on which to hold. What a great place to be.
* For example, in his Open Letter to Pope Leo X Luther wrote, “I acknowledge no fixed rules for the interpretation of the Word of God, since the Word of God, which teaches freedom in all other matters, must not be bound [II Tim. 2:9].”