If I've understood the rota that I was sent, you are going to be having two sermons on this passage, the first concentrating on the spiritual battle that we are involved in, and the second, focussed on the armour that we wear in that battle. This is an interesting way of looking at this teaching, and means that I am going to mainly looking at the first section and last verse, staying away from the middle bit.
The first thing for me to admit is that most of what I say this morning is not my original thinking, but is going to be based on one of the best books on this subject that I know of. “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis, is made up of imaginary letters from a senior devil to a younger one, giving advice on the best ways of tempting the younger devil's human, “patient”.
As I talk, there will be a few longer passages from the book come up on the screen behind me. If you're the kind of person who learns better by reading and thinking about something for yourself, than by listening to somebody, then please feel free to zone out from concentrating on me and chew over the passages behind me.
We're going to start by thinking about what the devil's schemes might be, and then go on to talk about two ways that we have of opposing those schemes, and what problems we might come across when we use them.
So, firstly, what is Paul talking about when he writes to his friends at Ephesus about the devil's schemes? Well, what do we think about when we hear the word, “devil”? Do we imagine a cartoon figure with horns and a trident? If so, then we have already come across one of the devil's schemes. To get people to disbelieve in his existence, and to think any such believe foolish and ridiculous. If the devil succeeds in convincing us that he does not exist then we will not defend ourselves against his other schemes.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe in the existence of the devils, but take far too much interest in them. At this end of the scale there are two types of people. The first type are those who are attracted by the power that Satan offers to those who will follow him. Interest in this area can lead into spiritually dangerous activities such as trying to communicate with the dead, ouija, and witchcraft. I'm not going to talk about these this morning, but it may be that you are, or have been, involved in these kinds of things. If that's the case, then there is freedom from the hold that they have and you need to have a conversation with Steve about how that can be worked through. The second type are those who attribute everything that goes wrong to the devil, failing to allow for human responsibility for evil. The problem with this is that if we fail to take responsibility then we can also fail to realise that it us who needs to be forgiven by God, and to change.
Somewhere in the middle is the Biblical point of view. The devil is the one who hates and opposes God. Because of his hatred for God, he hates those whom God loves. In order to attack God, the devil attacks and accuses those whom God loves, which is us. At the moment God allows this, but we know that at the cross and in the resurrection Jesus showed us that in the end the devil will be defeated, and by the Holy Spirit gives us what we need to defend ourselves against him in the meantime.
So, what other schemes do we need to be aware of, what do we need to defend ourselves against?
Maybe to start with it would help to think about a couple general schemes that are used against us. They are both to do with where we focus our thoughts.
Firstly, when we are being tempted to sin, we are encouraged to focus on the thing tempting us, rather than realising what is happening to us. So, for example, if someone cuts us up at a roundabout we focus on how stupid they are, and their carelessness, and are kept from noticing that we are becoming angry and vengeful. We have slipped into sin and have missed it entirely because we have been distracted by the very thing that tempted us. Even thinking back over our day we are more likely to tell a friend the story of the idiot who cut us up, than realise that we need to repent before God of our anger.
The second general scheme of the devil is the opposite, in that it has to do with what happens when we see positive thoughts and feelings being brought to life in our hearts. In this case, the devil wants to keep your focus inwards and to prevent it turning outwards at all costs. Imagine that there is someone in your family that you had a massive falling out with some time ago. There is a load of hurt and pain on both sides. As you pray about this situation and bring it before God, you feel your pain being healed and a feeling of forgiveness and love well up for this other person. What happens next? The devil wants you to sit there and enjoy the glow of the feeling. He doesn't mind if you tell other people about the release that God has given you in that relationship. What he doesn't want you to do is to pick up the phone and make up with the person. As long as the loving feeling stays a nice internal glow and makes no difference to your actual behaviour, the devil's schemes are working just fine.
In general then, when we are tempted the devil schemes to keep us focussed outwards and to be distracted from what is going on in our hearts, and when we are becoming more like Jesus the devil schemes to keep us focussed on ourselves and to prevent us from changing what we do or how we treat others.
Here some examples of specific kinds of schemes that the devil tries to work in our lives, which we are called to resist:
Parallel lives - feeling more spiritual than the mates from work we go on the lash with on a Friday night because we go to church. Feeling superior to the naive innocents we sing worship songs with on a Sunday because we've really tasted the other side of life.
Ruled by our stomachs – when what we want to eat or drink, lots or a little, makes us treat other people badly.
Double standards – what we say must be taken as just the words, what others say is interpreted with tone of voice, context, and suspected intention. “I only asked what time dinner was and she flew off the handle.”
I'm sure that you can think of others. In the coming week you might want to think and pray about which ones most affect you. Next week, Steve will be talking about the armour of God, and how that can give us some of the tools that we need to resist these schemes. But this week I'd like us to think about two other things that Paul tells his readers to do.
The first is to stand firm. What it means to stand firm is likely to mean different things, depending on how old we are as Christians.
In the early days of our faith our mental and physical habits are still the ones that we had before we came to faith. The television programmes we are used to watching, the music we are used to listening to, the things that we are used to eating, drinking, smoking, the time we go to bed. All of these are old habits, and famously, they die hard. It is likely that in the early days of our faith these are the places where the devil's schemes will become evident.
It is like when you start living in the same house as someone else. All the habits that you never knew about or noticed in yourself or the other person start coming to surface, and might even be annoying. At some stage you have to decide: is this new living arrangement worth the hassle? Am I willing to change my habits, or learn to live with the habits of the other person? So, in the early days of your faith, as the cost of following Jesus becomes clearer, and as the changes that you are going to have to make in your habits become more difficult, are you going to be willing to stand firm against the devil's schemes? Because it is he who will be busy telling you that it's all too much effort and not worth it any way.
As we continue on as Christians we come up against another truth. This truth is that life has a rhythm, with peaks and troughs. The peaks and troughs that we feel as we go along are part of how life is meant to be lived, it is just part of living in time. It is very often in the troughs, when we feel at our lowest that we face the strongest temptations. It was when Jesus had been in the desert, on his own, for forty days without food or water that he faced the temptations at the beginning of his ministry. It is at those times of low energy that we can be tempted to seek comfort in the wrong place: in sexual sin, in over eating, in drug use or getting drunk. It is also at these times that we can doubt what we experienced in the peaks, and write off the commitments we made as a passing phase. Now, if the troughs are so dangerous to our souls, then we might ask why God allows them.
The witness of Christians through the ages is that it is by enduring the difficulties of the troughs that they have come to a deeper understanding of how much God loves them, and that they received more blessing there than on the mountain tops. To be honest, it doesn't often feel like it when we're down there, and sometimes it's not even helpful to hear people say it, but I do believe that it's true.
Eugene Peterson (who produced the Message translation of the Bible) called his book on discipleship, “A Long Obedience in the same direction.” It seems to me that this is a brilliant summary of what it means to follow Jesus, to persevere, and to stand firm. It recognises that this is not an overnight thing, it is a lifelong commitment: to keep on doing what we have been called to do, come hell or high water, to stand firm.
The second thing that Paul tells his readers to do is to pray. Now prayer could be a whole sermon series on its own, so I'd like us focus this afternoon on what the devil's schemes might be that could disrupt our prayers, and make them ineffective.
Who are we praying to? Well, we can say that we are praying to God, but what does that mean? Is this God? Or this? Or this? All of us will have in our heads some idea of who God is. Because we only have human minds, this idea will, at best, be incomplete, and at worst completely inaccurate. If the devil can so distort our idea of God that we end up praying to a completely imaginary God, that has nothing in common with God as God actually is then our prayers are not likely to be very effective.
What are prayers going to be like if our idea of God is like the one pictured in this Gary Larson cartoon? It seems to me that they are going to be full of fear. It is not that God won't answer our prayers, in fact we might even think that our prayers are being answered, as we're not being smited, but they will not be real prayers. There will be no real communication, no relationship built up between us and God, because the person we are praying to is not real.
How much healthier is our prayer life going to be if our ideas of God are formed by what we have been shown that God is like? For instance, by images like this of the loving father welcoming home the son who went astray.
As I said earlier, even our best ideas about God are inadequate, and we should not let an anxiety that we aren't sure that we've got our ideas about God “right” stop us from praying. God is very gracious with our stumbling attempts. But, we should do all that we can to get to know God better, so that our prayers become more real. We can do this by reading God's word, spending time with other people who are following Jesus, learning from Christians who have gone before us, by spending time with God.
So, if that is who we are praying to, then what are we going to pray about? How might this be affected by the devil's schemes?
When we pray for people are we actually praying for them or are we complaining to God about them? Do we honestly desire for them to come to know God's love for them, or for them to stop annoying us? Now, I'm all for honesty in prayer, and talking over the reality of our lives with God, but we need to be careful that our prayers don't turn into replaying a conversation with someone only this time with us inserting the really clever put downs that we would have said if we'd thought of them at the time.
And what are we meant to do with these distractions in prayer, those things that turn our focus away from God and towards ourselves or the things that are going on in our lives? Should we grit our teeth and try harder? If we're praying for love for our neighbours or for God, should we try and make ourselves feel loving? The trouble is, doing these things turns our gaze away from God and towards ourselves. It's as if we were driving along, knowing that we are running out of fuel and, rather than heading for a petrol station, gritting our teeth and trying to keep the car going by will power alone. It doesn't work, and it leaves us stranded. Far better to make the distraction the focus of our prayer, and ask God to deal with it. To accept that we don't have the strength to do it ourselves, and ask God, who does have the strength, to help us. Far better to ask God for the love for God and our neighbours that we are called to. God is love, God has a whole storehouse of love to pour into our hearts, if we ask.
There's been a lot to take in this afternoon, a lot to think about and to absorb. So let's ask for God's help in prayer. May the Holy Spirit give us insight into the devil's schemes, strength to stand firm, and encouragement in prayer as he prays with us in ways that words cannot express.