The Devil Made Me Do It
For any of you who have been paying attention these last five years, you know that I talk a lot about placing practice before belief. Even our mission statement reflects this, which is very simply:
To practice love by following Jesus.
and then it follows with:
We do this by:
Understanding faith as a verb~That “in the doing” of our faith we practice loving and serving others as we understand Christ to have loved and served others; through compassion, inclusion, acceptance, and understanding.
Part of the reason we highlight practice before belief is to set ourselves apart from churches who prescribe a set of beliefs that you must believe or else risk being excluded from the faith; a belief system that acts as a club with a prescribed set of rules, of who is in and who is out. As far as I can tell Jesus had two commandments: to love god and love others, not just the ones who believed what he believed.
Practicing love means it’s just that- a practice. Something we won’t do perfectly, but make a daily part of our life through the choices we make.
Now, having said all of that, sometimes in our lives, unfortunate circumstances will take us to a dark place, when we’re so far down the rabbit hole we can’t practice anything. Sometimes, when things are at their worst, when we’re at our worst, we can hardly pull it together long enough to get to the bathroom, let alone practice love; because in those moments, we’re convinced that we’re thoroughly unloveable.
In this morning’s scripture, Peter’s letter is written to a particular audience of Christ followers who have been living in the northern region of Asia minor, as strangers in that land, and the locals there are persecuting the Christ followers for their beliefs, and Peter draws a metaphor. And the persecution they suffer becomes a roaring lion, the devil, prowling, ready to pounce. You can hear the the movie version of this scripture, read by an evangelical preacher with a southern accent,
Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him…..
So the devil in this scripture is a personification of evil, who is roaring like a lion, ready to devour.
That’s one of those belief systems I’ve spent a lifetime defying.
Until today, which makes this sermon one of the stranger ones I will ever preach. Welcome to all you first time visitors. We’re talking about the devil.
But what if we drop the image of the little red man with horns, and instead understand the devil as some exterior (or interior) force that pulls us away from the love of God?
Last week we learned about the Greek word Paraclete in John’s Gospel, which can be translated - advocate, helper, comforter - a word Jesus defines as the spirit of truth which lives inside of you. That was last week. This week Peter tells us there’s an adversary. So if there’s an advocate in John, there’s also an adversary in Peter.
Which conjures up cartoon images of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, listening to both, and torn between the two voices.
It’s a choice as to which to believe.
Because we have a choice, we’ve been given free will, an ability to choose good over evil, life over death, love over hatred.
That choice is sometimes clear in the world when we choose to feed the hungry, to advocate for refugees at the border, to join in at pride parades, to advocate for policies that reflect the justice of God, making sure the least among us have the basic needs of a good and just life.
I think the more difficult battle between good and evil, or good and not as good, can sometimes live within us, as the spirit of truth is pitted against the lies that we tell ourselves. Or in context of today’s scripture, the lies the devil tells us. I cannot believe I just said that.
The spirit of truth is that you’re a beloved child of God’s, unconditionally loved and forgiven. The lies we tell ourselves or the lies that are told to us, are rooted in some false belief system that we’re unlovable, a screw up, a failure, having done things that are unforgivable and so we stuff them down deep inside only to find them rearing their ugly heads from time to time like a roaring lion.
There are those of us in life who have been told as children we didn’t measure up, that we were bad. Some were told that by parents, some by religious figures like nuns in parochial school. Some people who abuse children go as far as to blame the victim of abuse, convincing them they brought it on themselves. And even if you didn’t suffer abuse as a child, the world will take it’s toll on you, with expectations of what it means to be successful, attractive or worthy. And when we internalize that kind of thinking, we can either spiral downward fast, or we can pretty much keep those voices at bay. But when left unattended, those voices will eventually come to the surface, like a roaring lion, rearing it’s ugly head. And those voices can sometimes lead us into depression and anxiety, and sometimes those voices can come as a result of depression and anxiety, causing us to want to numb those feelings, making us susceptible to addiction, or causing us to hurt others. When we carry shame or a deeply held belief system that we are the piece of you know what at the center of the universe, the feelings have a way of perpetuating themselves. And you’re left in a battle that you cannot pull yourself out of, because it’s when you’re convinced you’re unloveable. How do you self love your way out of it? When there’s no love for self to begin with?
When those voices are at their worst, I am not enough in those moments. It becomes me against me, trying to rescue myself from myself. Those of you who can relate know, that in those moments, if we really felt we could just pull ourselves up by the boot straps we would. But really what we need in those moments is something or someone greater than ourselves, a belief system to hold on to.
So what if those voices aren’t you against you? What if it’s something outside yourself, trying to convince you of something entirely false? As a Christ follower, the core belief is that you’re a child of God. And that you are loved. Whether you feel that way or not, that’s what we believe and in those moments, we place belief before practice, which when seen through the eyes of Peter, gives us something to fight against. A kind of healthy anger shows up, allowing us a kind of personification, that we can say bug off to, go away, shut up.
We often look beyond ourself, to God, a power greater than self. Why not understand the antithetical voice of destruction as something outside yourself as well, manifesting as part of yourself, as a voice in your head, just as Christ manifests as the voice of love? Instead of trying to pull yourself up out of it, you call upon a God to give you the strength to stand up, fight back and tell the little red man, that force, to bug off.
And that idea of fighting back with words or sentiment is a kind of practice in and of itself. But it’s rooted in a deeply held belief that you are loved before you are old enough to love - you are a beloved child of God’s belonging to God. This is the belief we affirm at baptism and it is the core value system of everything else we do, and everything we are.
You belong to a being that loves you, to something greater than yourself; a life force that is constantly moving in the direction of life and the regeneration of life. Even when things seem bleak, especially in the dark when the stars shine most brightly, especially in the midst of grief, the death, the divorce, the illness, God carries you, creating within you, the ability to grow through you, and discovering a new version of yourself you didn’t think possible. And when we come through the other side, we hold a deeper compassion for those who suffer, and a deeper gratitude for the gifts of life.
I suppose there’s another way “the devil” can manifest in us, there’s endless ways I suppose, but the one that comes to mind is the maybe the other end of the spectrum. If one end of the adversarial spectrum is to believe you’re not really worthy of love, than the other end is to believe you’re perfect and above reproach. We all know someone like this who can’t be wrong, who will tell you they’re the greatest, the one who can’t hear constructive criticism without getting defensive. If you look deep enough you begin to understand that there too, the adversarial lie is rooted in a form of insecurity and fear.
If the adversary wants to convince you that you’re unworthy, the advocate reminds you that you’re loved.
If the adversary wants to convince you that you’re perfect and above reproach, the advocate reminds you that the most powerful position is one of humility, vulnerability and dependence on God, Christ and Spirit.
There’s another way this adversary shows up, and I think it happens in grief, after someone we loved has died, and we wish we had done it all differently - been more loving, more patient, hadn’t had the fight, hadn’t said those words. And are so profusely sorry we hold onto the regret as a way to punish ourselves long after they’ve gone.
For years after my fathers death, I couldn’t shake the shame of how many times I was impatient with him when really I was mad at Parkinson’s disease. Every visit I would vow to be more patient only to find myself failing. And when he died, the guilt and regret grew. Then one night in a dream my father showed up and said, you have to start thinking about me as I was when I was younger, and all the good times we had, and that helped. I began to see him as younger and vibrant, the way we played catch, raked leaves, went to the beach. And over time, years later, all I’m left with is love, despite all his failures and imperfections, and despite all of my own, love remains. That’s how I know that I’ve been forgiven by a God who loves me and created me perfectly imperfect.
That love, when recognized, transforms our ability to live into becoming the people we were created to be. Through the death of those old voices telling us we’re not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, enough. Through the death of the lion comes the birth and rebirth of the transforming power of Christ who wins the battle between good and not so good.
What a huge revelation this was to go from believing vehemently that there is no such thing as the devil, to wanting to accept the concept as a force whose sole mission is to keep me away from the belief that I am held and loved by God.
Have you ever met someone who has been raised this way and by the grace of God carries that unconditional love as their core belief? I have met a few. They’re a joy to be with. They’re not perfect, they’re humble. They’re not phony, they’re real. They’re very simply a joy. You are that joy. Believe it. Practice it, and believe it all over again.