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Reflections on the Evil One

Back in my seminary days one of the books that we read for our class on “Methodist History and Doctrine” (taught by the great theologian Albert Outler) was Organizing to Beat the Devil by Charles Ferguson.  The lead image in the book is intriguing.  Launching off of the classic Methodist vision for America – “to reform the Continent, and especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness across the land” – Methodists organized to “beat the devil.”  Much as we revere the vision, it is the latter part of the statement that we tend to ignore.  We are organized not just to advance the kingdom God, enact evangelism, engage in justice and mercy ministries, etc.  We are organized to “beat the devil.” Such a phrasing implies as a first order concern that there is in fact a devil to beat!  At a meeting with the District Superintendents and Lay Leader about a month ago, I shared a devotional based on Philippians 4:4-8.  In part the passage reads, “Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:5-7).  In the midst of ensuing conversation, I spoke about how hard it was to live such a profoundly beautiful passage wrapped in the controversies of our day and time.  I don’t remember my exact words, but I commented something to the effect that there were days when it seemed like the devil was stalking our best efforts. A district superintendent interjected with a question.  “Bishop, do you believe in spiritual warfare?”  (I am not sure I ever remember being asked that question before!)  I replied that I had come to believe that there was such a thing as spiritual warfare.  What ensued was one of the liveliest and most inquiringly open discussions I have engaged in for a long time.  Most of us (including myself and it actually may have been all of us) noted that we had not been taught such a concept in our seminary training but that now, over the years, virtually all of us have come to some belief (we had varying opinions) in the presence of evil, the personification of the devil, and the reality of spiritual warfare. I noted for the group the phasing that is in our official liturgy on membership vows.  “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?  Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”  (“Baptismal Covenant II”, The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 40). I had wrongly rejected a doctrine of evil and the devil (a personification of evil) because of a tendency to use the devil as an excuse for a failure of personal responsibility.  Those close to me in age may remember a comedian named Flip Wilson who, when he did something he shouldn’t have, always blamed the devil with the phrase “the devil made me do it.”  I am not sure the devil can “make” me (or anyone!) do anything.  I am thoroughly Wesleyan and believe deeply in a doctrine of free will.  Such conviction does not however negate spiritual warfare, temptation (just look at Luke 4:1-12), or trials (testing).  Spiritual warfare is real.  We are currently engaged on that battlefield whether we acknowledge it or not. One of the fascinating culture shifts taking place in our age is the move from an excessively rationalistic understanding of reality (modernism) to an understanding of reality that is more open to subjective input that is often labeled “spiritual” (post-modernism).  [An important sidebar: just because something is “spiritual” doesn’t mean it is Christian.]  There is much for me (us?) to ponder here.  The waning of the enlightenment intellectual foundation has delivered us culturally to an untenable post-modernism with no clear understanding of truth as an anchor.  It is past time to theologically investigate and rediscover hidden parts of historic Christian orthodoxy.  Evil is real.  The devil (however we may understand the term) is present.  Human agency (responsibility) cannot be swept away.  Divine authority and revealed truth (including a full blown doctrine of revelation) needs desperately to be re-appropriated. “Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a humanis from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:1-4). We Methodists were organized to beat the devil.