As I slowly regained consciousness, my eyes remained firmly closed. At that early stage, my body was almost paralyzed. To be honest with myself, I guess fear added to my reluctance to open my eyes. As I lay there – wherever ‘there’ was – you have (indeed, I might have) expected my thoughts to rush back to that cliffhanging battle of wills with those evil beings before last losing consciousness. I had a pressing need to make sense of it all, plus the obvious need to ascertain how safe I now was. Instead, I distracted myself by attempting to put a positive spin on my lapses of consciousness.|
No matter how annoying, they must give my senses some sort of rest – perhaps rest that I needed more than I realize. Even when highly pleasant, so much new stimulation must take its toll. To my frustration, however, when first coming to I felt more exhausted than ever, as if waking from heavy sedation.
Then a new thought hit. What if it took ages to be transported to each place and I had been put into some form of suspended animation to spare me the boredom? What a comforting thought! The further away I was from those evil thugs, the better.
I was only beginning to consider this when an alternative hypothesis formed. What if it were the opposite? What if I actually sped to the new destination at such a terrifying speed that it was a gross assault to the senses or my body that I was mercifully spared the trauma by some sort of general anesthetic? My return trip to the palace did not seem to fit, but I lost interest in perusing that thought.
I was becoming rather uncomfortably aware that I was on a cold, hard floor. I changed position a little and quickly found myself puzzling over how I could have so quickly crashed from the heights of worship to such dismal unbelief. How could I have even wondered whether God had abandoned me? I was sickened to realize how little of God’s truth must actually be within me, if it has to be propped up by circumstances. Despite my superficial familiarity with the words of Scripture, it must be more like cotton candy inside me than the concrete of my belief system. Truth does not change according to circumstances nor with the boldness with which others make their own assertions.
As intriguing – indeed important – as that might be, I could only procrastinate for so long. Feeling stronger, I opened my eyes and discovered I was in a tiny circular room. At the perimeter, the flat floor curved seamlessly upwards and became the walls, which remained perpendicular until curving into a domed ceiling. The floors, walls and ceiling were all made of the same featureless, white material. The cornerless, windowless and doorless little room was completely bare except for a table and chair. There was no way out.
Then a possibility smacked me. I did win back there, didn’t I? A dart of panic fired through me. That beast didn’t somehow turn the tables so that I’m now his prisoner, did he? I tried to pull myself together. If faith is a key to victory, I’d better start trying to scrounge some. What is faith anyway?
Then into my alarmingly uncontrollable mind popped the thought, Hey! If, as they claimed, those demons – or whatever they are – spoke my language because they could scan my brain, how come I understood them right from the beginning when I was just overhearing them and they presumably didn’t even know I was there? I pondered for a minute. Oh, sorting out all of this is just too difficult!
I have no idea why my mind bolts away from me, chasing such trivia. It’s ridiculous having a mind that has a mind of its own. If only my thoughts were more like a set of precisely engineered tools than a pack of startled rats.
Then another thought rattled me. What if they had known all along that I was eavesdropping? What if that entire conversation had been staged to make me fear the dominant angel? My mind swaggered. Surely not! I protested, distressed to find myself beyond my ability to determine what is real and what is deception. I wished I were more intelligent and then recalled in my university days hearing a scientist confess that whenever science finds an answer it raises ten more questions. If ever I needed God . . .
On the table I found a blank notebook, a ballpen and a Bible. Remarkably, they seemed just like what I would find on earth. Anyhow, it did not take great genius to work out that I was there for Bible study. I admit the thought came that that repulsive angel might have put it there to mock me, but I tried hard to shove aside that possibility.
From my pathetic performance on that horrid planet, it was painfully obvious that such study was sorely needed. I marveled that I still wasn’t back there being tortured. I could hardly claim that it was because of my great faith that the Lord had graciously rescued me.
I opened the Bible. Where do I start? I’d better do things properly this time. So I asked God to direct me to whatever Scriptures he wanted me to focus on. I plucked from my memory Psalm 119, “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things in your law.” For many years my mind has linked this with Luke telling us that, despite Jesus’ disciples hearing all his teaching, it was only after his resurrection that he finally “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” about him. So I asked the Lord to open my understanding and cause me to get his glorious truths deep into my spirit. Then I plunged in, devouring the Word of God like a famished man at a banquet.
My question about the precise nature of biblical faith led me to read about mountain-moving faith. Locating it was a breeze. I had long known that the famous Faith Chapter is Hebrews 11 and one day I made the easily remembered discovery that the same chapter number in Mark likewise focuses on faith.
I had always wondered if it were enough simply to believe God can do something or whether we should believe he will do it. I read in this passage Jesus saying, “. . . whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”. Clearly this is more specific than merely believing that God has the raw power to do something if he truly wants to.
But why aren’t Christians all around the world literally sending mountains crashing into the sea as specifically stated in that passage? The context was literal enough: Jesus had just caused a fig tree to wither up from the roots after merely speaking the word. I decided to examine another miracle I likewise don’t see hordes of Christians putting into practice: walking on water.
My above-average Bible knowledge often lets me down in the Gospels. A few references stick in my slippery mind but the repetitive nature of the Gospels somehow renders it difficult for me to recall the exact location of various events in Jesus’ earthly ministry. I resigned myself to a long search but to my surprise I turned straight to it. As I tried to read the incident with fresh eyes this rushed out at me: “ ‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘command me to come to you on the water.’ ” In an instant, the fog cleared. Suddenly I understood what for years had sabotaged my faith.
That’s it! Peter was not stepping out on some general promise, I triumphantly told myself. He first sought Jesus and only after receiving a personalized word from him about the matter did he move.
Peter was not doing it merely because he thought it would be fun or even a good idea; he had received Jesus’ specific go-ahead. The man with the mouth big enough to swallow the entire lake might have been trying to get his way by asking his Lord to tell him to come. Nevertheless, he did not step out of the boat until it was undeniably obvious that he was not trying to manipulate God; he was obeying him.
My mind sped to the context of “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The words are immediately preceded by the critical instruction to submit oneself to God. I quickly turned to John 15, knowing this was about abiding in the vine. I quickly scanned it, looking for a verse I vaguely recalled. In seconds I had it: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” I noted that this is not some unconditional promise; it is smack in the middle of a dissertation on abiding in Christ and it then moves on to discussing the critical importance of obeying his commands.
Something James wrote about asking amiss sprang to mind. I located it with surprising ease: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” Ouch! That hits hard!
I had a faint recollection of something somewhere in 1 John that seemed relevant. Given my fogginess on this scripture, the exact verse should have been harder to find but again it turned out easier than I expected. “This is the confidence we have in him: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked from him.” Sandwiched in there are the key words, “. . . if we ask anything according to his will . . .”
Of course, relationship must be critical. I recalled James writing that even demons believe in God’s power.
The sons of Sceva immortalized themselves by proving that knowing about Jesus counts for nothing in the spirit world (Acts 19:13-20). It doesn’t take much, but you either have a living relationship with the risen Lord or it will be you, not demons, who do the fleeing. More than their barefaced ignorance was exposed as the sons of Sceva streaked away from their abortive attempt to cast out demons. It was no laughing matter. Many in the city – even those who had considered themselves Christians – rightly hit the panic button and realized that adherence to a doctrine is not enough; single-minded devotion to Christ is critical.
So we must ask in submission to God and in harmony with his specific will for us. Nevertheless, faith still seems critical. I turned to the Faith Chapter. I got surprisingly little out of it until my mind lit up as I read near the end of the chapter of those whose faith didn’t result in miraculous deliverances but solely in empowering them to endure horrific events. I was beginning to see that much of faith is just dogged perseverance no matter how much circumstances seem to scream that God has let you down. I turned to those in the Gospels that Jesus commended for their faith. In ways that would have crushed me, the Canaanite woman kept being given the divine brush-off, but she persisted, utterly refusing to take no for an answer. And instead of this annoying the Lord, it filled him with praise.
The thought exploded within me that faith is not about screwing up one’s face and raising one’s blood pressure until reaching some point on the faith scale that somehow pries a miracle out of the clenched fist of a reluctant God. Faith is not about twisting God’s arm but of doggedly refusing to believe God is anything but good and loving.
In the light of Mark 11, adding “if it be your will” to my prayers, seems a cop-out. Nevertheless, I was now convinced that total submission to God’s will is essential for answered prayer. I puzzled; eventually concluding that the key must be to keep seeking God until certain of his will in a specific circumstance and then believing that I have it before I receive it.
So here’s the rub: does God always want me victorious over evil powers? I felt peculiarly restrained from responding with an emphatic Yes!
As I puzzled over how to lay this matter to rest, the thought emerged that God’s attitude to temptation could be relevant. We often talk of the devil tempting us but surely only God has the power to be everywhere at once. So if Satan doesn’t have the power to tempt thousands of people around the word at any one time, who does the tempting? Satan’s underlings?
Temptation is a peculiar thing. God wants no one to be defeated by it but, in this life at least, it does not seem his will to stop all temptation. I recalled how the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness specifically to be tempted. Surely God never wants us to be spiritually defeated, nor enslaved by anything demonic, but does that mean it is never his will that we be challenged or buffeted by the demonic?
I decided I had better look up the account of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’. I knew it was in 2 Corinthians – maybe chapter 11, but probably 12. Here’s what I found: “To keep me from becoming conceited . . . there was given me . . . a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I begged the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.’ ”
This brought to mind the verse near the beginning of either James or 1 Peter (it turned out to be James) to “Count it all joy . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds.” My eye slid to the context and suddenly I discovered something mind-walloping. Why hadn’t I seen it before? I wondered; staggered that I could have missed it despite reading it countless times since childhood.
I had always presumed this verse was imploring us to rejoice despite trials. Now I realized it was actually saying rejoice because of trials. It is saying that trials are a spiritual goldmine. They end up doing us so much good spiritually that we should celebrate entering hard times like a money-crazed gambler would celebrate winning a lottery.
I had an inkling of a verse or two somewhere in the first half of Romans that also spoke of rejoicing in trials. I knew it was close to a reference to love being shed abroad in our hearts. (Instead of flitting from passage to passage in my Bible reading, I usually read individual books of the Bible as one normally reads a book – from beginning to end. Having a vague idea of the context, means that I only have to recall the location of a fragment of it to flip to that part of the Bible and find all of the rest. That helps people like me, with a mind more like a mudslide than a bear trap.)
I located the passage in chapter 5 and, to my surprise, I discovered that although, as one would expect, Paul’s words differed from those of James, they were both expounding the same truth. Moved by the Spirit, these two very different men declared that the reason for rejoicing in one’s suffering is that to encounter hard times is to hit spiritual pay dirt. Suffering, declared the apostle whose intense personal familiarity with the subject must have taught him one or two things about it, produces within us qualities of eternal value.
So God always wants us to triumph spiritually and yet tough times and even direct assaults from the Evil One can end up doing us good. Even the great apostle of faith himself had his prayer for deliverance denied not once, not twice but three times until finally realizing that he somehow needed this satanic affliction for his spiritual protection from pride.
Hmm . . . Who’d have thought that? How easy it must be to smugly presume one knows God’s will on a matter and not bother to passionately seek his heart about it? And if we got it wrong – trying in vain to seize by faith something from God that he is too wise and loving to give us – how quick would we be to accuse the Perfect One of not keeping his word, or decide that the Bible doesn’t work, or reach some other spiritually disastrous false conclusion? This isn’t nearly as straightforward as I had hoped.
I thought of Jesus on the cross. What at that moment seemed utter defeat was actually an essential part of the greatest victory the universe has ever seen. Things aren’t always what they seem, I mused. Perhaps faith is often about refusing to accept as defeat, things that seem like defeat. Could I define faith as a refusal to limit oneself to what human eyes see as the only conclusion?
I kept reading scripture after scripture, building up my awareness of who I am in Christ and who Christ is in me. To say it was exhilarating is an understatement but the Lord sobered me by revealing that too often such discoveries end in tragedy because they are not preceded by dying to self. To get drunk on pride when handling such spiritual dynamite can be as catastrophic as getting blind drunk while attempting to diffuse a bomb.
My study forced me to conclude that God is love and that love craves relationship. God’s purpose in empowering us is not to enable us to act autonomously but to do everything in intimate partnership with him.
I will not continue detailing what I found in Earth’s most exciting book. You have the privilege of reading it yourself. As I kept reading, however, it was as though life was somehow being pumped into what had become old, wilted truths. They again became fresh, vital and powerful to me. I felt stronger and stronger.
Time wore on, however, and I grew increasingly bored. I looked around the room. There was not a thing to do except read the Bible. How long am I going to be stuck here? Is God punishing me for messing up when those evil beings had me bluffed? I looked at the cold, hard floor. I can’t even sleep in this place! I looked at the featureless walls. There was nothing even to count. I began to daydream. After perhaps an hour, I walked around and around the desk. I was becoming increasingly annoyed about being in what amounted to solitary confinement in a prison cell. “God, let me out of here!” I prayed. Finally, I sat down, put my head on the table and hoped I could while away some of the interminable hours by sleeping.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when something startled me. I looked up and what I saw horrified me so much that I frantically hoped I was simply suffering the worst nightmare I could ever have. Unfortunately, it seemed all too real. Standing in front of me was my former master. And he was angrier and more terrifying than ever.
Instantly, I saw my time in that tiny room very differently. No longer was it a divine prison sentence; it was a grievously needed, tragically squandered training opportunity. Oh, no, no, no, no! I lamented, If only I’d known this would happen, I’d now be equipped to take on this beast! What an idiot I’ve been!
Just before my sleep, I had managed to convince myself that through my faith-union with Christ I was a son of God – divine royalty. Now, in this overwhelmingly evil presence, I was like a punctured inflatable doll, caving into a formless mass as faith hissed out of me at an alarming speed. In a frantic attempt to patch the leak before even the little that remained was lost, I tried to convince myself that even the most drastic change in my feelings cannot change who I am in Christ and who he is in me.
“You didn’t really think you’d get away from me, did you?” he snarled. “There’s no place in the universe where you can run that I won’t follow. You’ve yet to know the terror of discovering my powers. You’re mine forever!”
To my dismay, the refresher course I had undertaken before my sleep now seemed a million years ago. I struggled to put on a bold front and practice the truth of God’s Word. “And neither have you discovered my powers!” I said, defiantly pointing my finger at him, in a manner inconsistent with how I felt. “I’m glad you’re back, you con artist! You caught me unawares last time and I idiotically let you push me around. But now I know my status in Christ. I know what my Lord has achieved and the power he has entrusted to me.”
He looked at me stony-faced.
“You’re all bluff!” I asserted. “You’re defeated. The Ruler of the universe is in me!” I proudly congratulated myself about how much better I was doing this time around.
“Do you see me quaking?” he retorted in terrifying fury. “I’m here because you’ve blown it! You’ve exhausted God’s patience. No longer will he respond to puny faith. He had mercy on you last time. He rescued you despite your lack of faith and gave you one last chance to build yourself up spiritually, and instead of seizing the opportunity, what have you been doing? You’ve been goofing off! You’ve been sleeping. You’ve been daydreaming. You’ve even had the audacity to complain to God for removing every distraction. If so much as the pen had been slightly different from the technology you are used to, you’d have let yourself be sidetracked into examining it, instead of studying Scripture.”
Wow! Has he ever read my ‘file’! So much for doing better than last time!
“Even though there was no suitable place to sleep, you still managed to sleep rather than put God first. God spoilt you rotten by giving you every opportunity to concentrate on him and his Word. And instead of relishing the chance and worshipping your God for being far kinder to you than you could ever deserve, you trashed the last chance you’ll ever get. You threw all his kindness back in his face and even griped to God for his mercy to you in removing distractions.”
He might as well have been a street fighter hammering me with his fists. His every word was a sickening body blow, and he kept pounding and pounding and pounding. “You are vomit! You’ve had the audacity to try to fool yourself into supposing you’re a follower of the Selfless One and you’re as self-centered as me. The big difference between us is that I’m not a hypocrite! You turn the stomach of every angel in heaven and we on the other side feel the same way about your nauseating hypocrisy. You’ve lost it. You belong to me forever.”
Then he began listing my every sin. He went on and on and on.
How does he know all these things? Talk about being an expert in condemnation! Hey . . . ! Suddenly a memorized portion of Romans 8 reached out from the depths of my mind and grabbed me. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. He’s trying to bluff me again!
I interrupted his tirade about my sins. “You deceiver!” I said in a feeble attempt to sound bold. “Yes, your words are baited with truth. It’s the only way you can dupe your victims into swallowing the hook.” As usual, I found it hard to spit out the words. I’m so hopeless at speaking off the cuff. And yet, with each word, I found myself getting stronger. An indignation was beginning to well up from within me, and a fluency that was not my own. “Like all your horde, you’re a compulsive liar – a parasite that can survive only by sucking the life out of truth. Though you rebel against God, you are totally dependent upon him. You can build your mantraps only by tearing down the edifice of God’s truth – plundering heaven’s mansion for building materials – because you have nothing that is your own. You can catch your slaves only by using God’s truth to bait the trap.”
Wow! That sounded good! Did I really say that? Hey! Don’t dare fall into pride!
“Yes,” I continued, “I’ve committed all those sins, but I’m a new creation in Christ Jesus. The person who did those vile things died when Jesus died. Jesus and I are one. I’ve risen to a new life through Jesus rising from the dead.”
“Ha! Don’t give me that rubbish! You committed those sins after you committed your life to Jesus.”
Oh, man! I heaved a deep breath.
“Yes, and I repented of those sins after I committed them – just as I repent of my most recent shameful laziness – and the blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin. You have no power over me, you con artist! Jesus has cleansed me. There is no sin in me, because of the power of Jesus’ forgiveness. In the name of Jesus, be gone!”
He resolutely stood his ground.
“You’re defeated. Jesus has won. I belong to Jesus. So be gone!”
He looked as fierce and determined as ever.
What do I do now? “You can bluff all you like. You have no authority over me and you know it.”
He was not budging.
I was scared. “GO!”
He did not blink an eye. Come to think of it, do angles have eyelids? Oh, for crying out loud! I can’t even focus when my life depends on it!
“In the authority of Jesus, LEAVE!”
“You have to leave!”
Then suddenly he vanished.
I was in such shock over the return of that terrifying trickster that now that it was over – or was it just a momentary respite? – it was as though my typically hyperactive brain had seized up.
For quite some time, my mind was almost totally blank. Eventually, it began to slowly fill up again. My mind slid to Jesus speaking of the demon returning despite having been forcefully evicted, and things ending up many times worse than the original disaster. This compelled the disturbing conclusion that demons must keep returning every now and then, to test the defenses to see if any weaknesses have developed that could allow them to force their way back in.
I thought of people who command demons to never return, to go directly to hell, and so on. Is that just wishful thinking? I could not recall it in the Bible. If this were possible before Judgment Day, why hasn’t God already done it, or at least why haven’t all demons been banished from earth after twenty centuries of Christian activity? Why did Jesus cast “Legion’s” demons into pigs, if sending them to hell or some other confinement was a viable option?
I thought of how, after Jesus’ temptations, Scripture says the devil left Jesus “for a season” or as modern versions often put it: “until an opportune time”. Not even Jesus’ massive victory over Satan himself was enough to keep him free from spiritual attack for long.
I was so thankful to still be in that capsule-like room with a Bible to pore over. I needed that Book like a drowning man needs a lifebuoy. I looked up 1 Peter 5:8, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Despite the power of the cross and miracle of new birth, Christians are warned about the necessity to remain vigilant, not letting their guard down, because they are still vulnerable to attack.
I knew there was a warning in 1 Corinthians 10 and decided to check the exact wording. It was just before my favorite Scripture about promised victory over temptation: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” This reminded me of Peter who was so sure he would never deny his Lord.
Then, of course, there is Ephesians 6 about putting on the whole armor of God. Surely the need to do this implies we could be attacked at any moment. I looked it up and the wording was even clearer than I had remembered: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the evil day comes, you will be able to stand your ground . . . With this in mind [I took this to mean, knowing that the “evil day” will definitely come our way], be alert and always keep on praying . . .”
All of this, taken together, made it seem unlikely that I had seen the last of that fiendish brute. Thankfully, this does not mean I need ever suffer defeat. I recalled something encouraging in either Colossians or Ephesians (I often get those two mixed up). I found it in Colossians “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” This reminded me of another verse. I eventually found it in 2 Corinthians 2:14, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ . . .”
In Christ, victory is always available but whether we will always avail ourselves of it, and how prolonged the fight will be, are entirely different matters. This side of Judgment Day, we work, eat, sleep and play in a spiritual battle zone. I examined several Gospel accounts of the emotionally exhausted disciples, unable to keep their eyes open despite Jesus’ repeated warnings to “watch and pray”. This was not merely something for that critical moment. I remember once noting that in another context Jesus warned us to always be on the watch and to keep praying because a spiritual challenge could arise when least expected.
Not surprisingly, the disciples’ failure to give priority to prayer left them spiritually depleted when armed soldiers arrived to arrest their Savior. Those who, moments earlier, were too exhausted to pray, suddenly found the strength to outrun professional soldiers; deserting their Master in the process.
I began to wonder if my battles had so far been abnormally short and easy. My thoughts returned to Paul praying three times for relief from Satan’s messenger that was tormenting him, and being told that he simply had to endure it. How long did that go on for?
I began to worship God, praising him for once again being merciful to me, despite having yet again had a wrong attitude toward him and failing to do even the little that was within my power to do – making full use of the time available to me to study his Word. “Truly you are good and do good,” I wrote in the notebook on the desk. “Your tender mercies bathe everything you do.”
Then everything went black.