Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Snakes, lions - and your soul

So if you think you’re standing firm, watch out that you don’t fall! 1 Corinthians 10:12

Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8

I knew a man once who was a mature, solid Christian: a church leader in fact. He exercised a fruitful ministry, and was widely respected. He had been happily married for many years.

Then, out of nowhere, he fell victim to a sexual passion that completely overwhelmed him. Having long been a faithful husband, he suddenly found himself infatuated with another woman. His world turned upside down. His marriage came under massive strain. He couldn’t cope in his mind with what was happening to him. It was a dark time in his life.

Well, his crisis-time did in fact end well. Precisely because he had a strong Christian foundation to his life, he and his wife battled through the storm and ended up the stronger for it – albeit with immense pain.

Not all stories like that end well. And that is the point Paul wants his friends in Corinth to get hold of: “You think you’re all right? You think you’re safe from any risk of being overcome by temptation? Well, you’d better look out! You’re in danger!”

This isn’t just about sex, though that perhaps is the area where the danger is at its most obvious and dramatic. Corinth, at that time, was a particularly immoral and licentious place. Perhaps Paul’s strong feelings come from the fact that the Corinth Christians had been converted to Christ out of this background of rampant wickedness, and he fears that once the novelty of being in Christ has worn off a little, they might be tempted to go back to some of their former ways.

But whatever, the point is clear: however strong you may be as a believer, you are never more than a hair’s-breadth from the possibility of disaster. There is never a point in your life where you can rest on your laurels and say “I’m all right, a spiritual collapse could never happen to me.” Oh yes it could! Complacency is out.

In the Bible the devil is often portrayed as a snake. This, of course, suggests cunning and deception, a slithery, slimy, creepy infiltration of our lives before we’re even aware of the danger. And that is indeed often how it happens.

But Peter gives us another angle: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to gobble up.” If a snake suggests subtlety and guile, a lion suggests raw power and strength. A lion prowls quietly (oh yes, very quietly) for a while; but then it pounces. And it’s all over in a flash. This, I suspect, is what happened to the man I mentioned at the start.

Perhaps Peter sees it this way because of his own bitter experience. There was a time when he certainly thought he was “standing firm”, wasn’t there? – even to the point of putting Jesus right on one or two things: “Me betray you, Jesus? Me? Never! Even if all the others do, you can count on me! I’m right with you, if it comes to it, to the very death!” (Mark 14:27-31).

And then, within a matter of hours, deny Jesus is exactly what he does – three times (Mark 14:66-72). The devil pounces, and he just can’t cope. And so Matthew gives us one of the saddest verses in the Bible: “And he went outside and wept bitterly.” (Can you see him?)

Let’s ram it home again: however long you have been a Christian, however strong and well-taught your faith, however regular you are in worship, prayer and Bible-reading, however faithfully you have served God over many years, however much people may praise and respect you, however truly, indeed, you love Christ… however much all these things are true, you are never safe until you arrive in heaven.

The Christian life is a one-day-at-a-time thing. Let yesterday’s victories be an encouragement, by all means. But – yesterday was yesterday, and today is today. Be confident, by all means: but never complacent. Let our confidence be purely in Jesus, never in ourselves.

Oh, there is something else… If, like Peter, we do fall, remember that Peter was forgiven and restored. What was true of him can be true too of you and me. Praise God for that!

Loving Father, please help me, by your Spirit, to resist every temptation to self-confidence or complacency. May my trust be in you and you alone, and may I never forget that there is an enemy who wants to bring me down. Amen.

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