I Peter 5:8-9
We come to the end of I Peter with today’s text. Next week I will focus on the sufferings of Christ that Peter speaks about so often in this letter as an introduction to the period of Lent that leads us in the church calendar to Easter. And during Lent, we will take a look at some of the parables of Jesus. But enough of coming attractions.
Peter has talked about our identity as strangers in the world and the sure hope we have of our inheritance in heaven. We have a future to look forward to that is glorious beyond our capability to comprehend and that is more permanent than the earth we stand on. Therefore, we are to be obedient, to resist sinful desires that wage war against our souls. We are to focus on the development of a pure and refined heart. In doing so, we live such good lives that our good deeds cause non-Christians to turn to the truth.
This is Peter’s message to Christians who were facing increasing persecution for their faith in Jesus Christ.
And now at the close of Peter’s letter, he offers the practice advice that is today’s text.
“8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”
My youngest daughter, Caitlin, took a year off after high school to tutor the children of an American family living in Mtwara, in southern Tanzania. So, we planned a family visit this past March and spent three and a half wonderful weeks with her. One of those weeks was spent on a safari in the Serengeti and other parks in northern Tanzania.
On our trip we met a graduate student from the US who was studying owl behavior in the Serengeti and he told us this story. Serengeti National Park is a wildlife refuge in northern Tanzania in East Africa. The park has an area of about 14,763 Ü (5,700 æ). It is home to elephants, black rhinoceroses, lions, leopards, cheetahs, gazelles, wildebeests, hyenas, buffalo, zebras, giraffes, and antelope. And if you want to see more pictures than you need to of these animals, come to my home for a slide show some night. At any rate, this graduate student saw car lights coming one night and thought this might be a woman he knew coming for a visit. There are not a lot of people living in the Serengeti so when you see car lights coming, it is something special. So he went outside about thirty meters from his house and waited in the dark for her. But after ten minutes or so it turned out it was not her because the lights kept on going. So he turned on his torch (flashlight) and there in front of him, about 20 feet (7 meters) away, was a female lion on the hunt – and he appeared to be the prey. He said he knew what he was supposed to do, not run – because that triggers a response, but to back up slowly to safety. He said he was too scared to look at the lion, so he turned around, keeping the light shining behind him, and walked slowly into his house, to safety. When he turned on the outside lights, he saw three female lions around his outhouse. He didn’t tell me if he needed to change his pants. He did say he no longer goes outside to use the outhouse at night.
One of the tourist shops by the Serengeti had their night watchman killed by a lion within a year of the time we were there. The week before we stayed at the Lake Manyara lodge, a young woman had taken a midnight stroll along the grounds of the lodge and had been presumably killed by leopards.
This is the image Peter uses in today’s text. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
Like the lions in the stories I told, the Devil is prowling around, stalking us, waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of a momentary weakness or lapse of vigilance.
The first question you might have is, “Is the devil real?” Is the devil a real person, or is the devil no more than a personification of evil?
I mentioned a book by CS Lewis titled The Screwtape Letters in a sermon a few weeks ago. It is a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a minor demon, Wormwood. These letters give advice, from the devil’s point of view, on how to prevent a person from growing as a Christian.
“My Dear Wormwood, I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered by our High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves… I do not think you will have much difficulty keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that … he therefore cannot believe in you.”
The devil has been trivialized in modern culture, at least in the United States, but the Devil is real and we need to heed Peter’s admonition, “Be self-controlled and alert.”
The Bible is very clear about the existence of a physical devil. Jesus, in his ministry, was very aware of the existence of the devil and as we read in the Gospel lesson for today, had a physical confrontation with him in the wilderness when he was tested before beginning his public ministry.
The Devil is real and not to take him seriously is to put yourself in spiritual danger.
Not to take the devil seriously is to be like the graduate student I met in the Serengeti.
One more lion story. Several months before we arrived, a German family was on safari in the Serengeti, riding around in their own car. They came upon a pride of lions and in the heat of the day, the lions were lazing around, barely moving except to yawn get in a more comfortable position. The parents were videotaping these lions and in order to get a closer shot, they stepped out of their car and were killed and eaten by the lions.
The Serengeti is a beautiful place but an awareness of the dangers there needs to be kept in the front of the mind. In the same way, this life is a wonderful life, but the dangers present need to be kept in the front of our minds.
The presence of the Devil is a danger to us in this world. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for his opportunity. That’s how the Gospel account ends, doesn’t it. “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.”
The second question to be asked is, “How do I know when it is the Devil attacking me?”
If you get a cold or the flu, is that an attack of the Devil? Is Roger Hesch’s cancer an attack of the Devil? If you are depressed or discouraged, is that an attack of the Devil? If the bureaucracy is not processing your papers, is that an attack of the Devil? If you are trying to get to Europe and being stopped, is that an attack of the Devil? If you are trying to get a business started and being stymied, is that an attack of the Devil?
If so, then taking Peter’s advice to resist the Devil is good advice. But if not, then resisting the Devil is fruitless, a waste of time and energy.
Richard Lovelace, a church historian who has specialized in spiritual theology, wrote two books, Dynamics of Spiritual Life and a shorter version of that titled Renewal as a Way of Daily Life. In these books he talks, in part, about the necessity of discerning the source of evil that confronts us. He says that evil that oppresses us comes in three forms: the world, the flesh and the devil.
What is evil in the form of the world?
We live in a fallen world. The book of Genesis tells us that because of sin, the whole of creation is fallen. So in this world that at times can look like the Garden of Eden with scenes of unspeakable beauty, there is disease and natural disasters. Cancer and hurricanes and pneumonia and earthquakes are part of this fallen world. Jesus said in the sermon on the Mount that God “causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The fallen world affects Christians as well as non-Christians. So when disease strikes, it may be an attack of the Devil, but it may be the fallen world we are encountering.
In this fallen world, sinful human beings become preoccupied with power, prestige and materialism. These are not things that in themselves are evil. We all have some measure of power, some sphere of influence. I decide what text we will listen to on Sundays. I have a certain measure of power. I also have some measure of prestige. I am the pastor of RPF International. Power and prestige are not in themselves evil. Nor is the material world we live in evil. Possessions are not evil. Money is not evil. But, as James points out in his letter, it is the love of money that is a route of evil. It is when we become preoccupied with power, prestige and materialism, that evil rules. Tim Keller, a pastor in NYC, defines sinful desires not as wanting bad things, but wanting things badly.
When we become preoccupied with power, prestige and materialism, we create institutions and patterns of behavior that oppress others. Examples of this are racism, economic oppression, discriminatory policies and unjust laws.
This is evil in the form of the world that oppresses us.
Lovelace also talks about the flesh.
Evil in the form of the flesh is the inability to control my own desires and the inability to do the things I know I need to do.
Gluttony, pornography, addictions whether to caffeine or tobacco or something else, these are the pleasures of the flesh that are at war with our soul. Pride, covetousness, vanity, these are elements of the flesh that are at war with my soul. Laziness, pursuit of pleasure at the expense of responsibility and duty, these are elements of the flesh that are at war with my soul.
When I feel oppressed, it makes a big difference if the evil that is oppressing me comes from the world, the flesh or the devil.
So, if you are trying to get a bank loan and it is denied, it could be the Devil oppressing you. But it could also be the world oppressing you. If you can’t get a job, it may be the Devil oppressing you. But it could also be the oppression of the world.
It makes a big difference. If it is the world, then effort needs to be made to reform bank policies. Effort needs to be made to stimulate the economy so more jobs are available. Resisting the Devil will do nothing to improve your situation. Starting a business in Morocco puts you up against the network that exists for doing business. The devil does not need to get involved to prevent your business from getting started, the existing network is what has to be combated.
The devil does not need to prevent you from getting to Spain. The governments of this world restrict access across their borders. When you are trying to work around those restrictions, you are working against the government of Morocco or the government of Spain, not against the Devil.
Evil in the world needs to be combated through social reform, new laws and regulations. Evil in the world needs to be combated by choosing to take your eyes of the things of this world and placing them on the promise of heaven.
I can pray that the hearts of those making policies for corporations and those making laws for countries will be changed so that the policies and laws will reflect God’s concerns for this world. But I also need to take up the struggle to change oppressive policies and laws
If I can’t control my weight, is it the Devil attacking me or is it my inability to keep the refrigerator door closed? If I am addicted to pornography, is it the Devil attacking me or is it my inability to say no and not click the mouse or pick up the magazine? If I have a hard time studying because I’d rather play computer games or a hard time at work because I prefer reading a good book, is it the Devil attacking me or is it time for me to discipline myself and fulfill the duties and responsibilities that are mine?
When I was in college and a brand new Christian, I attended a prayer meeting at which a lot of people were tired. So they prayed to resist the devil and exorcize the demon of sleepiness. The thought crossed my mind, perhaps they just stayed up too late the previous night. Resisting the Devil does no good when it is time to exercise self-control and gain mastery over the flesh.
I was traveling quite a bit throughout the United States this last year, assisting salesmen from the company that bought my printing ink company. That meant I was in hotels a lot. As soon as I checked into my room at the end of the day, I would press the remote control to turn on the television and would lie in bed channel surfing until late at night. I brought books with me to read, but I was unable to not watch television. The television was my master. My flesh was in control and I was its slave. I was greatly frustrated by this and would vow to watch only the news, but when I turned on the television to watch the news, I’d watch the news and then just check to see what else was on and there I was in the trap.
So what was the solution? This was not an attack of the devil, this was a weakness in my flesh and one Sunday the pastor of the church I was attending preached a wonderful sermon from Romans about not being slaves to sin. With that inspiration, I headed off for a flight that afternoon, got into my hotel room about 6 PM and did not turn on the television. I left the next morning with the television never having been turned on. That was an exhilarating victory for me. I was not longer a slave to the television, I had been set free. And the rest of that week and the weeks that followed, I was able to watch the news and then turn off the television and read.
Periodically I fast, and I do this just to prove to my flesh that it is not in control. Fasting sends the message to my flesh that I am not controlled by coca cola and I can say no to food and eat only when I am hungry.
Resisting the Devil is not going to help me when what I need is to decide to stop doing what I know I should not do.
I can pray that I will have strength to resist temptations, but that will do me little good until I decide to make a change.
Evil in the world comes in the form of the world, the flesh and the Devil.
When I have identified that the evil oppressing me is not from the world or the flesh and that all the social reform and self-control in the world is not going to make a difference, then the evil oppressing me is an attack of the Devil.
As I said earlier, not to believe in the existence of the Devil is to open yourself to spiritual danger. I have friends who have lived in North Africa and other parts of the world where the Devil seems to be overt in his oppression. I’m sure there are people here today who could testify to this reality in their lives.
Once you identify the evil oppressing you as coming from the devil, what does Peter suggest we do?
Peter writes first, “Be self-controlled and alert.” The word translated “self-controlled” originally meant to be sober, not intoxicated. When a person drinks alcohol, the senses gradually relax until that person has no control over his or her body. If the guard for a building gets drunk, his senses are so dulled by the alcohol, not only could the contents of the building be removed, the building itself could be removed without the guard knowing. The guard’s senses are non-operational. The word for self-control took on a figurative meaning. To be self controlled is to be the opposite of a person who is intoxicated. To be self-controlled is to have the senses operating on high alert.
My father was in the US Navy during WWII in the Pacific. He was on an LCS (Landing Craft Support). This was a small ship whose duty was to make smoke to protect the other ships in the fleet, to go on what they called skunk patrol – looking for small suicide boats, and to go on radar picket which patrolled the perimeter of the fleet, guarding against kamikazes coming in. At the battle of Okinawa, out of 130 LCS ships, 20 were sunk. One out of six. It was a fierce battle and more US Navy ships were sunk during that battle than throughout the rest of the war. It was a dangerous time.
This was a situation that called for a high degree of self-control and alertness. The lower the level of self-control and alertness, the greater the chance you were not going to return home after the war.
Peter calls Christians to view the world in this way. We are at war and our enemy is out there seeking to destroy us. Pray for discernment that you will know when an attack of the Devil needs to be resisted.
John Bunyon wrote Pilgrim’s Progress at the end of the 17th century and it has been an enormously popular book ever since. It is an allegory of a man named Christian who sets off on a journey, encountering characters names despair and fearful and many others on his journey to the Celestial City.
At one point in his journey, he comes across two lions.
“Now before he had gone far he entered into a very narrow passage which was about a furlong off of the porter’s lodge; and looking very narrowly before him as he went, he espied two lions in the way. Now, thought he, I see the dangers that Mistrust and Timorous were driven back by. (The lions were chained, but he saw not the chains) Then he was afraid, and thought also himself to go back after them, for he thought nothing but death was before him. But the porter at the lodge, whose name is Watchful (Mark 13:34-37) perceiving that Christian made a halt as if he would go back, cried unto him, saying, Is thy strength so small? Fear not the lions, for they are chained, and are placed there for trial of faith, where it is, and for discovery of those that had none. Keep in the midst of the path, and no hurt shall come unto thee.
Then I saw that he went on, trembling for fear of the lions but taking good heed to the directions of the porter; he heard them roar, but they did him no harm.”
The Devil is prowling like a lion, looking for an opportunity, seeking to devour us. But when we are alert and self-controlled, when we are seeking Christ and living obedient lives, we walk in the center of the path and cannot be harmed. The Devil is on a short chain and cannot harm us.
Over and over again in this letter Peter has urged us to work at having a pure heart and to resist sinful desires that wage war against our souls. It is in continuing to struggle in our Christian lives to become the godly people God wants us to be that we are protected from the snares of the Devil. When we focus on our inner life and live good lives, we walk in the center of the path and are protected.
It is when we become proud and think we are better than we are, that we veer off the path and are vulnerable to attack. It is when we become impressed with our respectability that we veer off the path. It is when we give in to jealousy, ambition, envy, and immorality of every kind that we veer off the path and are within reach of the Devil.
This morning I want you to realize that this world is a dangerous place and in a dangerous place you need to have your senses on full alert. Living a Christian life is not playing church. It is not merely being religious. Your soul is at risk, the stakes are high. Work at the development of your faith.
This week, as you read your Bible and pray, know that you are correcting your course to stay in the center of the path. When someone irritates you this week and you choose not to hold on to anger or irritation, know that you are walking in the center of the path. Our daily acts of obedience and submission this afternoon, Monday, Tuesday and the rest of the week are the necessary course corrections that keep us on course.
Don’t be like the German tourists who went out to get a closer picture of the sleepy lions. Know that your pursuit of God and living a Christian life is a matter of eternal life and death.