Category Archives: Spiritual Warfare

Life and Death in the Wilderness

Photo: Yuliya Kosolapova on Unsplash

Note: I am currently in the process of going through my drafts and cleaning up and publishing the good ones I have in there. This post was started in 2015 and was just finished today.

I was struck by the imagery of the appointed readings for Morning Prayer on Thursday last week. The First Lesson was from Ezekiel 37.1-14. In this passage Ezekiel is in the Valley of Dry Bones, surrounded by the result of death, and God promises the prophet that He will reverse this curse:

“Therefore prophesy, and tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign LORD says: Look, I am about to open your graves and will raise you from your graves, my people. I will bring you to the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. I will place my breath in you and you will live; I will give you rest in your own land. Then you will know that I am the LORD—I have spoken and I will act, declares the LORD.’ ” – Ezekiel 37.12-14

The eventual end of every person is to die, this is inevitable and unavoidable. Primarily we conceive of death as a physical occurrence. However, there is also a spiritual dimension to death, a dimension which can perhaps simply be described as not believing and trusting in Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection and thus not being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Or in other words, not being a true Christian.

It is this view of death, as both physical and spiritual, that is in view in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Ezekiel was a prophet to Israel while they were in exile in Babylon. Not only had many Israelites been killed physically as a result of the Babylonian conquest, but God had used Babylon to judge Israel because she was dead spiritually as well. She had abandoned God for other false gods and refused to repent and return.

This is not merely a description of a nation that lived over 2,000 years ago however. It is a description of all humanity since the Fall. We all die physically because we are all dead spiritually. Our physical reality is indicative of our natural spiritual state.

The Second Lesson was from Philippians 3.7-21. In the preceding verses (3.1-6) Paul describes his human credentials and says that no one has better spiritual credentials from a human standpoint than he does. But he regards these as liabilities, saying:

But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things… Philippians 3.7-8a

Why are these liabilities though? Because they blind us to our true spiritual state. We focus on our false selves, what we do well, our gifts, our accomplishments, our goals, our greatness. We do not focus on our true selves, our vileness, our frailty, our death. God came to us out of love for us, and we hated Him and executed Him in an attempt to hide our own evil from ourselves. Being alone with our true selves is a very scary thing.

Both of these Lessons occurred during what modern Christianese would call a “wilderness experience” or a “desert experience,” which basically refers to a period of time in which God feels absent or things are not working out well for some reason. In the case of Ezekiel the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. In the case of Paul he was writing to the Philippians from prison. In both of these cases things are not working out well and to the people directly involved it seemed as though God was absent for some reason, at least initially. But in reality God wasn’t absent from either of these situations. In reality God had brought them into the wilderness so that there was nothing around to distract them from their true selves and they were forced to confront what they found there. Ultimately they each responded differently.

The Israelites, as a nation, failed (or refused) to recognize the evil and vileness that was in their hearts. Instead their basic thought process seems to have been: “God exiled us because we failed to keep the Law and follow all its rules, so now we are going to be extra sure to keep the Law and all its rules so that God does not punish us again.” Their concern was not turning from sin, but avoiding punishment. They did not love God. They only loved themselves. They were not concerned with God wanted. They were only concerned with what they wanted and their own comfort.

Paul on the other hand recognized the evil in himself and recognized that only God could cure the sin that lived within it (e.g. Romans 7.21-25, 1Corinthians 15.9, 1Timothy 1.15). He was not concerned with avoiding punishment. He was concerned with loving God and pursuing Him more and more. In fact if you continue reading in Philippians you read:

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. – Philippians 3.10-12

Paul is not concerned for his own comfort, but only for being as much like Christ as possible. He truly repents of his old ways and pursues the way of Christ. He is not concerned with his external status or situation, but only with being holy as Christ is holy.

I believe that God uses the wilderness experiences of our lives, those times when something tragic or unexpected happens and it seems like God is absent, to expose what is in our hearts and force us to confront it. When we are brought to this point we have two choices: 1) choose death and refuse to recognize the evil and sin in us, or 2) choose life and truly repent and follow Christ. The first choice is extremely tempting because when we’re in a wilderness experience I think our main concern is getting out of the wilderness and back to the way things used to be, especially if we were happy and things were going good. The problem with this choice though is that it ignores our spiritual state and condition and prioritizes our own comfort. To be sure, it isn’t that wanting to get back to “normal” is a bad thing, because it isn’t. The problem is, I think, when we allow ourselves to get so focused on getting back to normal that we don’t take any time at all to examine what is going in our hearts during this time.

In my own experience I’ve found that I usually don’t understand or know what was going on in my heart during a wilderness experience until after I have gotten through it and got back to something close to normal. Once I’m in better circumstances I’ve found that I am in a much better place to reflect and examine the experience than when I am still in the experience. There are far too many emotions in play during the experience that it really prevents me from seeing things accurately. I think it is when we are on the other side of a wilderness experience that the choice between the way of death and the way of life presents itself to us. We can choose death and not examine our hearts, or we can choose life and examine our hearts and ask God to help us repent of whatever evil was revealed to us in it. Even if in the past we’ve chosen death and refused to acknowledge whatever sin(s) God brought to light there is still time to choose to acknowledge them and follow Christ.

I do not believe a perspective like Paul’s, who values Christ more than anything, even physical comfort comes easily. Following God and being obedient to what He called you to do, ending up in prison, and still being joyful and eager to serve Him isn’t something that just happens. It is born from coming face to face with the evil in your own heart and asking God to help take it away. And it is when all the distractions are taken away, our talents, our skills, our accomplishments, our greatness, that we are able to come face to face with our own sinfulness.

It is in the wilderness that God does his best work in us. It can be a very painful work. But if we cooperate and don’t fight him we will be closer to Him than we were before. Closer to being holy as he is holy. We will not die, but live eternally.


How I Deal With Doubt

Seminary has been a strange place for me thus far. For most it seems to be a place where they are encouraged and their faith is strengthened as they pursue whatever ministry God has called them to, but this has not been my experience thus far. It seems as though I’ve spent the majority of my time being tempted in the wilderness rather than receiving or honing a ministry vision. That is, I’ve spent so much time resisting Satan and his attempts to pull me away from seminary that I haven’t had any time left to devote to discerning where God is calling me to serve once I am done with seminary.

While there is certainly much that I could say about my experience thus far in seminary in this post I thought that I would share one of the things that I have learned during my spiritual battles this semester. Or more accurately, share one of the things that the Holy Spirit has shown me that has proven to be effective for me against the attacks of Satan.

Don’t Overlook the Obvious.

Don’t get so lost in all the details and technicalities of life (and explanations or philosophical systems about life) that you forget what is right in front of your face all the time.There are two obvious things that I keep coming back to:

The existence of males and females. That there are two separate and distinct genders and yet each one needs the other not only for reproductive purposes, but also for relational purposes as well (generally speaking). For me there is a mystery here that just absolutely fascinates me and suggests a Designer of life.

You didn’t choose to be born. No one brought themselves into existence. Someone (or at the very least something) brought you into existence; you didn’t have a choice in the matter. This suggests to me that whoever, or whatever, is responsible for my existence has a claim on my life and how I choose to live it.

These two things certainly don’t require Christianity as an answer to them, but I think they do at least require Theism, which keeps me from embracing Atheism. But how do these things keep me aligned to Christianity instead of some other form of theism? Well, to put it simply, I am convinced of the truthfulness of the Bible, the God it portrays, and the teaching of the catholic (universal) church concerning the previous two matters. Thus being convinced of theism naturally leads me to being convinced of Christianity.

Doubt is a serious and complex matter and I can hardly hope to cover it completely in a blog post since each situation is different, but hopefully this will be at least a little helpful to those who may be struggling with doubt.

Two Great Spiritual Weapons: Chocolate and Popcorn

I was doing some thinking (big surprise) lately on one of the ironies of life as a seminarian: how you can be in a place where you are constantly learning about God and studying the Bible, but yet can (potentially) grow further apart from God rather than closer. How is it possible that seminary could potentially kill your spiritual life rather than strengthen it? Surely if God founded a seminary his students would not have to balance working, studies, relationships (including family), local church commitments, and their spiritual life! They would have all their needs provided for without having to work for them; would be able to handle their assignments with relative ease; their relationships would be supportive and spiritually beneficial; and since the rest of their life would be stress free their local church commitments and spiritual life would seem like blessings rather than burdens! This would no doubt be a better way to strengthen their faith and prepare them for ministry rather than the way our present seminaries do.

As I thought about this more though I realized that God would not run his seminary in the way I would have expected (see above paragraph). First of all, God does give his followers easy lives. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and many other devoted followers did not live easy lives. Furthermore, many present day Christians do not live easy lives either (e.g. those living in Islamic countries in the Middle East). Secondly, trials refine us and strengthen our faith (James 1.2-4; 1 Peter 4.12-13), not comfort.

If God is indeed sovereign over all creation and more powerful than any heavenly being then why does he seemingly punish those who follow him rather than reward them? What is the point of doing things in this manner? How does having to balance a million different things help prepare someone for ministry?

While I do not know the full answer to these questions recently I have realized part of it. Seminary is preparation for ministry in our crazy, messed up and Fallen world. And in this world we will have to balance our family obligations, ministry work, and studies all while maintaining a close walk with God so that we can be faithful ministers to the people whom God has given us, just like we are doing now at seminary. I think of seminary as preparation for the front lines of war. In order to survive we must know how to overcome and manage the obstacles and hardships that we will encounter there.

While the classic (and certainly essential) tactics for negotiating the spiritual battlefield are probably well known to most seminarians (prayer, bible reading/devotions, fasting, etc) there is a new tactic that I’ve encountered recently. Not new in the sense that it is innovative and has never been used previously, but new in the sense that it is so under utilized human forgetfulness erases all memory of it before it is encountered a second time.

 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?

(James 2:15-16 ESV)

I’m going to call this “new” tactic Tangible Acts of Encouragement. With this tactic instead of saying something merely along the lines of “I’ll pray for you” you actually do something tangible to encourage the person. This can be done regardless of whether or not the person displays a need for encouragement. If they like a certain restaurant buy them dinner there (or a gift card). If they like a certain movie watch it with them. If they need a break at work give it to them. If they need someone to talk to listen to them (I mean really listen and remember what they said, not just nod your head and say “yes”). If they need a coat to stay warm give them one. If they need food to eat give them some. With this tactic you go beyond mere encouraging words (though they should definitely be there), which too often seem like a cop-out to someone who is feeling down, and into acting on those words.

You’d be surprised how often you can employ this tactic. Even in a situation where words and prayers seem like the only thing you can offer for encouragement, such as when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, you can do something tangible for them. A cup of coffee, an attentive ear, and an encouraging tongue can do more to encourage that person that a million prayers they never hear you pray.

Don’t over or under utilize this tactic though, otherwise your recipient will be inclined to doubt your sincerity.

I was recently the recipient of a Tangible Act of Encouragement from my mother. Two of my favorite foods are chocolate and popcorn and my mom recently sent me a package filled with them. It was one of the best encouragements I’ve received so far in seminary and it didn’t require a single word. Thanks mom!

Picture of care package from my mother containing chcolate and popcorn

These are a few of my favorite things…

So don’t forget to encourage your local clergy (and seminarians) in tangible and appropriate ways. If you are a layman in your local church they are the ones who are (or will be) shepherding you on the front lines of the spiritual war raging all around us. They are human just like you are and need encouragement just like you do, though it may not obvious when they are struggling and need it. It is to your benefit and theirs that they remain spiritually strong and Tangible Acts of Encouragement are highly effective in this endeavor.

Now I had not been busy and frustrated with trying to balance all the things in my life I would not have realized just how effective this tactic could be. Thus I would not have been able to share it with all of you, nor would I have been able to use it myself in order to encourage my brothers and sisters who are struggling with me for the cause of Christ. The stress that comes with seminary is indeed an essential part of ministry preparation.