We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
If you read enough history, crossing borders and centuries is a common thread: we love to take old ideas and make them seem new. We like to criticize tradition because it’s out of fashion, while using old philosophies to do it. The same questions seem to keep popping up in new places. We attach Neo to nearly everything: Neo-Nazi, Neo-paganism, Neo-feminism, Neo-Orthodox. We call so many things New that really aren’t new at all. They’re just dressed up in the fashion of the day; ideas recycled to fit in, like a thrifty woman updating her old gown with a new collar, or cutting the skirt to fit the latest trend. As Christians we are not immune to this trend. All our “new” ideas, our new interpretations, our new understandings, are really just variations of the same old question: did God really say?
There are variations of this question that arise in obvious contrast to God, these are the more easily identified lies: murder, theft, adultery, cowardice. There are far more that fly under our collective radars, we flirt with these more readily. We tolerate them. We lean against the tree and entertain the serpent’s question. We begin to consider his warmly whispered words. We entertain thoughts of hatred, we justify covetousness, we let lust take root in our hearts, we remain apathetic to that which does not directly affect us. We let in whispers of doubt, we justify our idolatry.
This is because seduction is far more persuasive than force. Threats to truth and goodness do not only come with foam-at-the-mouth anger, book burning, nor tyrants, but also through softly spoken words, given to the secret, monstrous places in our heart. The parts of our hearts that want to deny God, the old man in us who wants to find an excuse not to obey those commands that demand death to self. These deceptive lies are those that are so near the truth we can barely spot the difference. The well-crafted glass replacement for the priceless jewel. These impressive fakes might sparkle here and there, they might look so near the real thing that we don’t even mind that they aren’t. Especially because they allow us to maintain the outward appearance of belonging. We can carry on with a chunk of glass around our neck, convincing everyone else that we have the most precious thing, all the while knowing–or perhaps we have deceived ourselves enough that we do not know anymore–that we’ve contented ourselves with an imposter. We have to want the most valuable jewel to identify the fake. We have to be willing to pay the cost to hold on to it: the risks, the discipline to be on guard, and intimacy with the real thing that enables us to spot the fake when we see it…even when it glitters.
We fail to equip ourselves to face the glittery, devilish deception that is posed in the question at the root of all temptations: did God really say? It echoes in every chamber of culture, from every angle of what tempts us, and we are unprepared because we don’t actually remember what he said. This isn’t a problem new to us, William Wilberforce recognized it in his time too: “It is not undeniable that with the Bible in our houses, we are ignorant of its contents; and that hence, in great measure, it arises, that the bulk of the Christian world know so little, and mistake so greatly, in regards the religion which they profess?”
I would suggest, if we know intimately the lyrics of the latest popular music, can spout sport statistics or the latest television show cast, or even recite great British poetry, but we cannot remember more than a line or two of God’s word, if we can only vaguely recall something the Bible says, but we aren’t sure exactly, our priorities are all wrong. The result of our disordered priorities may be that we become “easy prey for liars” (Alexsandr Solzhensitsyn). Particularly the liar who can disguise himself as light. The one who Milton so deftly imagined as almost…likable. The Satan whom we want to follow because he allows us to cling tightly to the sins that so easily entangle us. When he says it is “courage to never submit or yield” something within us agrees.
Milton was heavily criticized for his portrayal of Satan, some claim it is too difficult to tell who is the hero of Paradise Lost: God or Satan. That’s the point, our fallen selves can sympathize with Milton’s Satan. We too play ourselves the victims in our disobedience. We dare to claim we can exist apart from the God who holds the entire universe together. We even claim we can be good without him. To the depraved human mind, Milton’s Satan is a hero of Promethean strength, the one who defies God and lets humans have their time in the sun. But what he plays off as heat from the sun, is really just heat from the flames of hell. To the regenerate mind, Milton’s Satan ought to give us a warning: his deception is not through pitchfork and torture, nor obvious blasphemes, but careful half-truths, the likes of which are damnably attractive to our sin nature.
As Flannery O’Connor warned through her fiction, we are inclined naturally to embrace, not Christ, but Satan–it’s no wonder her stories were so off-putting to America, particularly the nominal, slavery-approving South. “While American Christians may embrace a faith in which we can think, feel, and act according to whatever Jesus tells us in our hearts, O’Connor worried that the voice may not be of ‘God within’ but Satan” (Jessica Hooten Wilson). As we find through O’Connor’s macabre storytelling, Satan makes promises he cannot keep. He lures and persuades…then kills.
Our greatest defense against these clever tricks, that work so well in tandem with our own wandering hearts, is two-fold: We must know our God who alone can turn our wayward hearts. We know him by his words, by knowing them so intimately that we are ready to answer when Satan’s words lilt in the air of the age. Only then can we recognize his siren song, even when the melody has been altered to fit the current style. We must be like the Psalmist:
How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
Let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
I will not forget your word.
Secondly, we would do well to stop bowing to the latest post modern god of tolerating bad ideas. Jesus’ warning in Revelation to the Thyatiran Church should caution us too, “But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet (Revelation 2:20). “The Thyatirans […] have given space to a false teacher (probably a woman) described here as a Jezebel. Their sin–toleration–is the very thing commended in our post modern culture as the greatest virtue […] God will not compromise or tolerate such sinful teaching–and neither should we” (G.K. Beale).
Our continual entertaining and tolerance of teaching and softly spoken questions that seek to undermine God’s authority leave us open to deception and vulnerable to justifying our own disobedience. Some of the most unbiblical teaching has been uncontested, simply because it’s been presented nicely. Niceness is tricky, because to challenge it often puts the challenger off as “mean”, and in a culture in which niceties are more important than truth, and love is equated with acceptance, we often don’t know what to do with these pretty lies. But we don’t take our cue, nor determine virtue from the world’s culture. Questions will arise around us, we can answer them with knowledge of Scripture, we can challenge them with plain truth, and then we don’t have to keep engaging them. “Talking is not the problem. The problem is when incessant talking becomes a cover for indecision or even cowardice. It’s death by dialogue” (Kevin DeYoung). Sometimes we invite death by our refusal to simply identify false, unbiblical teaching for what it is. If we allow incessant talking to keep us from calling lies what they are, if we try too often to soften the blow of correction, we become imprecise and unclear in our language. We often allow language to be corrupted this way, and we allow it to slowly eat away at our faith.
We do this to our own detriment. Our language, as Orwell noted, corrupts our thoughts; and our corrupted thoughts cause us to waver in obedience. Often we allow language games to help us talk around God’s commands, instead of simply obeying them. We excuse away our selfishness, our laziness, our lust, our idolatry, our bowing to cultural pressures, and our fear of man, and we disguise these excuses under that age old question: did God really say?
Instead, our hearts ought to say, as Elisabeth Elliot said–and lived–”whatever you say, my answer is yes”, we ought to ask questions of Scripture and tradition with the heart of wanting to know it better so that we can know our God better. If that isn’t our aim, our questions and the ones we entertain will only function to, “muddy the waters to make them appear deep” (Nietschze). These “new” questions do not have the depth they claim, they are simply stirring up old mud puddles, and only a fool turns to a mud puddle when there is a fountain of Living Water to drink from.
May we heed the warning Christ gave the church of Thyatira, may we hear and obey. Gladly letting go of the old man who leans against the tree in the garden and lends his ear; leaning instead on the cursed tree where Christ ushers in the new man, one who turns from the Serpent. For we know a garden is set before us that is far greater than any forked-tongued promise.