Some “Grist” for Your New Year’s Resolution “Mill”
Three things I do every morning so I will be happy all day long. The first is to affirm the reality of Jesus Christ and to thank Him for his Lordship. The second is to call to mind the reality of Satan, who will seek throughout the day to make me a miserable contradiction of evident joy. Third, I call to mind the gifts that are mine in Christ. If I live each day faithful to my gifts, developing and improving them, I find that I am, indeed, a happy person. If I am sloppy and careless in developing my gifts, I find a predictable negativity fixing itself into my life.
Calvin Miller – The Taste of Joy – IVP – 1983 (17)
Calvin Miller was one of my companions on the journey. I never actually met him. I never even heard him speak. But through his books he regularly broke open the living bread for me and spread a rich feast. This excerpt from his book on joy is dog-eared and well-marked in my copy. Calvin said that some of his friends actually laughed out loud when he told them that he was writing a book on joy. Apparently his spiritual temperament did not make him the most natural choice for the assignment in their minds. But write the book he did, and to my way of thinking, it was one of his best.
The “three things I do every morning” that Calvin identified have become part of my life since I stumbled across them some 30 years ago when I first read this book. Two of the three things are spiritually sensible and theologically acceptable. Who has any objection to “affirming the reality of Jesus Christ,” or “calling to mind the gifts that are ours in Christ”? This is the standard fare of Christian spirituality; familiar, even conventional terrain for our souls. It’s the second thing that Calvin said that he acknowledged every morning that jerks most of us up short. He said that every morning he “called to mind the reality of Satan” who he said he believed would “seek throughout the day to make him a miserable contradiction of evident joy.”
Now, we are theologically conditioned to dismiss talk of Satan as a primitive myth, and to immediately disregard anyone who would speak of Satan as being either sadly uninformed or willfully ignorant. Talk of the Devil grates on our intellectual and spiritual sensibilities so much so that it’s hard for us to take seriously any wisdom that takes the Devil seriously. Those who find it credible that there is an adversarial presence or power at work in the universe and in our lives are routinely dismissed from the grown-up table of serious theological conversation.
My introduction to the critical study of Scripture occurred when as a 17 year old college freshman at a conservative church related school my professor of Old Testament announced one day that he didn’t believe that there really was a Devil. And from the reaction that his comment generated in that class, you would have thought that he had denied that Jesus Christ was his personal Lord and Savior. What his comment forced me to do was to think theologically for the very first time in my life; to begin to connect the dots of the Biblical witness; to look for an underlying frame on which all of its stories, personalities and teachings might hang. And so while many of my peers were agitating for his immediate termination because of his deficient diabology, I found myself instead in the college library reading just as much and just as widely as I possibly could so that I might be able to intelligently engage in the conversation of faith that he had initiated in such a carefully calculated way. And I can tell you that it was by honestly entertaining the possibility that there might not be a Devil that I finally came to the conclusion that it just makes so much more sense to me to believe that there is.
I find in Scripture “an anti-God force, most often conceived personally, that exists and works in history, especially against the purposes and people of God.” I find throughout human history and across human cultures a remarkably consistent awareness of the existence of supernatural principalities and powers and our struggle with them. In fact, as Philip Jenkins has made abundantly clear in his recent writings about the emergence of “Southern-world Christianity,” they “overwhelmingly… teach a firm belief in the existence of evil and in the reality of the Devil,” so that right now we find ourselves in the middle of an “epochal cultural revolution” that is nothing short of a “new reformation.” And in my very own experience as a Christian and a pastor, I find that the opposition that I face on a daily basis is purposeful. It seems to know my name and have my address. There’s nothing abstract or impersonal about the “push-back” that I experience in my life or my ministry. It knows my vulnerabilities, and when they are most exposed. It knows precisely where to attack me.
The Epistle to the Ephesians refers to “wiles” twice, once in reference to the trickery of other people (4:14) and the other with reference to the way that the Devil works against us (6:11). The unusual word that gets translated from the Greek as “wiles” or “schemes” in both of these verses – “methodeia” – refers to something that is methodical. And I can tell you that that’s sure how it feels to me. In my experience the evil that I face is orderly, logical, deliberate, strategic, even “tailored” to my own particular “weaknesses and vulnerabilities.” And so, in addition to the New Testament’s witness to a universe that is crowded and divided, it is evil’s intelligence and persistence that persuade me that it is more than just an impersonal force that we face; it’s a presence, and it feels like it “seeks to work me woe” as the Reformer Martin Luther put it in his hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
There is something that pushes back; something adversarial; something antagonistic; something bigger than ourselves. N.T. Wright has described it as a deep and dark force that operates at a “suprapersonal” level “pressing into the project of God.” 100 years ago the American preacher S.D. Gordon simply labeled it “the great outside hindrance,” and that makes good sense of what I know from revelation, reason, experience and tradition. Oh, believe me, I know just how ridiculous talk of the devil can be – how crude and cartoonish a figure the adversary cuts in the popular imagination – red suit, pointy tail, horns, pitchfork, stinking of sulfur. And yet…
Kyriacos Markides, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Maine, conducted a series of interviews on spiritual reality with Father Maximos, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Cyprus. In the course of their conversations, Kyriacos heard Father Maximos refer to the church as the “arena of an ongoing battle.” As he explained to Father Maximos, “I was under the impression that the Church is a harbor of peace and healing, not a battleground.” And so Father Maximos explained to Kyriacos that, “The Church is available to us as a vehicle for our salvation… (and) such a pursuit implies a struggle against those forces that labor to block our ascent toward God.” Life is hard, there’s going to be resistance, there’s going to be a struggle, there are going to be forces that work hard to block our growth in grace and faith, and the best strategy, it seems to me, is just to admit it from the get go.
In fact, isn’t this what Jesus Christ Himself told us to expect when He taught us to pray saying: “Deliver us from evil,” which could just as easily and legitimately could be translated “Deliver us from the evil one.” The Scandinavian theologian Gustaf Aulen cited this as part of the evidence that Biblical Christianity has an inescapable “conflict motif.” He explained that “faith looks upon existence as a dramatic struggle and sees the inner meaning of existence emerging out of this struggle where the divine stands in conflict with hostile forces.” Gustaf Aulen warned that any attempt to understand Christianity without paying sufficient attention to this fact is “doomed to failure.” And so are our annual New Year’s Resolutions, or any well-intentioned strategy for personal growth and self-improvement. If the very real resistance that we will face from the “great outside hindrance” isn’t factored in, our plans will be sabotaged before they even begin.
Announce growth, and immediately you will encounter opposition; that’s just the nature of things. And so every morning of his life Calvin Miller of blessed memory called to mind three great facts of his existence: First of all, Jesus Christ was His Lord and Savior and Calvin was living his life in response to Christ’s claim on him; Second, there was an adversarial something or someone out there that was hard at work trying to keep Calvin from becoming the person that Jesus Christ created him to be and from doing the sorts of things that Jesus Christ needed Calvin to do; and Third, in this struggle between good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, Jesus Christ had put at Calvin’s personal disposal an array of gifts and graces that if taken up by faith could enable Calvin to stand, and thrive.
Here at the beginning of a New Year, in your annual resolutionary exercise, I offer you the wisdom and example of my soul’s good friend, Calvin Miller, to help you tomorrow morning when you wake up in earnest pursuit of all the positive changes that you intend today, and find that the change you want is going to be harder and take so much longer than you ever imagined. The promise is that you are not alone in this struggle. DBS+
…You belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory…
because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the Spirit who lives in the world.
– I John 4:4