The Devil in the Security System

The scene opens on the ancient grounds of Camp Pragmatics where newly arrived recruits stand uniformed and ready before Drill Sargeant Joe Lamech Skull, now in the middle of Company 666‘s morning drill.

Drill Sargent Skull (yells): What do you want, privates?
Camp Pragmatics Recruits: Se-cu-ri-ty!
Sargent: What do you fight for?
Recruits: Se-cu-ri-ty!
Sargent: What makes you happy?
Recruits: Se-cu-ri-ty!
Sargent: What’s it all about, privates?
Recruits: Se-cu-ri-ty!
Sargent: Who do you serve?
Recruits: (silence)
Sargent: Speak up, vermin! Who do you serve?
Private Average: Ourselves, Sargent Skull! Our country and family!
Sargent: Wrong, Private Average! Try again!
Private Elite (top of his class): Sir! The System, sir! The way things are.
Sargeant: Right, private! And who’s the Master of the System, Private Elite?
Private Elite: Sir, the Devil, sir!
Sargeant: So who do you serve, people?
Recruits: The Devil, sir!
Sargent: Why, vermin? What do you want?
Recruits: Financial Se-cu-ri-ty!
Sargent: Louder, Company 666! Who do you serve?
Recruits: The Devil, sir, for se-cu-ri-ty!

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Engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXVI: Virgil and Dante observe the false counsellors

Both Matthew and Luke quote Jesus’ warning that we cannot serve both God and money, but we pass over it satisfied that we don’t fall before the altar of dollar bills. As per our worldly counselors, we’re just being prudent and wise. But it’s really not as simple as all that, is it, because if it were, Jesus wouldn’t have to warn us so strongly not to fool ourselves into thinking we can serve both. The gospels of Matthew and Luke include the account of Jesus’ warning. Here it is in Matthew 6, in context:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

(Matt. 6:19-24, ESV)

Prior to this passage Matthew has been giving us Jesus’ portraits of hypocrites, the ones who do their good deeds for others to see, practice their piety as a show, praying and fasting to win the admiration of men. They may fool the people, they don’t fool God.

It’s also hypocrisy to tell ourselves that pursuing financial security is hardly bowing the knee at the altar of mammon, the idol of wealth. Remember the rich young ruler? He was willing to do anything Jesus asked to be assured of eternal life, except give up his wealth. Why? Because his money was his security in this world, not God.

He’s not alone. In God We Trust is printed on our dollar bills. Isn’t this just another attempt to have it both ways, to serve God and mammon?

“Our heart is deceitful above all things,” says Jeremiah, “and desperately sick; who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer. 17: 9-10)

The question we face daily is the same one Adam and Eve faced in the Garden of Eden: whom do you trust, God or the devil? Eve, not Adam, was deceived by Satan (1 Tim. 2:14) with a promise of God-likeness, because if you were like God, you would be as wise, you wouldn’t need to trust God, right? Adam’s sin was even more premeditated. He saw that Eve remained non-God-like after eating the fruit, but he ate the forbidden fruit out of desire. He wasn’t deceived. He was single-minded. He knew it was rebellion against God’s authority, and the fruit, after all, was “good for food” and “a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3: 6).

What lures your eyes? Is it the Lord God himself (Ps. 16:8), and his word, a light to your path (Ps. 119: 105)?

Where is your treasure? Is it in heaven?

Where is your heart? Is it where Christ Jesus is?

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C. S. Lewis in Perelandra evokes the same tension between trusting God and trusting the devil’s counsel and our desires. The temptation in this new world of Perelandra is for the “Fixed Land,” rather than the floating islands that seemed to take you right past what is indeed good and desirable.

And financial security is good and desirable. You don’t know what the future will bring, your needs multiply constantly, and there’s family to provide for. What’s wrong with having enough to cover all the contingencies? It’s only being pragmatic, after all, to be realists in the real world and cover all the bases.

But what is enough? At what point would you say you have all the bases covered? When does looking after your financial security outweigh your trust in God? Ultimately, God knows what you need. Do you trust him to keep his promise to provide for you as his beloved child? What do you invest your time and energy and ambition in, because if you are a Christian, it must be something bigger than financial security.

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There is more at stake here than meets the eye. In the parables in Matthew 13, Jesus likens his kingdom to a hidden one. The world has its kingdoms, God has his, but not everyone sees or lives in the kingdom of heaven. If you dance to the world’s tune you may think you’re making all the right moves, but it’s a dance that leads to the inferno of hell. If you plant your feet firmly in the kingdom of heaven, you’ve stepped out of the dance of death, you’ve entered a new dance of life, and you sing a different tune, a tune whose recurring motif is in Matthew 6 and whose libretto is Romans 12.

It’s the song of the kingdom.

It’s a song of trust in our Savior God.

It’s a song of freedom from the devil’s reign, because “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8: 36).

It’s a song of hope, of joy, of love, and a song unsung by the world because “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

Financial security? It’s fool’s gold. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8: 36).


1 Corinthians 2: 9
But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

Love Me, Love Me Not

There are so many cliches about love, the word, perhaps, has lost its power, but not the notion, not the need, not the knowledge that love’s very presence makes life worth living. In one of his most famous poems (“In My Craft or Sullen Art”), Welsh poet Dylan Thomas speaks of lovers with “their arms round the griefs of the ages” which is curious, as if in embracing one another, they embrace grief, and not just each other’s but those universal.

Ack! What kind of love is this? you might ask.

Anyone who’s been married longer than a decade (or three, in my case) knows that this expresses the height of love. The willingness to bear another’s griefs rather than turn and walk away is love’s absolute zenith, its most precious characteristic. You don’t run away from the pain of those you truly love. Instead, you embrace it with them, faithfully, day after day after day.

And because no one’s life is without its griefs, we often say that we shouldn’t judge a person until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Sorrow and pain are universals. Beyond any happiness, we can readily sympathize with suffering. Each of us carries our pain within us. There are voiceless cries and unshed tears behind every smile we see. And apprehending the universality of our hidden hurts binds us more completely to one another than anything that divides us.

Emily Dickinson realizes this in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” and while reading it, it struck me that our Lord Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves begins with this understanding, to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).”May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other,” St. Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians.

Christ Himself, of course, set the example. He was, as the prophet Isaiah described him, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53: 3, 4). “Blessed be the Lord,” the psalmist writes, “who daily bears our burden, the God who is our salvation” (Ps. 68:19, NASB). Because he does, He is where our hearts find their rest.

It’s not easy to help shoulder someone’s grief, not simply in the context of marriage and family, but also those of our friends and neighbors, even our enemies. Yet God commands us to love (Matt. 5:44), even as He loves us, and the way is the way of the Cross, our own and each other’s.

Emily Dickinson, “I measure every Grief I meet” (1830-1886)

audio reading ℗2020 dora a.k.

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —

I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —

I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain –
In Contrast with the Love —

The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —

There’s Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call “Despair” —
There’s Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —

And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —

To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they’re mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —

Isaiah 53: 2-5

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.

1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 (NIV) 

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

Faith’s Furnace

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

…Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, “Weren’t there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?”

They replied, “Certainly, Your Majesty.”

He said, “Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.”
(Daniel 3: 16-18, 24-25)

Even if the fire should scorch
The flames should singe till sight is lost
And flesh burn off like candle wax —

Even if dreams deferred
Rot the heart and sicken hope
To shriveled bones like raisins in the blaze of day —

Even then I will not bow to gilt or gold
To fortune’s prince or hell’s hot blast
For a Love stronger than death.

Continue reading “Faith’s Furnace”

Love and Fear in the Believer

The_Denial_of_St._Peter_-_Gerard_Seghers_-_Google_Cultural_InstituteThe Denial of Saint Peter, an oil-on-canvas painting by Gerard Seghers, dating to around 1620–1625 and now held by the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Mark 14: 66-72

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This fellow is one of them.” Again he denied it.

After a little while, those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

He began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.”

Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows twice you will disown me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Continue reading “Love and Fear in the Believer”

Absent in the Spring

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This morning I read chapters 12 through 14 in the book of Job, the words of a man alternately addressing God and his deluded comforters in the midst of his suffering. Immediately after, I read the first chapter of Luke. The juxtaposition of the two readings left a strange sensation, a net of chiaroscuro, light and shadow, the sunrise of salvation and the nihilism of pain.

Oddly, there came to my mind, Agatha Christie’s psychological novel, Absent in the Spring, and Shakespeare’s sonnet from which it drew its title.

Sonnet 98

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

Caught in the pain of loss, the poet’s world is colored by it. What used to penetrate his senses with beauty now sharpens the knife’s edge of absence. Everything is a shadow of what it once was or ought to be and he is deeply aware of it.

Not so the narrator of the psychological Christie novel. She is absent to her own loss, that is, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. For a brief time an awareness of her loss, her failure to “be there” for those she claims to love, all of life that she’s failed to see and missed, cuts into her consciousness. Her grief is almost unendurable and she is overwhelmed by regret. She determines to change and make amends. But the moment passes like a mirage in the desert heat. She returns to her narcissistic life “absent” once again, oblivious to the misery of those who need her the most.

The pain of loss absorbs Job’s consciousness. But he engages with God through it all. While his “comforters” try to justify his suffering, Job goes straight to the One who can get him though it. He will not “curse God and die” as his wife advises. He will not absent himself to his suffering. He will neither deny it nor flee from it. Instead, in his suffering he looks for God. He remembers who God is. He knows that whatever the season, the summer of abundance or the winter of loss, God is unchanging, steadfast in love and faithfulness and sovereign in power. This knowledge emboldens Job and shores up his hope so that he doesn’t fall into the despair with which Satan  tempts us during hard times.

It is the first chapter of Luke that puts it all in perspective. This is where Christ’s birth is announced. Zechariah breaks into a joyful song of expectation and Mary bursts into a paean of praise as her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Jesus’s birth breaks into history, the history of the world and our own personal history. His birth is pivotal to our understanding of temporal loss because His birth is the moment in time when the eternal becomes more real, more true, more present than absence caused by loss, whether the loss of health or loss through death.

His presence overtakes the absence. His reality in history, in the flesh, through His death and resurrection, overshadows everything. Eternity trumps the temporal. And by the word of God through the Holy Spirit we glean it daily as God who suffered here on earth suffers yet with us, making more real to us the glory that awaits us when we see Him face to face.

Praise God for that day!


Job 19: 25 (NASB)
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.”

2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (ESV)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Hebrews 2: 14-15 (ESV) 
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

Home

Yesterday I saw this on Twitter: I just wanna go home, wherever it is … The  writer was a young Indian woman and an author with over 21K followers. But her age, background, and success at her vocation fades into irrelevancy beside the plaintive cry of her heart.

Those simple words struck through the heart of me because I remember as a child, sometimes, out of nowhere would come an inexplicable longing, and wherever I was, even if with my family at home, I too would say aloud to no one in particular: “I wanna go home.” And the moment I said it sadness would flood my soul and I would be reminded of the absence of something or someone vital to my well-being. But I couldn’t define what it was. Or who it was.

Continue reading “Home”

The Way and the Roadmap

I wonder, have you reached the point in your Christian walk where weakness is strength? Where your weakness becomes a source of joy? If you have, then you have found true humility and more: you have found wisdom. And wisdom is a Person. Jesus Christ.

As C. S. Lewis puts it,

It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.…Grace substitutes [for hubris] a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” (The Four Loves)

Joy in total dependence? It goes against the grain of our tendency towards self-reliance. In our pride, complete dependence is anathema.

Continue reading “The Way and the Roadmap”

Laudate Dominum

More than two thousand seven hundred years ago, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying, “And I … am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory” (66:18). And He did come just as He promised, in the incarnate Savior, Jesus Christ. Now many peoples of all manner and kind, from every nation, gather to proclaim His glory and praise His name.

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