I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! – Romans 7: 22-24
- You are drowning in a deep pit filled with sewage water, and there’s putridness in your mouth, your ears, even your eyes. Your nostrils are clogged with goo, and every time you try drawing in some air, you just flood your lungs a little more. And to make things worse, there is something inside the pit – a monster felt but not seen – that’s pulling you under. All seems lost. But then you see something, the faint silhouette of somebody extending a helping hand. You fight against the forces that bind you to the pit and desperately try to grab it. You have to, there may not be another chance. Eventually, you succeed and are pulled out of the pit, covered in muck but alive enough to fight another day. Or you surrender to your circumstances, and the monster has the last growl.
Okay, let’s try another scenario.
- You are part of a company of soldiers dropped in hostile territory battle five hours before dawn. Many are shot as they leap out but a lucky few manage to open their parachutes. The winds turn treacherous, and the survivors find themselves drifting straight into an enemy camp. They spend the following hours getting beaten, tortured, and – when everything else fails – bribed with assurances of untold fortunes in return for changing sides. The captured soldiers try to hold on until dawn, when they are sure to be rescued by a backup squad descending gloriously from the sky on wings of metal and fire, but it is just not possible. Many give up and join their captors, believing it to be the most practical option in an otherwise hopeless scenario. But a select few hold out even under sustained torture, giving away occasionally when it gets too tough, yet eagerly keeping their eyes fixed upwards. More eagerly than watchmen wait for the dawn.
So, what is with these stories exactly? Allow me to elaborate.
Jesus Christ was abhorred by religious leaders of the time because his teachings were at variance with whatever their teachings had to offer. He advocated kindness when it was considered heroic to be violent; he mingled with tax collectors and prostitutes while berating much-celebrated high priests and Pharisees; and he spoke of humility and love for humanity as the stepping stones to a better world to come. He also died on the cross to save us, but we have always been a little unclear about how, haven’t we?
I believe that Christ’s ultimate sacrifice was intended to show us how it’s done, giving us the role model we needed. He set a sky-high target for us to aspire towards, so we may at least reach the tree. As for the world we inhabit right now, it is just the arena where you prove your worth for the one that awaits ahead. Paul says as much in Philippians 3: Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal… But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
And that is where the drowning man and the captured soldier come in.
Christ’s sacrifice was intended to show us how it’s done. He set a sky-high target for us to aspire towards, so we may at least reach the halfway mark. As for the world we inhabit right now, it is just the arena where you prove your worth for the one that awaits ahead.
The thing is, we are born in sin (though differently from the way we are often led to believe) and there will always be compromises made. It is too much to expect of somebody wallowing in putrid water to emerge smelling of roses, and it would be understandable for a person strapped to the torturer’s table to give in every now and then. Like the Bible testifies, somebody much bigger than you has already walked this world in your shoes and knows exactly what you are going through. But, on the flip side, that very fact will make it impossible for you to blame your earthly circumstances for your missteps on the big day.
But no, it is not about being free of sin – that just isn’t possible – but how much you struggle against it that matters. In fact, you live so long as you have that moral battle raging within, and you die the moment you surrender to the Beast.
Jacob was given the title of Israel because he wrestled with an angel, and it was seen as a good thing. You can test yourself against God, He wouldn’t mind that, because He is just as all-understanding as He is all-pervasive. Just do not surrender to your natural side, that beast who lives in you, because that would be tantamount to disobeying your spiritual calling.
So, what exactly is this world we live in? It is a lot many things, but most importantly a reflection of the battle that rages on within us. One side can be seen as the Devil and his minions, and the other as The Good Ones (for want of a better term). Before you start picturing seraphim, cherubim and fiery swords, let me disappoint you with an explanation much closer to home.
The Devil. Is he a guy in a red jumpsuit, complete with horns and a tail? Or maybe, in his capacity as the chief commander of Hell, a scabby-faced demon with sharp fangs and 666 etched on his forehead? More significantly, would you be tempted to do anything at all by a creature who looks like this?
It is a thought that even the apostle Paul seems to agree with in 2 Corinthians 11:14, where he speaks of the Devil’s ability to make himself appear as an “angel of light” if he wished to. If I had to choose from depictions of the Devil in popular fiction, I would go with Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer Samael Morningstar. Handsome, suave, and definitely not slimy.
But no, the Devil is no more a repugnant-looking individual marching around with a pitchfork than God is a bearded man in white robes and a halo. I believe that he is essentially the personification of the animalistic instincts that continue to reside inside us long after our supposed transformation into a more evolved being through the metaphorical eating of the fruit. Having served a purpose once but now refusing to go gently into the night, the Devil spends his time sending up thoughts and impulses that promise to do you no good at all. A bit like the Bada Bing tattoo that earned you so much adulation back in college, but is now met with general disapproval every time your sleeve slips up. Or a Nazi Reich that is allowed to exist and flourish because it acts as a counter to communist opponents, only to see it turn back and attack its very patrons one fine day. Except much worse.
The Beast, I believe, is the personification of the animalistic instincts that continue to reside inside us long after our supposed transformation into an evolved being. It served a purpose once, but now refuses to go gently into the night.
Let me try explaining the nature of the beast with an example of extramarital sex. Ever so often, we chance upon cases where people with successful careers and blissful family lives throw it all away on some stranger they met at work or on the subway journey home. The answer, I believe, lies in conclusions drawn from an experiment conducted on rats in the early part of the twentieth century.
In the original trial, a male rat was placed into a large box with four or five females in heat. He mated with them repeatedly until he reached exhaustion, and then stopped showing any interest in them. But when a new female rat was into the enclosure, he began mating again with renewed interest.
The Coolidge Effect – as the biological phenomenon is called – refers to the renewed sexual interest generated in male animals upon being introduced to new female mates long after they have lost interest in their existing partners. It is seen in female animals too, but to a much lesser extent.
Which brings us back to the man having the extramarital affair. The evolved side of the individual in question may undoubtedly tell him that he has a lot going for him, and that throwing it all away on a fling may not be in anybody’s best interests. But there’s also his beastly side, the one that induced the Coolidge Effect in the rat and is now goading the man to return to his wild, animal ways. The beastly side we call the Devil.
For that matter, even our instinct to go forth and multiply – of which the human craving for the opposite sex is a part – happens to be one that comes from our bestial beginnings. Paul permits marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, but only as a compromise: “Now to the unmarried (and the widows) I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Every instinct that propels us to excel, dominate or cause harm to others in human society is inherited from forefathers standing way down the evolutionary ladder. And they are what I would refer to as our demons, some stronger than the others, collectively forming the Beast within.
But that’s not all. Every instinct that propels us to excel, dominate or cause harm to others in human society is inherited from forefathers standing way down the evolutionary ladder. And they are what I would refer to as our demons, some stronger than the others, collectively forming the Beast within. But like everything else in nature, there has to be a first among equals in their midst too. A demon that knows where your defences are at their weakest, possessing a near-fantastic ability to turn any situation to its advantage and bring you down into the mud. For the sake of convenience, let’s call him the Minion.
Take Absalom, for instance. The Minion in him was an insatiable desire for power, which spurred him to overthrow his father and eventually die dangling from an oak tree in the battlefield. King Solomon had his love for the forbidden to blame for his downfall, and Judas Iscariot secretly nurtured a demon that sent him on an ill-advised quest for thirty pieces of silver. The Greek had for a word for this demon, Hamartia, and it was used effectively in each of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I know my Minion, and I bet you know yours too.
Now, the problem with battling the Devil and his demons is that you can never really subdue them. It may be possible to reform yourself for a while, but like the proverbial dog returning to its vomit, you will eventually find yourself giving in to your instincts and urges of old. Even Christ could only send the Devil away “until an opportune time” during his days of temptation in the desert. Job stood his ground against the Devil’s attacks for a while, but eventually gave in to resentment and hopelessness. King David had every reason to be thankful to God, having been elevated from the pastures of Bethlehem to the royal palace in Jerusalem, but he still sinned by orchestrating Uriah’s death and claiming Bathsheba for himself. Nobody is clean, and the sins we acknowledge and seek forgiveness for are only the ones most apparent.
Flip to Matthew 12:43-45, and you have Christ describing the circumstances that lead to our expelled demons finding their way back into us. “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through dry places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, I will return to my house from which I came. And when it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that man is worse than the first.”
The reference here is to man’s tendency to relapse into his sinful ways, sometimes descending into a condition worse than his original state of being. And no, by demons, he didn’t exactly mean Chucky or Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Can we even beat the Devil at his game, then? Pastor Greg Laurie provides some very helpful tips in this sermon, titled ‘Why Does God Allow Temptation In the Life Of A Believer’, the most prominent among them being not hanging around in places you are likely to reconnect with your Red (like a bar or a strip club) and simply walking out the door when caught in a difficult situation (like Joseph did with Potiphar’s wife). But even so, the nature of this world makes it impossible for us to keep the Devil at bay indefinitely, and the Bible recognizes that.
The ultimate solution to this problem faced by man is put forth quite clearly in 1 John 2. “Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world,” it says. “If any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world.”
But this is something easier said than done. How does one live in this world without loving it? Or even form basic likes and dislikes without possessing the aforementioned lust of the eyes? Jesus told the rich man that the only path to redemption lies in giving away everything he owns to the poor and follow him, but would the world even function if everybody did just that?
Jesus set an ideal that nobody among us can truly reach. So the answer exists not in the how but the how much, and how strong your conscience is, because that is the only thing you will take away from this world.
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