OK, so I didn’t really meet the devil, but let me tell you a couple stories about recent encounters I’ve had in the park with a spiritual power that is definitely not God’s, and what they taught me about God, our nemesis, and myself.
One of the ministries in which I take considerable pleasure is in the Haight-Ashbury end of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Armed only with pancake batter, syrup, paper plates and a camp stove I tag along with a group of young dread-locked hippie Christians to the park on Monday mornings. We cook pancakes and have conversations with people who come out of the trees where they’ve slept the night before – many of whom have inhabited this urban park in the middle of The City for many years. Some are travellers (train-hoppers and hitchhikers), while others just stay in the park or sleep on the sidewalk somewhere in the Haight. If they can afford it, most start drinking, smoking, or shooting dope first thing in the morning and don’t stop until the night is done. In addition to their addictive ways, many are mentally ill, and all are social exiles – all in desperate need of God’s love with the skin on it! And honestly, I don’t know that I always show it very well, but I genuinely do love the friends I’m making in the park.
Some of the conversations I’ve had there are among the most bizarre I’ve ever had. One day I was talking to a 20-something park dweller with a Mohawk – it looked to me like he did it himself – who called himself “Sheriff.” Most of them have street names (Monkey, Half-Braid, Seven, Felony, Short-Cake, Skit). While we were eating pancakes and talking, in his artist’s pad he was drawing a picture of a goat head inside a pentagram (typical Satanist symbols). I noticed that his pad was full of similar – quite elaborate all – images. I complimented him about his talent and asked him what he thought about Jesus; and off we went to the races…
Though he said he was a Satanist and made it clear that he wasn’t the least bit interested in believing in Jesus – neither he, his art, nor his sullen demeanor freaked me out. His main objection to Christianity was that it seemed to him that any father who required his own son’s death was not anyone he was interested in knowing, let alone trusting. His was a perfectly understandable objection, and I was only too happy to respond to it. But when I attempted to explain the concept of how Jesus was willing to lay his life down in our sinful place, I found that I was less than my normal lucid self. I had a perfectly biblical, and to me, logical response in my mind, but my usual propensity to explain why Jesus came was uncharacteristically muddled. I thought to myself, “This is weird. I can usually give a rational and coherent explanation for this.” It’s not like I’m “Mr. Apologetics” or anything, but normally I can defend the basic message of God’s love and why Jesus chose to die for us. I love sharing Christ with people, and can usually boil it down for them in pretty achievable terms. But this time I felt like a novice and couldn’t quite get it out!
It would’ve been easy at that point to get frustrated (sort of a default of mine), rely on clichés, take on a preachy tone, or become condescending. Does any of that sound familiar? Instead, without even thinking about it, as though it wasn’t even me speaking, I apologized – “I’m really sorry that I’m not explaining this very well.” He looked up from his drawing, seemed as surprised by it as I was, softened his tone, and said almost sympathetically, “That’s OK. It must be hard to explain.” Still kind of dazed by it myself, after a pensive pause I went on to tell him about how much I love Jesus even if I couldn’t explain him very well, soon after which the conversation faded.
It wasn’t until I was driving home musing about that particular exchange (I had several others that went quite differently than this one) when I realized there was definitely something “spiritual” going on there. Duh! To put it bluntly, I think Sheriff had more than a philosophical problem with Christianity that could be solved with good apologetics. His problem (which became my problem) was that there was a demonic force that obstructed my telling of the good news about Jesus. And just so you know, I don’t just say that because he was drawing pictures of Satan. Not everyone who has a fascination with darkness is captive to the prince of darkness. I didn’t come to this opinion that a spiritual distraction was at fault because of his choice of art, but because of how his spirit affected mine.
I’m sure you know that there’s always a spiritual battle going on for people’s souls. There exists an enemy of humans that is not human himself. The devil and his demons hate God and all those who love him and they do all they can to jam up the path that leads to Jesus. This spiritual battle is always going on for peoples’ allegiance. Anyway, it became clear to me that this adversary tactic was to reinforce Sheriff’s resistance to the good news and create a hindrance to my usually competent presentation of that news.
The more I thought about it I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t as full of the Holy Spirit as I should’ve been at that moment. When we go to share about Jesus with people we want the influence to proceed from us to others, not so much the other way around! That’s not to say we don’t learn or gain anything from the people with whom we share God’s love. I think we almost always benefit from any sincere exchange between ourselves and those with whom we share. I can learn and grow from my interaction with just about anyone. But in terms of spiritual influence, I want it to flow principally in one direction, from God through me to people I’m sharing with. I’m not an expert, just a carrier, a delivery person of God’s love and grace. We’re all humanly equal, but not necessarily spiritually so. I’m pretty sure that Sheriff’s spiritual influence (and a dark one at that) was limiting me more than mine was liberating him – and that’s not a particularly good thing!
When I first heard the term, “Apologetics,” I assumed it had something to do with the skill of apologizing! With all the practice I’ve had, I could teach classes on it! But then somebody told me that it had to do with the reasoned approach to Christianity. Yet on this day I saw for the first time how a sincere apology can be very much a part of one’s apologetic approach. I’m not so much talking about neutralizing an intellectual argument, though there certainly is a valid point to be made for that. I mean, how many things could/should we Christians apologize about! You name it – the Crusades, toxic church systems, hypocrisy, spiritual pretension – there’s never a shortage of things for which we should be sorry! And I do think that it goes a long way when we display genuine remorse for those things and more. This isn’t some apologetic device, but a demonstration of the humility and sincerity of Jesus. But though what happened in my conversation with Sheriff must have included this component, there was definitely something more than that going on.
I thought about the often-quoted verse from 1 John, “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.” At this particular moment it didn’t seem as true as it usually does. OK, it’s always true theoretically, but it isn’t always a reality for me because of my lack of the Spirit of God and the love of God in me. In other words, I have a responsibility to be – and stay – as full of the Spirit as I can, so that in my interactions with people who need Jesus, the influence goes in the right direction. That day, because I wasn’t as full of the Spirit as I should’ve been, an evil spirit inhibited me more than the Holy Spirit impacted him!
So, when I couldn’t explain Jesus to him I genuinely felt bad about it and apologized. And like I said, this was no evangelistic tactic, I just felt bad about not making life’s most important message more understandable. When I did, a barrier dropped and his sullenness diminished making the last minutes of our interaction seem lighter. I’m sure that you could come to the conclusion that my show of anti-arrogance reduced his defenses, and while a case could be made for that, it was more than that.
Demons feed on pride, their leader being the most conceited being in the world. “Pride,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is the complete anti-God state of mind.” You can usually count on whatever the devil promotes is the opposite of the way of Jesus, and I’ve found that the best way to defeat the wrong way and advance the right way is to supply what’s lacking in the wrong way with what is provided in the right way! OK, that’s not very clear, but what I mean is that to defeat an evil spirit is to come in the opposite spirit of it. The enemy creates a vacuum, the Lord counteracts it by filling it. So, when I quite unintentionally displayed humility, I believe it disarmed the spirit of pride and momentarily neutralized the adversary’s efforts to keep Sheriff’s heart and head in darkness. It slightly lifted the spiritual barrier like venetian blinds and let a little sunshine in. Maybe next time, I’ll start with, “Please forgive me if I don’t explain this very well, but…”
[I had another encounter with dark powers in the park that I’ll tell you about in Part 2.]