Last Sunday, my pastor was preaching on the gospel account of Jesus's temptation in the wilderness and how the devil tried to use passages of scripture to lead Jesus astray. "The devil was slinging scripture like a preacher," he said, "and that is an important lesson to all of us. Just because someone knows the Bible chapter and verse doesn't necessarily mean that person is up to any good." There were a lot of chuckles from the congregation at that, but the pastor had no hint of a smile on his face. "No, it's not a joke," I whispered to my husband. "He's serious." And, frankly, he should be.
The best lies have a little truth mixed in with them, and the devil provides an excellent example of the dangers of prooftexting. The devil does not arrive in the desert with a flaming pitchfork in an attempt to openly beat Jesus into submission. He comes with arguments that he hopes will sound well-reasoned and convincing. Jesus is not fooled because he knows the mind of God so well that he can see how the devil is misusing scripture. But the devil is not content to lose to Jesus—he comes after us instead, trying to lead us astray by twisting God's truth.
Knowing the Bible chapter and verse, as my pastor put it, is not enough to help us identify and rebuff Satan's lies. Memorization won't cut it. We have to understand the underlying meaning of Scripture and have a feel for the unified message of God in order to spot a faulty interpretation. That means that if we don't want to be led astray by lies, we are going to have to invest some serious effort and prayer into grappling with Scripture and working through ideas together to reach a fuller understanding of God's will for us. It's hard work. It's much easier to be ignorant or content to follow any strong leader who takes us by the hand without thinking things through for ourselves. But we must take the hard path of discipline and discernment, because the stakes are very high.
Right now, a Christian somewhere is telling a young girl that she's a whore who will certainly go to Hell because she had sex outside of marriage. (Never mind the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.) Right now, a Christian somewhere is claiming that the earthquake and tsunami in Japan must be the direct result of some evil on the part of the Japanese people. (Never mind the entire book of Job.) Right now, a Christian somewhere is turning away another Christian from fellowship or worship because he isn't the "right kind" of Christian. (Never mind Paul's assertion that we are all one body in Christ.) The list could go on and on.
And perhaps most dangerous of all, right now there are an alarming number of Christians who are smug in the belief that they don't need God's forgiveness or despairing in the conviction that they are too terrible to receive it. In the wilderness the devil was trying to convince Jesus to break away from the Father's plan and take action on His own. Today Satan is playing the same game with us, trying to tell us that we are or should be separated from God, trying to get us to leave the sheltering arms of the Father who loves and protects us.
We must not be taken in by this lie, even—and most especially—if it's couched in Biblical language. We are not beyond redemption. We are not doomed (or privileged, as the arrogant would assume) to get what we deserve. We should not be scattered to the winds and left to face our enemy alone. We must hold fast to the truth, the real truth, that is embodied in the entirety of Scripture. We must not take the bait of trying to proclaim right and wrong for ourselves but must remain obedient and diligent servants committed to earnestly seeking the will of God. And when we are taken in by the lies—as we most certainly will be from time to time—we must humbly ask God to set our feet on right paths once more.