Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Dangers of Prooftexting

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.


A few hours ago, I was at a weekly Bible study I attend at my church, and we were looking at the readings for this Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent. We covered the temptation of Adam and Eve in Eden, the temptation of Jesus in the desert just after his baptism, and Paul's explanation about how Adam's sin brought death to all people but Jesus's sacrifice brought the free gift of redemption to all people. In the course of the discussion, a very interesting question came up.

"Why was the tree of good and evil even in the garden?" Why did God put something there and then ask Adam and Eve not to touch it? Why was the temptation to fall there in the first place? Later we remarked upon the fact that it was the Holy Spirit that led Jesus out into the desert where he was tempted by the devil. There was the question again: why? Why does God let us be tempted?

I think the answer is that God wants us to choose Him, and without temptation there is no choice to be made. God made us all in His image and endowed us with free will. Then He set us free to choose good or evil, and He's been working hard ever since to convince us to choose good, to choose Him. God could have made Eden without the tree of good and evil. He could have made a robotic Adam and Eve who only smiled and did exactly as He asked. But how can one truly love a machine with no independent thought? How could a person with no freedom to choose otherwise truly love God?

So choices are introduced. We have the chance to fail—to disobey, to eat the apple, to believe the devil's crafty lies. But then, through the free gift of Jesus Christ, we also have the choice to accept forgiveness and be reconciled to God. I find it heartening that when God threw Adam and Eve out of Eden, he did not destroy it—to me that symbolizes the hope that one day, thanks to Jesus, we can return.

Not one character in the Bible except Jesus chose God and righteousness every single time. Many of them made mistakes. But how glorious it was when they chose to follow God! Miraculous things happened. Difficult and tragic situations were turned around. Hope was restored. That is the power we have in our choices.

Temptation is real, and God is not the only being who wants us to choose Him. Satan is also trying to win us over to his side, and we have to be aware of the reality and impact of our choices. Both God and Satan are trying to convince us that theirs is the best way, and God is not going to make us deaf to the devil's cajoling. There aren't "good" people who always do good or "bad" people who always choose sin.

Every one of us has the chance—and the God-given right—to choose. We make thousands of these little choices every day, some for righteousness and some for sin. But there is a larger choice that transcends all of that, that defines who we are and where we are going. Do we choose to follow Jesus and to belong to God, or do we choose to follow Satan in an attempt to belong only to ourselves? That's a big choice, and it will guide everything we do in this life and beyond. We need to make sure that we are informed and that we are making the right choice. It's a big responsibility.
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