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Earlier this week, I read a familiar Bible passage and got something new from it.
Every charismatic or evangelical Christian knows Ephesians 6, with its description of the armor of God:
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;
And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:
Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints . . .
I think this passage was intended to encourage us to seek God’s righteousness. In other words, the righteousness you can only have after the Holy Spirit works in you.
It says, “be strong in the Lord.” The phrase “in the Lord” is one of those expressions Christians toss around without making any effort to understand what it means. But it must mean something, or it wouldn’t be in the Bible. And “be strong in the Lord” must mean something.
I think it means, “Use the Lord’s strength.” The New Testament often reminds us that we can’t be good on our own. Why would it do that, if there were no other hope of being good? I don’t think that would make sense.
In Galatians 5, we are told that the Holy Spirit will supernaturally provide us with the following positive characteristics, known as “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Oddly, faith is listed as a fruit of the Spirit and also as a gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12).
Notice that these are not known as “the fruit of hard work.”
Galatians 5:16 says, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” What does “walk in the Spirit” mean? I don’t believe it means “think of spiritual things” or “try to be spiritual.” That would be silly, because that’s what the Jews had to do before the New Covenant. They had to rely on their own efforts. We are supposed to have a different deal with God.
I believe it means “develop God’s character and power supernaturally, through the Holy Spirit, and walk in your new nature.”
It would not make sense for the Bible to tell us to do something we can’t do. But refraining from sin is, for all practical purposes, impossible. This is especially true for addicts and other people living in demonic bondage. What good does it do to tell such a person, “Walk in the Spirit, bro!” It’s not very helpful. If you have a bondage you hate, you’re already trying to get rid of it. Being reminded that you need to quit, and that you’re not being spiritual, is not a great blessing.
We are told God will give us ways to escape temptation. Does that mean every time you feel tempted, you’re going to find a practical, useful way to get out of it, in the moment of temptation? It does not seem to work that way in practice. It has not worked for me, and I have considerable faith in God. The promise must be true, however. So what does it mean? Maybe it means that over time, through fasting and prayer in the Spirit and casting out demons, you’ll be given the supernatural power to beat temptation. Maybe the failures are okay, because they serve to remind you that your own efforts were useless.
That’s how it worked for me. I stuffed myself all the time–a chronic sin–and I could only quit for finite periods, and then I went back to it. Then God delivered me from the problem. Now I’m still tempted, but I can say no, on a consistent and prolonged basis. I’m down about 26 pounds. I can move. I can wear some of my “real” clothes. I feel comfortable.
Drug and alcohol addicts who have cried out to God have had the same experience. At 3:07 p.m., you’re hopelessly addicted. At 3:08 p.m., you’re free for life. It happens. It’s not even rare.
God gives people supernatural character. He runs off the demons that tempt them. Put it together, and you get freedom.
One of the big problems with evangelicals and charismatics is that we tend to demand God’s blessings without building the right foundations. You can say, “no evil shall befall me, neither shall any plague come nigh my dwelling” all day, but if you’re in line for a dose of chastisement, you should not expect it to work all that well. If your behavior and faith are wrong, you will have problems. You can’t leave the screens off your windows and then complain about flies. Although salvation is free, power and protection and other blessings are partly contingent on good behavior and clean motives and thoughts. To receive them, we need to put on the armor of God. But it appears to be impossible without the power of the Holy Spirit.
I’ll tell you right now, there is no possibility that I’ll succeed at it in my own strength. It’s not even worth trying. I know myself. I can’t change my behavior permanently or thoroughly, and even if I could, I can’t change my attitudes and desires. I have iniquities, which are persistent evil inclinations. I procrastinate. I am contentious sometimes. I am often lazy. I tend to ridicule people and get angry for no good reason. I have problems with lust. These things don’t rule every second of my life, but they pop up and cause problems. I can’t get rid of them just by thinking happy thoughts. The human mind doesn’t work that way, and even if it did, some or all of these things have their roots in the presence and activity of hostile spirits. Stuart Smalley can’t help you with those. You’re not good enough, and you’re not smart enough.
What does Paul expect us to do, then? It looks like he gave us the answer at the end of the passage, which is not often quoted: “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” Pray always in the Spirit. Pray in tongues, in other words. That make sense, because we are told elsewhere that it will build us up.
For centuries, we have denied the validity of the baptism with the Spirit, we have refused to perform and accept it as an act separate from water baptism, and we have condemned prayer in tongues. And Christianity has been very disappointing during this time. We tried to convert people at the edge of swords. We tortured Jews. We turned the Papacy into Tammany Hall, at least in the past. We gave anti-Christians ammunition they still use against God today, as though the Inquisition had ended last week. And the flow of miracles was nearly cut off. Healings were considered so extraordinary, people traveled to places like Lourdes instead of expecting healing in their own churches. In January, I got healed in a church parking lot in Miami Gardens. Saved me the price of a ticket to France.
Without the Spirit, we acted like animals, and prayers did not get answered, and God’s power was not manifested much. No wonder the church isn’t bigger today. The wonder is that it survived at all.
Paul believed in prayer in tongues. In a letter, he said he did it “more than you all.” In Ephesians, he tells us to keep doing it. Nowhere in the Bible does it say this gift has stopped, or that it will stop before Jesus returns. There is a passage which says spiritual gifts will stop, but it does not mention a time, and it clearly refers to the future, either in the Messianic Age or after death. Eventually, there will be no need for the gifts. That time has not come.
Aside from all that, millions of Christians are praying in tongues, and it’s pretty clear we are not imagining things or under the influence of demons. And it would be extremely odd for God to allow a demon to enter into a person asking for the Holy Spirit to come in. If God does things like that, we have no chance. The Bible says, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” How can anyone think God would go back on his word and let us be filled with demons, at the very moment when we are seeking his righteousness?
Here is what Paul said about our fleshly efforts at righteousness, in Galatians 3:
Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain.
He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
That’s not about water baptism. It’s not about being baptized “in the name” of the Spirit. It’s not about thinking spiritual thoughts. It’s about the baptism with the Holy Spirit and the miracles that follow. Converts thought they could observe the Jewish law and perfect themselves. Paul corrected them. Many Christians think they can perfect themselves by obeying Christian law. If the Jews were wrong, how can Christians who believe the same thing be right?
Obedience takes strength, and strength comes from the Holy Spirit. That’s what I believe.
I know of four main things that will get you free, supernaturally. First, prayer in tongues. Second, prayer with your understanding. Third, fasting. Fourth, casting out demons. Put those things together, and you get power. You get freedom to control your behavior. That improves your obedience. That closes doors the enemy can come through to get at you.
I’m planning some fasting. I have some issues to work on. Overall, I’m getting more and more free, but sometimes things I’ve beaten come back to try me again. I’m not going to sit around promising to be good and begging for relief, impliedly telling God (in pride) that I can fix myself. I’m going to invite God to do what I can’t do. It has worked in the past. I have no reason to think it won’t continue working.
I want the screens up and the doors closed, and I want to be free to devote my energy to helping other people instead of myself. To mature as a Christian, you have to love, and love is not just internal. It is manifested in actions. I am not doing a great job, and I’ll be better at it if I’m free of the distraction of my own failings.