Recently, with the rise of ISIS, world leaders have spoken a great deal about vanquishing evil. But, as one writer in The Guardian pointed out, ‘Their rhetoric reveals a failure to accept that cruelty and conflict are basic human traits.’ As Albert Einstein said, ‘I do not fear the explosive power of the atom bomb. What I fear is the explosive power of evil in the human heart.’
Why is there so much evil in the world? Why is there such a battle with evil in our own lives? How can we resist the devil? What will happen to the devil at the end of time?
1. Confess and renounce evilProverbs 28:7–17
The answer to evil in our own lives is in verse 13: ‘Those who conceal their sins do not prosper, but those who confess and renounce them find mercy.’
The writer of Proverbs speaks of different types of evil: murder (v.17), leading the upright along an evil path (v.10), turning a deaf ear to the law (v.9), charging exorbitant interest (v.8) and hard-heartedness (v.14).
He also speaks about evil rulers: ‘When good people are promoted, everything is great, but when the bad are in charge, watch out!’ (v.12, MSG). ‘Among leaders who lack insight, abuse abounds’ (v.16a, MSG). We see this in many parts of our world today. We’ve seen it in the last few years in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Sudan. Good leadership is so important.
He says that an evil leader is ‘like a roaring lion or a charging bear’ ruling over a helpless people (v.15). The apostle Peter described the devil as ‘a roaring lion looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8).
When we confess our sins, God offers us mercy. ‘You can’t whitewash your sins and get by with it; you find mercy by admitting and leaving them’ (Proverbs 28:13, MSG). Or as St John puts it, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1:9).
Lord, thank you for this wonderful promise that when we confess our sins and renounce them, we find mercy.
2. Resist the devil and he will fleeJames 4:1–17
Why is there so much division in the world? James gives us an uncomfortable answer: ‘Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves’ (v.1, MSG). The Bible acknowledges the human sources of evil, but also points to a deeper source.
All human beings have evil tendencies. This chapter is focused on the key battle ground in the fight against evil – ourselves. Evil must be resisted. How can we win this battle?
The first problem that James identifies is that when we want something, we go out there and fight for it, rather than asking God: ‘You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it’ (v.2, MSG).
The lure of the pleasures of this world is so strong. But God wants us to be faithful to him. When we pursue the pleasures of this world we become adulterous in our relationship with God. ‘When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures’ (v.3).
He goes on to say, ‘You’re cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way’ (v.4, MSG). This upsets the Holy Spirit: ‘Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?’ (v.5). We grieve the Holy Spirit when we go after other gods.
You cannot overcome evil on your own. Yet, here is the remarkable thing: ‘he gives us more grace’ (v.6a). God does not condemn you. ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (v.6b). He gives you more grace to overcome evil.
Submit yourself humbly to God: ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you’ (vv.7–8a). These are wonderful promises, worth learning off by heart. I like the way The Message version puts it: ‘Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time’ (v.7–8a, MSG).
How do you do this? He goes on to explain, ‘Quit dabbling in sin’ (v.8, MSG). It is no good thinking you can live a holy life and hang on to just a little bit of sin in your life. ‘Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field ... Get down on your knees before the Master.’ God does not leave us there. Getting down on our knees is the way to get back on our feet! (vv.8b–10, MSG).
As we recognise our own shortcomings, we realise we are in no position to judge anyone else. The best way to forget the faults of others is to remember our own. As we ourselves are law-breakers, who are we to sit around judging other people (v.11)? There is only one who is qualified to be the judge: ‘the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbour?’ (v.12).
Another evil is self-importance, to be ‘full of your grandiose selves’ (v.16, MSG). We ‘brashly announce, “Today – at the latest, tomorrow – we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money” ’ (v.13, MSG).
It is good to plan ahead but, at the end of the day, ‘You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow’ (v.14, MSG). We are totally dependent on God: ‘Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.” ’ (vv.15, MSG). The expression ‘God-willing’ should not be a formality. Rather, it should express the reality of a heart that recognises that God is ultimately in control, and we are not. The prayer of our heart should be: ‘your will be done’.
It is also possible to sin by not doing something. Sin is not just doing what we know is wrong, it is also failing to do what we know is right. ‘In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don’t do it, that, for you, is evil’ (v.17, MSG).
Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
3. Be confident in the triumph of good over evilEzekiel 38:1–39:29
Evil will not have the last word. Good will ultimately triumph. God is sovereign. As St Thomas Aquinas put it, ‘God is so powerful that he can direct any evil to a good end.’
Ezekiel is told to prophesy against ‘Gog, of the land of Magog … I am against you, O Gog’ (Ezekiel 38:2–3). The identities of Gog and Magog seem to be deliberately mysterious. We simply don’t know where the names come from, but Ezekiel uses them to represent the archetypal enemies who ‘cook up an evil plot’ against God’s people (v.10, MSG).
This identification becomes clearer in the book of Revelation, particularly in Revelation 19:11–20:10, in which Gog and Magog are identified with Satan, and used to represent all the evil forces and people of the earth. These passages describe the end of the world and the destruction of Satan. This is the battle that is also described in our passage for today – and the message of both passages is clear: God wins!
The core of the message of the defeat of Gog and Magog, Satan and all his followers, is essentially a message of hope. God says, ‘I will execute judgment [on Satan] ... so I will show my greatness and my holiness, and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord’ (Ezekiel 38:22–23).
The context in Ezekiel is that the people were exiled because they were unfaithful to God. So he hid his face from them and handed them over to their enemies (39:23–24). Now he promises that a day will come when evil will fall (vv.4–5). God will be glorified: ‘The day I am glorified will be a memorable day for them’ (v.13).
He promises that he will have compassion on them: ‘I’ll be compassionate with all the people of Israel ... I’ll use them to demonstrate my holiness with all the nations watching ... After I’ve poured my Spirit on Israel, filled them with my life, I’ll no longer turn away. I’ll look them full in the face’ (vv.25–29, MSG).
These are amazing promises. Satan is a defeated foe. His end will come. You can begin to experience that victory right now.
Lord, thank you that you promise to hide your face from me no longer, and that you pour out your Holy Spirit on me. May there be a great outpouring of your Spirit on all the churches, so that everyone will know that you are the Lord our God.
‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.’
Powerful verses that I have recited many times when feeling under attack by fear or discouragement.