Intimacy and EternityOvercoming Condemnation
Part Two, Chapter Nine
The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved:
loved for ourselves,
or rather loved in spite of ourselves.
Part One: The River of Delights
The Pace of Life
Towards a Life of Reflection
The Trysting Place
Part Two: The Ascent of Toil
The Dark Night of the Soul
The Principle of Suffer-Reign
The Grace of Yielding
The Devil not only hates our intimacy with God – he fears it. If he cannot push our soul off course into deception, then he will assuredly try to persuade us that there is something wrong with us! Envious that we are heading towards the place from which he has been excluded, our invisible enemy will try everything he can to frustrate our pilgrimage and to hinder our fruitfulness. Which of us has not experienced Satan’s minions torturing our minds with thought attacks that are perfectly geared to exploit our particular weak spots?
Before I wrote this book, the Lord urged me to teach on some of the enemies of intimacy. George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilization, considers condemnation to be the number one weapon the enemy uses against believers.
Facing this foe therefore merits a chapter in its own right. Whereas persecution often drives us as Christians closer to each other, an inner sense of worthlessness merely makes us feel isolated and despairing.
Alex Buchanan speaks of Satan shining a magnifying glass intensely on some particular issue, which he then distorts and enlarges to the point where we find it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Bob Gass put it this way:
A thought left to ramble in your mind can attach itself to an incident in your past. It will begin to feed on that incident and grow like a virus. The stronger it gets, the weaker you become, until your strength has been drained away by lust or resentment or fear. The thought you left unchecked today can become a stronghold tomorrow. Paul says we must take these thoughts captive before they take us captive.1
The Roots of Condemnation
But I said, ‘I have laboured to no purpose;
I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.
Yet what is due to me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.’
In one sense, all temptation and condemnation is aimed against God. Since the devil cannot attack the Lord directly, he attempts to wound Him indirectly by hurting His children. We need a vigorous defence. When the devil dredges up matters from our past, or torments us with some fear, it is vital that we lift up the shield of faith. These thoughts do not belong, but we do – to our Lord!
Temperament and character play a large part in how well we handle condemnation. What one person can reject without difficulty may be a serious battle for another. Perfectionists, and those who are unduly hard on themselves, are especially prone to condemnation.
A condemning upbringing has much to answer for. The endless put-downs we endure at the hands of critical parents, pastors, teachers or school mates become in time an internalized voice that counterfeits the voice of the Lord.
Inevitably, this accumulated deadweight leaves us feeling that whatever we do will never be good enough. Such thoughts are like trip wires which the powers of darkness carefully position for us to stumble over.
For many of us, the end result of being criticized and condemned is that we allow a hard shell of judgement to form around our hearts. This leads us to reject many people and situations that threaten our emotional insecurities, but which actually could have done us much good had we handled them better. We need to renounce all the patterns of criticism and control we have inherited or developed, and to pray instead for increased humility and discernment.
Whatever the specific ways by which condemnation assails us, Satan’s intention is always the same: to misrepresent the character of God to us, and to accuse us within the privacy of our own hearts. To this end he often sets out to blame us for things for which we are not even remotely responsible.2
Condemnation often strikes in direct proportion to the importance of a task we are engaged in. We feel the full force of the devil’s fury against us as we set out to fulfil the work of the Lord – or when we are already weary from having done it. Like gusty squalls on a stormy night, his spiteful shafts hammer and probe at the entrance to our mind. ‘Where have we gone wrong?’ we groan, ashamed to confess aloud the terrible thoughts and feelings that are plaguing us.
Condemnation turns us in on ourselves, and wrongly makes us assume that no one else could sympathize with our predicament. This is when we must reach out for help. The temptation is to feel ‘I am too young, too old, or too insignificant to ask for help’ – or, alternatively, ‘I am supposed to be a mature Christian; I can’t ask anyone to help me with this problem!’ By keeping these struggles to ourselves we merely sentence ourselves to more of these monotonous refrains that churn around our minds.
The Lord can use us to help each other. During one of her husband’s periodic bouts of depression, Martin Luther’s wife came downstairs one day dressed in mourning clothes. When her husband asked her who had died, she replied, ‘Martin, you’ve been acting as if God had died!’ Her dramatic ploy jolted Luther out of his self-pity.
Appropriate sharing keeps us in a healthy state of emotional honesty. Few things will so aid our spiritual growth as having a soul-friend to share these matters with.
To rephrase a popular commercial, ‘The prayers of others reach the parts our own cannot reach!’
Negotiating the Mind-Field
If we happen to be one of the relatively few Christians who do not suffer much from condemnation (or who have largely managed to overcome it) we are still bound to meet many people who suffer from its crippling pangs. It is important that we guide them aright. We are facing an informed and intelligent opponent, whose unswerving aim is to control the mind of mankind. To that end he deploys a wide variety of forces, including extremes of both behaviour and belief, as well as spiritual deceptions of all kinds.
Mercifully, the Accuser of the brethren is not omniscient – but he does have access to our track record. The ‘father of lies’ scours our past in order to see which of our many unkind words and foolish actions he can use against us. As a master propagandist he knows which thought-patterns and fears, as well as which circumstances, are most likely to upset us.
This is not a game; it is the centre-stage of our spiritual warfare. It is a great mistake if we hold back or are put off from doing something because of flashbacks to some past hurt or failure.
As the old Chinese saying puts it, ‘We cannot stop birds from flying over our head,
but we do not need to let them nest in our hair.’
Satan knows how to spin a good yarn, but since he is nothing but a liar, why should the particular fear that we are experiencing now be right? It pays to ‘doubt our doubts’, and to dispute the devil’s right to disrupt our lives.
Somebody once described the battle this way: ‘God is always voting for us; the devil is always voting against us, but it is how we vote which decides who wins!’ Simply recognizing what is going on and who we are dealing with is half way to victory.
Unfounded fears lie at the root of much of our unhappiness. Some years ago, the devil concocted what I can only describe as a nightmare scenario in my mind. It was overwhelmingly persistent and plausible, and led to a time of acute internal agitation. Because I knew that such things had happened to other people, I found it impossible to dismiss the thought as being something that could never happen to me. I bound the fear, I praised the Lord; I tried everything I could think of to set myself free, but still the thoughts persisted.
I hesitated initially to share the matter with Rosalind, because I had the uncomfortable feeling that she would consider me foolish to entertain such thoughts. When I did share it with her, my fears were confirmed: she thought it was ridiculous to waste so much energy worrying about something that wasn’t even happening! But when she prayed with me about it, things began to change. Rosalind’s prayers put a brick through the devil’s magnifying glass – but I still need to be careful not to pick up the pieces!
Our Heavenly Advocate
Here is a simple suggestion for dealing with the common but crippling problem of not knowing whether the guilt and confusion we are wrestling with comes from God, the devil or our own unhealed hurts. Should Satan remind us of some sin, let us by all means deal with any truth that may lie hidden in the accusation. God can use even these attacks to deepen the spirit of repentance within us.
But then, and with all guns blazing, we must reject Satan’s lies, and vigorously deny the insidious half truths that are woven into the accusation. ‘Lord, I’m not worthy,’ may or may not be the prelude to holiness, but ‘Lord, I’m worthless’ is the language of condemnation.
Realistically, since many of the deepest hurts and rejections we experience come through our fellow believers, then is it not probable, inevitable even, that some of the things we say and do will cause others to suffer too? The Ascent of Toil makes us more aware of these unkind attitudes, but this does not mean that the Lord Jesus disqualifies us from sharing in the inheritance of the ‘Kingdom of light.’3 It grieves and dishonours our Heavenly Father if we fall into the trap of believing that He will set us to one side. Why despair, when our feelings are such an unreliable barometer?
Provided that we have confessed all known sin, then we must call the Accuser’s bluff and hold the door of our minds shut against these intrusive thoughts. Our adversary has no legal leg to stand on. There is no condemnation for those who have confessed their sins to the Lord. Satan can only dangle the memory of them before our eyes and hope that we will believe them and become trapped in a slough of despond.4
‘Flashbacks’ are, effectively, a denial that the Lord Jesus has forgiven our past sins and failures. They are also a perversion of a spiritual blessing. During those times when I am closest to the Lord, I am sometimes reminded of particular prayers I have prayed. They remain ‘on file’ in heaven – not so my mistakes. Sins confessed are not only sins forgiven but also sins forgotten: blotted out and buried in the sea of God’s forgiveness. I like the attitude taken by John Vianney and Francis of Paola:
Pardon one another so that later on you will not remember the injury. The recollection of an injury is in itself wrong. It adds to our anger, nurtures our sin and hates what is good. It is a rusty arrow and poison for the soul.
The way to overcome the devil when he excites feelings of hatred for those who injure us
is immediately to pray for their conversion.5
Forgiveness is ever a choice against our natural instincts. It is the most distinctively Christian form of love we can demonstrate towards those who we do not naturally get on with. Exercising forgiveness is proof that the love of God is at work within us. We may never particularly like the people who have hurt us, and we may still have to suffer the consequences of what they have done to us, but when we put forgiveness in motion we are setting loose the most powerful force in the universe.
Some would say that it is easier to rise to a Christ-like level of forgiveness of one’s murderer, executioners or torturers than it is to forgive those who try us in small ways, every day. Forgiveness within the family is a stringent test.5
Some of us also need to be more willing to forgive ourselves. If we do not, we may find that we read the Bible and view God Himself through the shattered image of our sense of alienation. This is when the very means by which the Lord desires to communicate with us becomes a source of further condemnation to our soul. How does this come about? By the devil first planting and then watering seeds of doubt and unbelief.
But what about those times when we pray for something to change, and nothing happens? We could hardly expect the devil to resist so tempting a target. Whenever we are faced with such a situation we can almost hear him whispering: ‘God didn’t care enough about you to help you overcome your problems then. You’ll never win through!’ Affirming the opposite of these lies and suggestions is still our best form of defence – and it thwarts the enemy’s intentions.
Another means I have found to be effective is to take my fears to the Lord Jesus, who is our heavenly advocate.6 This is particularly helpful on those occasions where we simply do not know whether what we are feeling is right or wrong. Then we can pray along these lines:
Lord Jesus, I don’t know if this thing that I am doing (or feeling) is right or wrong; but if it is wrong, I ask You to show me, and to save me from it – and if it is right, to bless and anoint it. Whatever happens, I ask that I shall in no way be ashamed, nor be the cause of shaming others. Thank You, Lord, that You can turn even the attacks of the evil one around for good. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Overcoming the power behind condemnation opens the way for faith to flow more freely in our hearts.
Are there times when experience has shown that you are most at risk from troublesome thoughts?
Is there anything practical you can do to avoid them?
Do they come because you have not dared to believe that God has really forgiven you for things you have done in the past?
Or because you yourself are holding on to some resentment or unforgiveness?
help me during the many times when disturbing thoughts torture my mind,
and I feel oppressed by my foes.
Thank You that You endured far more than I will ever have to do,
first in the wilderness and then in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Thank You that You have not given me a spirit of timidity,
‘but a spirit of power, of love and of self-control.’
Grant me grace to stand on Your word and to resist the devil’s lies.
I come against these shafts of condemnation now in the power of Christ,
and I pray that You will help me to speak out words of grace and encouragement.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1. See 2 Corinthians 10:5. Quoted from The Word for Today, an outstanding devotional booklet published quarterly by United Christian Broadcasters. It is available without charge from U.C.B., P.O. Box 255, Stoke on Trent, ST4 8YY, UK.
2. Many who were abused in childhood feel they must have been in some way responsible for what happened. They carry this false guilt with them throughout their lives – often with disastrous effects on their marriages. It is likewise common to find that children who were not wanted received insufficient nurture in their souls and touch in their bodies. They grow up seriously lacking in confidence and motivation, possessing little resistance with which to face life’s setbacks.
3. Colossians 1:12-14; 1 John 3:19-23.
4. Romans 8:1, cf Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10. The book of Nehemiah likewise reveals a number of examples of false accusations being directed against God’s servants.
5. Quoted in The Wisdom of the Saints, Jill Haak Adels (O.U.P).
6. 1 John 2:1, cf Romans 8:1, 14:22. Problems with self-esteem are by no means limited to adults. For a look at the subject from a teenage perspective, you might like to read Who do you think you are? by Steve Mawston (Scripture Union).