I know the title is pretty inflammatory and I’m deliberately exaggerating this part of what was taught in Sunday school today because it’s one of those things about the Church that really bugs me.
Here’s what started it all off:
Give some ways Satan supplies us with reasons and circumstances to justify ignoring God’s counsel?
-from Sunday School class notes
for August 10th
The context of this teaching is Pastor Randy’s sermon on Acts 27:13-44 and particularly the circumstances leading up to the fateful shipwreck of Paul and his traveling companions on the island of Malta. Dean, the Sunday school teacher, is focusing on Acts 27:13-15 and the moment when everyone on board ship realized that they should have listened to Paul’s advice and not tried to push on from Fair Haven to Phoenix (Crete).
Coincidentally (or not), on Saturday I was reading Ismar Schorsch’s commentary on Torah Portion Vaethanan from his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries called “The Locus of Evil in Judaism.”
Schorsch wrote his small article in July 1996 and recorded two tragic events that had recently happened. The first one is:
On the first anniversary of the bomb blast that erased 168 lives in the Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, the New York Times ran a front-page photograph of Jannie Coverdale, who had lost two grandsons. She posed between twin beds, each covered with stuffed animals, holding a portrait picture of each boy toward the camera. Beneath the photograph, the Times quoted her as saying: “A year ago this week, Satan drove up Fifth Street in a Ryder truck. He blew my babies up. He may have looked like a normal man, but he was Satan.”
-Schorsch, pg 592
And the second one is:
When Susan Smith in South Carolina sent her two small boys to their watery death strapped into the child safety seats inside her Mazda, her minister, Reverend Mark Long, speculated that she was witness to two presentations that night: “God made her a presentation and Satan made her a beautiful presentation.” After weighing them in her distraught mind, she opted for Satan’s.
I don’t know about you, but when I read this, the “red alert” alarm started going off in the back of my head, but maybe not for the reason you think.
In moments of numbness, I envy the clarity and conviction of these statements. The explicit dualism seems able to account for the ubiquity of evil, that tragic aspect of human experience that defies comprehension — as in the words of the young Augustine before his conversion, “I sought whence evil comes and there was no solution.”
I was caught somewhat off guard in Schorsch’s apparent agreement with such Christian sentiments, however understandable they may be, but then he added:
Yet this view is also thoroughly un-Jewish.
Christianity and Judaism have fundamentally different perspectives on the nature of the origin of good and evil, and Judaism does not embrace what Christians call “Original Sin” or “the Fall” in any aspect. I won’t try to present a detailed analysis here, but I do want to offer the part of Schorsch’s commentary I presented in class:
The Torah never speaks of Satan, for that would compromise its austere monotheism as affirmed by the Shema, but only of a heart that is hardened or uncircumcised. The culprit lies within.
-ibid, pg 594
The class became momentarily confused after I stopped talking but quickly reoriented around Dean’s original question and started describing all the bad things Satan has done to them. I even added the following for good measure but it didn’t help:
But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.
–James 1:14-15 (NASB)
While other parts of the Apostolic Scriptures refer to the Adversary, here James (Jacob), the brother of the Master says “when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust,“ not by Satan or some evil external force that enticed him.
This was the only item in the Sunday school notes I intended on addressing and seeing how my point fell flat on its face, I decided to remain silent for the rest of the class time. But when discussing Acts 27:27-32, one of the questions was:
What proper role do our efforts play in God’s will for us?
Fortunately, people were able to articulate that we actually do have a role, we have things to do, we have stuff we must achieve, even though God doesn’t need our help. We are responsible.
That’s what I was trying to say. One of the fellows in class referred back to my comment when discussing “our efforts” and I was grateful. Someone got it.
It’s just that the Adversary gets a lot of credit, too much in my opinion, when things foul up in the life of a Christian.
I know this is a ridiculous example, but it appeared in my local newspaper and I think deserves a mention:
Last December, Alexander Gonzalez Garcia blamed Satan for causing him to molest a 12-year-old girl in a storage room at the Nampa Seventh-Day Adventist Church where he served as a deacon.
from “With church response: Ex-deacon in Nampa sentenced to prison for molesting girl”
The Idaho Statesman
No, I don’t think anyone at the church I attend would fail to hold this person responsible for his acts of sexual abuse and go directly to Satan, but I don’t doubt they’d see Satan as involved.
But whatever happened to personal responsibility? Whatever happened to being accountable for your own sins. Whether you are tempted by an evil supernatural entity or your own human character flaws are getting in the way, the result is the same. You have a choice to make. You either choose God’s will or your will.
Pastor Bill was in Sunday school class and when I mentioned looking at the guy in the mirror rather than pointing the finger at Satan when life turns to doggie doo, he looked momentarily startled and said we had three enemies: Satan, the world, and our sin nature. I popped right back that it was our own nature that’s our first and worst enemy. I think he nodded “yes,” but I’m not sure. Christianity pays a lot of attention to an entity we’re supposed to stay as far away from as possible. Maybe we’re giving him more credit (and along with it, more “glory”) than we ought to.
Instead of focusing on the author of evil in our lives, how about we cleave to the author of all that is good.
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
–James 1:12 (NASB)
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.
–Deuteronomy 6:4-6 (JPS Tanakh)
…but also the appearance of the Shema in this week’s parashah. I wish to draw your attention to but a single phrase — al levav’kha, “upon your heart” — at the end of verse 7 in chapter 6.
The function of the verse is to speak of the heart as the locus of our unbounded love for God. More concretely, we are instructed to articulate that love by embracing God’s commandments. Our lifelong challenge is to internalize a set of beliefs, values, and actions that is not self-generated, to take what feels alien and unnatural for us and make it our own. The words “upon your heart” identify the scene of battle. It is within the hidden confines of the human heart that our impulses frustrate our ideals. The blood-stained pages of history are but a mirror of our conflicted hearts. To quote Jeremiah, “Most devious is the heart; it is perverse — who can fathom it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)
-Schorsch, pg 593
I regret that it is not appropriate for me to recite the Shema daily or even on Shabbat because Schorch is describing a human battle, not just a Jewish battle. But God has promised the House of Judah and the House of Israel that one day it will be possible for them to win that battle.
“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
–Jeremiah 31:33 (NASB)
Through a rather long and not easily understood process, I have learned that the New Covenant God will make with Israel, that is, the Jewish people, will also apply its blessings to the people of the nations who cleave to the God of Israel through faith in the Messiah who Paul called “rich root of the olive tree.” (Romans 11:17)
I look forward to that day when my heart will be circumcised and His Word will be written on it. I grow so very tired of having to deal with myself every day as the person I am. The battle is hard, and it’s been going on far too long, and I only have myself to blame.