The problem with evil is that it seems so good. Evil is not like the old westerns where you could tell who the bad guy was by the color of his hat. Nor is evil like the vile demons of horror movies with looks that not even a mother could love. No, evil wears the cleverest disguise. Evil looks good. As it is written, Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 12:14). The now sainted Dr. Louis Brighton put it a little more colorfully. “Satan isn’t some little ugly fellow in a red suit with a pointy tail, he is a beautiful blond in a red negligee lying on satin sheets.” So just as Satan disguises himself, so does he disguise his evil and his messengers as Paul notes, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness” (2 Co 11:14–15).
Evil isn’t dark, shadowy and scary. It’s bright, cheery and sounds good. In fact, more often than not it is simply a twisting of something that is good. Satan isn’t really all that original. He’s not good at coming up with his own material, but he excels at making twisted parodies of that which is good. For example, a way that he can snare a Christian is to trick us with the idea of doing things that please our Heavenly Father, because we naturally want to do things that please God because they are good to do and helpful to the people around us. So, Satan takes those God-pleasing actions and he twists them into something evil. Usually, Satan warps them into away to build up ourselves and turn them into a means of self-worship – just look at what happened to the church in Corinth, they twisted all sorts of God pleasing things into status symbols (1 Corinthians 14). He also likes to trick us into abandoning the mind-boggling generosity of our Father in His gracious gift giving by leading us to believe that God is somebody we have to buy off.
I recently read a devotion that takes thankfulness, which is good, and turns into a means to manipulate God for His favor which is absolutely horrible. One, we could no more manipulate God than we could suddenly learn to breathe water. Two and worse, it leaves us in a place of uncertainty. If God giving me joy is based on me being thankful, how can I be sure of being thankful enough? You can’t. The devotion at hand doesn’t even offer you some external evidence of material blessing ala Joel Osteen. I guess not being like Osteen could be a point in favor, but leaving us hanging with no way to know for sure of God’s blessing is a just as horrible place to be as his pointing us to our material blessings as evidence of God’s disposition towards us. And in fact, what the devotional does is quite contrary to what God has done. Even though God has made it clear we cannot judge our state before Him by our circumstances – He has promised that because of His faithfulness we can have assurance that He is there for us to forgive our sins – bless us – in the gifts of His Word, Baptism, and Communion (John 20:22, Romans 6:3-5, Matt 26:26-28.) The devotional, doesn’t take you there. It just leaves you hanging – “Am I blessed or not? I can’t tell.” And so, Satan takes being thankful and sends us into a nasty tailspin of always seeking to be more thankful so that you can be blessed and then wondering if you were thankful enough because you can’t be sure. And thus, Satan tricks us away from Jesus and the assurance of the free gift and moves us towards ourselves and the work that we do leaving us in the pit of doubt or self-deception.
Sadly, what I describe above is from the incredibly popular devotional called Jesus Calling. Notice in the picture to the side, that she openly states: “in this transaction: you give me thanks …and I give you Joy.” Essentially, she is saying if you pay Him, God will give you a service as if He were the person at the counter of your local fast food joint. That’s not how it works. Thankfulness is not an act of obedience. Thankfulness is the natural reaction of gratitude one who has received a wondrous gift that is offered freely and not from obligation. More often than not thankfulness is expressed in the equally natural result of God’s redeeming work, our new obedience. Yet, even here we do not benefit from our new obedience. And our new obedience isn’t even for God, it’s for the benefit of our neighbor. Which means, we cannot confuse it with a system of payment as is portrayed in this devotion.
When we are thankful to God we aren’t paying a bill; we are overflowing with the gifts He gave us. Take for example Psalm 89, which Mrs. Young quotes. We will look at the context immediately surrounding her quote.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
Blessed are the people who know the festal shout,
who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face,
who exult in your name all the day
and in your righteousness are exalted.
(Ps 89:14–16) ESV (Please note she uses the NIV which is different from all the major translations)
The way Hebrew Poetry works is that it generally uses thoughts in parallel that play off of each other usually negating or building upon one another. That means in order to understand the verse you need to look at its paralleling thoughts. In this case verse 14 and 16. Our question is who are the blessed? Verse 16 tells us. They are the ones who have been exalted in God’s righteousness. They are righteous because as verse 14 tells us, “God’s steadfast love and faithfulness” goes before Him. The people are blessed or in a joyful state because they have been made righteous through God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. In other words, they are joyful because they have been redeemed through the gracious work of Jesus on the cross. They are not given joy because God gave rendered a service on payment the joy came first.
The other verses do not fair much better. Ephesians 5:20 is in the midst of several exhortations on our treatment of our neighbors. It unpacks what I pointed out earlier, that our thankfulness benefits the people around us. It also involves proclaiming the great work that God has done in saving us – that is the heart of the Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19). Psalm 118, is worse. Here the Gospel is clearly overlooked. Without going into too much technical detail, I will say the verse “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” is a bookend verse. The last verse of 118 is the exact same words. This a signal to the reader. The main point is in the middle of the psalm and that central point is going to inform our understanding of the bookends. So, our main point is going to be centered around verse 14-16 roughly speaking.
The LORD is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
15 Glad songs of salvation
are in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the LORD does valiantly,
16 the right hand of the LORD exalts,
the right hand of the LORD does valiantly!”
Once again, it becomes clear that thankfulness is a response. Even more if you read further on you will find that this is a prophetic psalm about Jesus “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Ps 118:22). With the way the verse is used in the devotion we are turned away from the intended meaning of Jesus towards ourselves. We are taken away from the glorious news that God works out my salvation freely because He is gracious and delivered into the hands of a bill collector who fixes our credit rating only because we paid him something.
Mrs. Young took a part of Scripture and removed it from its context. In doing so she changed its meaning. Did she intend to change the meaning? I don’t know, I want to assume the best. However, we still must take seriously the verse means the exact opposite as the devotion would have you to believe. Sadly, such a thing is very common. And it would seem that Mrs. Young has fallen for one of Satan’s more common tricks. As Rev. Jonathan Fisk notes “One of the sneakiest tricks of the devil is to quote God’s words, but to not quite quote *all* of them.” That’s what has happened here. Part of God’s words were quoted and so it looked like what she wrote is correct, but reading God’s word in the context of the rest of His words makes it clear the words mean something different than Mrs. Young implies. The more I hear of this book, the more that I think that it is Satan’s words in his well-used disguise – a messenger of light. I really do not know Sarah Young so I will not comment on her personally, but I am pretty sure she has not been hearing Jesus as she once claimed. (you can read more about her “hearing Jesus” at 10 Serious Problems with Jesus Calling).
So what does this mean to you who have been reading Jesus Calling? Satan has taken advantage of your good desires. You’re not the first person Satan’s tricked. In fact, welcome to the club. He’s tricked pretty much everybody including yours truly. I bought into a few of Satan’s lies myself. I can sympathize and so could a few other far more notable figure such as Peter, Paul and Martin Luther. Each of us has bought into a lie of Satan’s, more importantly the light of Jesus’ truth shined forth, breaking the lie and renewed us in the life giving Gospel of Jesus. You were looking for something good that spoke to your situation and Satan tricked you with something that appeared to do so. It is not too late for you. Now that Satan’s trick has been exposed, it’s time to admit you were tricked. Set the book aside, preferably in the recycling bin. And once again, hear Jesus’ real words of great Joy in the pronouncement of Absolution – “I forgive you of all your sins.” If learning these things about a book you held dear has shaken you up, I invite you to come and talk. I’ll commiserate with you. I’ll even offer Jesus’ words of great joy and comfort for free in Holy Absolution (That is assuming you are one of my parishioners reading this article; if not talk to your own pastor. I am sure he’d be happy to help you.) We can even explore devotionals that really do what Jesus Calling only claimed to do – give you true comfort.
Update – I wish to quickly address if the above is an isolated incident. As much as one would hope that maybe she had a bad entry this is not the case. Young does, what I address, throughout the entire book. For a more comprehensive review of Jesus Calling please listen to this podcast on Just and Sinner by Pr. Jordan Cooper and his wife Lisa Cooper.