“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
As a rule, Presbyterians don’t talk much about the devil. But this month, we’re going to begin reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in the pastor’s Bible study. The book imagines a correspondence between a senior demon and a younger apprentice, as they plot the damnation of their “patient.”
Pop culture tells us how people make deals with the devil. It says people sell their souls and obtain worldly success in exchange for eternal damnation. These stories are often accompanied by convincing details: the contract is signed in blood, or is executed at midnight at a crossroads.
Scripture paints a more complicated picture than pop culture. While there are some points of agreement, the picture is certainly nuanced. On the one hand, Psalm 10:5 says the ways of the wicked prosper at all times. On the other hand, the Psalmist recounts in Psalm 32 how his body wasted away before he confessed his sin, but now God has become his hiding place and preserver. He concludes with the observation that “many are the torments of the wicked.”
We may share the Psalmist’s mixed feelings. We, too, can think of successful people who, if not utterly wicked, seem to live lives far from the will of God — and yet they seem happy and fulfilled. This can drive us to discount the present and focus entirely on the afterlife. “They’re living high now,” we think, “but someday they will be brought low.”
True as that may be, it isn’t really helpful. First, Peter reminds us the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). We can hardly desire damnation for those God wants to be saved.
But second, God doesn’t want us to be focused on our eternal reward. Instead, God wants us to change our definition of success. If the wicked seem to prosper, our definition of success is false. “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt 16:26)
The danger, though, is that we should turn our backs not on the world but on the present. If we focus all our effort and our obedience on a reward we only be able to enjoy in heaven, we have become like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who complains he has “worked like a slave” for the Father, but lived miserably (“you never gave me a goat to celebrate”) (see Luke 15:25-32).
God doesn’t want us to be miserable. Jesus came that “we might have life, and in abundance.” My prayer is that as we read Screwtape together, we can gain a better perspective about that kind of abundant living. I hope to see you there!