Thursday, December 3, 2015

Identifying the Real Enemy

These days it seems we have no shortage of enemies. There’s the network of radical Islamic terrorists motivated by unfathomable hatred. Then there are perpetrators of gun violence that take the lives of thousands each year. If you’re a liberal politically, conservatives are the enemy. And for conservatives, it’s the liberals. For football teams, the enemy consists of the players on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

We could list many other “enemies” worth considering, but I can’t help but wonder: Are we failing to focus on the real enemy, the one that lurks in our own back yards?

In a “Pogo” comic strip from years back, the namesake possum declares, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The context for the ironic quip, used for Earth Day both in 1970 and 1971, was mankind’s self-inflicted environmental problems. However, we could apply this reasoning to other aspects of life as well.

Many people suffer from health problems brought on by their own bad habits – smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, chemical abuse, unhealthy diets, lack of proper exercise. Yes, it’s sad when they encounter disease and chronic illness, but in many cases, they were their own worst enemies.

Plenty of individuals find themselves weighed down by great emotional distress brought on by bitterness, anger, unwillingness to forgive, jealousy, envy, fear and anxiety. These reactions to life’s circumstances are understandable to an extent, but when we harbor destructive feelings, embracing them like dear friends, then whose fault is that? We’ve found the enemy – it’s us.

Throughout the Bible one of the undergirding messages is the consequence of focusing on self. It started with Adam and Eve, the first – but hardly the last – humans to declare, “I want what I want – and I want it NOW!” They also were the first in attempting to protect “self.”

When God discovered they had ignored His instructions and sampled fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam became the first “buck-passer.” Confronted by God about this act of disobedience, Adam quickly replied, “This woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree – and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12). He not only blamed Eve, but in essence he was telling God that He was responsible. “It was that woman You created, God! Don’t blame me.”

Then Eve, quickly grasping the blame-game strategy herself, told God, “The serpent (Satan) deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). Long before the Flip Wilson character, Geraldine, uttered the words, Earth’s first woman was declaring, “The devil made me do it!”

Many years later, not much has changed. We still wrestle grandly with admitting mea culpa, Latin for “it’s my fault.” Or as younger people say in their vernacular, “My bad!” We see it in high-ranking politicians, who deny knowledge of any wrongdoing when scandals arise or accuse the opposing party of disabling their good intentions.

Business leaders, celebrities, star athletes and others follow the same tactics when caught in ethical, legal or moral failures. “I didn’t do it!” they say in their own defense, knowing full well that yes, they did.

But we don’t have to be headliners to wrangle with this pernicious enemy that will never go away – self. Marriages die and families are destroyed because spouses decide they must have what they want, even if it exacts a great cost on everyone else involved. Even among so-called followers of Christ, we often hear the excuse, “I know God wants me to be happy.” Where, exactly, does it say that in the Scriptures? (Unless you subscribe to the Bible as interpreted and twisted by the health-and-wealth, prosperity evangelists.)

In fact, again and again God in His Word affirms, as Pogo discovered, “We have met the enemy – and he is us.” This is why we’re repeatedly exhorted to deny the insistent demands of self. Jesus told His followers, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In other words, be willing to die to ourselves, our selfish desires and determination to have it our way.

The sixth chapter of Romans explains it’s not a matter of seeking to repress our self-oriented motives, but rather to surrender them entirely and exchange them for the new spiritual life we’re offered through Jesus Christ: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too many live a new life” (Romans 6:4), and “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” Romans 6:11).

Whether it’s an Islamic extremist making the arrogant, horrific decision to take the lives of innocent “infidels,” a political leader resolving to do anything – whatever it takes – to attain a desired elective office, or a husband or wife opting to cast sacred vows aside in their “pursuit of happiness,” ultimately there’s one common enemy: Self.

Sadly, as I’ve learned so well in my own life, self doesn’t die easily. But if we’re wishing to experience the fulfilling, fruitful life God promises and desires for each of us, the only way is to die daily to self and appropriate the life we have in Christ.

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