For Offenses Must Come

July 31, 2008, 10:00 am; posted by
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“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
“Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!”
(Matthew 18:5-7)

Many Christians live in a vague detachment from the Word to Whom they have pledged their lives. After a burst of post-conversion piety, the novelty wears off; eventually, a certain level of maturity is simply assumed, and a nodding familiarity with the Bible’s greatest hits is accepted in place of the study required to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Tim 2:15).

One explanation is a rootless conversion, founded in the rocky soil of emotion. Another is creeping unbelief: hidden, lurking in the heart until vindicated by disaster.


I recently read a startling, heartbreaking story of the aftermath of a Texas exorcism. It first attracted my attention as a legal issue, but the plaintiffs and the reporter are far too optimistic about their chances at the Supreme Court. For reasons you probably don’t care about, it’s unlikely that court will ever hear the case.

Instead, I can’t stop thinking about two individuals.

First, the youth pastor, chaperoning a Friday night lock-in. A teenage boy approaches him, claiming he has seen a demon near the sanctuary. The youth leader tells the group about this purported sighting, instructing the children to anoint the entire church with holy oil and keeping them up all night in “a spirited effort” to cast out the demons. He even props a cross up against the outside door for protection. Hours pass before he sees “a cloud of the presence of God fill the church,” finally releasing them from their holy duty.

The very next night, after one of his youth falls to the ground during prayer, the youth pastor leads the charge to cast a demon from her. Less than a week later, at another meeting, he and several others repeat the attempt, with intense fervor.

Second, the girl’s father, a pastor and missionary in the denomination. After these failed exorcisms on his own daughter, he meets with the church’s pastor, who speaks with the youth pastor and the students to clarify doctrine.

But it is too late. The family leaves the church. The daughter, who had struggled with depression during the family’s time on the mission field in Africa, drops out of high school and is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her father watches his daughter suffer. He leaves the faith for the uncertainty of agnosticism. “I don\’t believe in demons,” he says today. “I doubt that God exists.”


There is much to mourn in this story.

I believe in the possibility of demonic influence over people, although I suspect that many historical reports were, in truth, undiagnosed mental illness. And although I am not a particularly emotional person, I defend the importance of emotion in religious practice. I have been to — and have led — enough charismatic worship services to understand both the drawbacks and the benefits of emotional expression in a religious context.

But where, God save him, was that youth pastor’s mind? What was he thinking? Did he truly believe that original demon sighting; does he still think he responded well? It all seems so foolish, so utterly irrational. And for all the failings of intellect (they are legion), there is still more to trust in the mind than amidst the shifting sands of emotion. The Christian faith is, after all, founded on “epistemological optimism,” defined by the late William F. Buckley (in a 1970 interview with Playboy, of all things) as “the notion that some things are better than others and that we can know what those things are.”

But we do not identify those “better” things by how they make us feel — we cannot hope to do so! — for our feelings are inconsistent. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer 17:9). As I wrote in my own testimony not long ago: “In a world with so many competing beliefs and religions, how Jesus makes us feel is not what makes us ”” or Him ”” unique.” Travel the road of emotion exclusively and you will meet ruin, one way or another.

Both men in this story have seen emotions cloud their judgment, as one became the means for the offense of the other. But honestly, I have more trust in the second: the shattered father voicing his doubt. For I have compelling reasons to believe that the Lord he followed to Africa and back again is strong enough to heal and restore, merciful enough to forgive and reconcile, and ultimately, powerful enough to work even this for the good of those who love Him, and remain eternally called, according to His purpose.


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