By / Feb 17

Over the last several years, it’s become a tradition over the Christmas holidays to take the kids—by which I mean my daughters and all of our nieces and nephews on my wife’s side—to see a superhero movie. Many of us adults love these movies as much as the children. 

This year, we didn’t venture out to the theater. Instead, we crowded into my in-laws’ den and streamed Wonder Woman 1984. And as we watched this latest installment from Warner Bros. and DC, I began to think about how this film does something that’s a bit unusual. It uses the fantasy genre as a way of critiquing our culture’s desire to escape reality. 

WW84’s critique of living in delusion isn’t totally unique. In many ways, the movie’s plot mirrors that of the new television series, WandaVision, from DC’s competitor, Marvel Studios (Warning: From this point forward, this post contains some spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 and WandaVision, episodes 1–6):

  • WW84 centers around a wish-granting Dreamstone, a “monkey’s paw” created by a powerful trickster god that grants a person’s deepest desires while taking what’s most important—their dignity and identity.
  • In WandaVision, the leading character, Wanda Maximoff, attempts to escape her past by creating an alternate TV-land reality, but dark memories haunt her sitcom dream world.

I love this new theme for both comic book franchises. In a culture that says you can define your own reality, stories that blow holes in that assumption are beautiful. 

Our love affair with illusion

Fantasy is a good thing. The story world of knights and dragons, wizards, and superheroes teach children deep truths about how righteousness triumphs over great evil. As we grow, more complicated stories, like Maleficent for example, can show us the complexity of our own villainy. What’s imparted to us through the best fantasies is moral imagination, a sense of empathy, and—when we identify with those who persevere in the crusade for justice and beauty—perhaps even faith and courage.

Illusion, however, is different. It’s comforting to curl up with a good book or movie on a cold and depressing winter’s day. But the truth is that we’re all tempted not only to escape from life’s harsh realities for a moment’s solace but to attempt to create alternate realities of our own design. 

Our culture is in love with illusions. Influencers carefully manicure their online personas for public adoration while inside they are secretly starving for friendship. Suburbanites amass debt, possessions, and retirement accounts as safety nets that moth and rust will one day destroy. Men spend billions of dollars each year on pornography, building mind palaces for sexual experience while destroying their real relationships. Growing numbers devote their hearts to the conspiracy theories of QAnon, believing secret knowledge is a pathway to political power. Many young people (and some old) are seeking to redefine their gender, believing that rewriting their biological sex will numb social discomfort and pain. 

Each of these world-building exercises is a house of cards—like Wanda’s enchanted town of Westview, they may be elaborate but they are ultimately fragile and impossible to live in. Such illusions simultaneously seek to hide from and are driven by fear, shame, guilt, greed, and grief. But even though our alternate realities are built with strong chaos magic, their foundations ultimately crumble, because they’re constructed on lies. 

Facing down the devil

WW84 alludes to a trickster god behind the Dreamstone without revealing his identity. Marvel fans, meanwhile, have speculated that there’s darker magic from the comic universe at work behind Wanda’s delusions—perhaps the witch Agatha Harkness, the demon Mephisto, or Lethal Legion leader Grim Reaper. But even if the evil in the TV series is only found within Wanda herself, there’s a real devil in the details, hiding in the shadows behind the lies we want to believe. 

The Bible’s testimony prevents us from reducing evil down to impersonal forces and ideologies that stand in opposition to Christian teaching. It’s not even sufficient to name sins like greed, lust, and fleshly hunger for power. These are all real, but behind both sinful systems and individual temptations is a personal devil, our accuser, the archenemy, the evil prince of this present darkness (1 Chron. 21:1; Job 1:6–13; 2:1–7; Zech. 3:1–2; Eph. 2:2). 

After Jesus’s baptism, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1–11). There Satan tested Jesus with three particular lies—untruths that still lay at the heart of the illusions within which we’re tempted to live.

The first was the illusion of independence (vv. 2–4). Will we trust in our own desires and abilities or in the Father’s loving care? 

After fasting for 40 days, Jesus was hungry. So the devil prompted Jesus to take care of himself—to break his fast by turning some stones into bread. When we’re living in the illusion of independence, we can delude ourselves like Wanda Maximoff and say, “I have this under control.” But when Satan tempted the Savior to act on his own apart from the Father, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man doesn’t live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” 

Moses spoke those words to remind Israel how God had tested them during their 40 years in the desert. God allowed them to be hungry and gave them manna so they might learn that people don’t merely need bread but God’s sustaining care. 

Sometimes we quote the words of Deuteronomy 8:3 as if Jesus was talking about having good theology, knowing the right Bible verses for each and every temptation or circumstance. But Jesus (like Moses before him) wasn’t talking about mere head knowledge; what he expressed was a deep trust in the Father’s goodness no matter his circumstances. The first step toward fighting illusion is trusting that whatever pain or griefs may come in life, God’s every word for us—all he ordains—is loving and good.

Second was the illusion of presumption (vv. 5–7). Will we treat God like a vending machine, thinking that he somehow owes us comfort or protection on our timetable? 

The devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple: “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.” This was a temptation to presume upon God’s promises. Satan cited Psalm 91:11–12: “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up. . . so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” It’s as if he was saying, “Didn’t God promise to protect you? Let’s test that out.” 

But putting God to the test and presuming that he’ll give according to our standards doesn’t recognize God as God. It attempts instead to paint God in our own image and bribe him to act according to our expectation of how he should or ought to respond. When we presume, we fail to remember that God is the distant and holy one who came to Job in the whirlwind. Jesus knew better, and he answered, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Last was the illusion of attaining kingdom glory apart from the suffering of the cross (vv. 8–11). Will we worship the lie and the liar or will we embrace our call to suffer for others? 

Satan offered Jesus a shortcut to kingdom glory. He could rule and reign as Messiah over the world’s splendors and even avoid the sufferings of Calvary. There was only one small catch. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 

The trouble with the devil’s logic was that for Jesus to worship him would have entailed a redefinition of the Savior’s identity. It’s true that Jesus was the Davidic king, but he is also the Lamb of God, the Suffering Servant, who did not come in his first appearance to rule a splendid world (that’s an illusion) but rather to pour himself out for a fallen world, one mired in death and sin.

In the early church, new converts would not only be asked to confess “Jesus is Lord” before baptism but they were also instructed to renounce the devil publicly. If you’re familiar with the old liturgy, you may have heard echoes of it in the “I renounce my wish” refrain at the end of WW84. For me, it was a beautiful reminder that embracing a Christian identity has always involved renouncing the illusions of self and Satan and giving ourselves instead to the Truth—to the Lord who first gave himself for us.

Death and grief expose the lies

For Diana, Wanda, and for us, the truth quite literally hurts. WW84 and WandaVision wrestle with themes of death and grief as both leads attempt to use their reality-shifting power to resurrect lost loves. With Wonder Woman, this begins as an accidental wish to see her lost boyfriend, Steve Trevor. It’s coming to grips with letting Trevor go that teaches Diana how her desire must be limited by the truth. 

Wanda Maximoff’s sitcom reality similarly centers around her relationship with the deceased Avenger, Vision. While it appears—six episodes have been released at the time of writing—that she’ll do anything to protect the illusion of her life with him, it’s also clear that grief over the many losses in her past has never left her.

Facing death ultimately reveals how our fantasies are fleeting. Every year around this time, many Christians, like Jesus in the wilderness, fast 40 days to prepare their hearts for Easter. Though keeping a Lenten fast is less common for Baptists—after all, believers aren’t required to celebrate regular religious festivals (Col. 2:16)—I believe the broader Christian tradition carries with it a helpful reminder that can help us fight temptation and delusion. 

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday—a day that boldly acknowledges that no one gets out of this world alive. On this day, those who gather around the world receive an ashen sign of the cross on their foreheads. This mark is a reminder of our mortality and a call to repentance. Memento mori. Remember, you are going to die; “Dust you are, and to dust, you will return” (Genesis 3:19b). 

So prepare for Easter by preparing for death

Whether you live in the real world or a fictional one, building your life on conspiracies and lies will send you spinning into chaos. But Christians have a better hope than the devil’s illusions, one that allows us to be honest even about life’s starkest realities. 

We can speak the truth when temporary comforts, dreams, expectations, political hopes, and even our bodies are dying.  That’s not where our ultimate hope is found. We instead acknowledge even the hard truth of our death knowing we have a Savior who has already faced down the lies, the liar, and even the grave itself. And here’s the good news: Christ did not give in. On the other side of his long road of temptation and torment, there stands an empty tomb. It’s no illusion.

Brothers and sisters, Easter is coming. So put aside the lies and delusions which you renounced when you were baptized in him. Find in Christ the strength to be honest even about your griefs. And know that one day they will be fully conquered in him.

By / Sep 11

Men, there are two charred craters in the Old Testament that remain as a warning to us: Ai and Gibeah. Both cities fell by the same military tactics, and although the weapons of war have changed and technology has advanced, the same strategy is being employed in Christian homes day after day. Let us take heed lest we suffer the same fate.

Both Ai and Gibeah experienced initial victory. The towns were undersized underdogs, but at first strike they came away victorious. However, the opposing general used their over-inflated egos against them. He commanded his troops to retreat as before in order to draw these men away from their cities and into the open field. Meanwhile, soldiers who lay in ambush crept over the walls of the town, slaughtered every man, woman, and child, and burned the city to the ground. When the men realized they had been fooled it was too late. As they turned to look back, all that was left was a column of smoke rising to the heavens.

Our Enemy is using this same strategy in each of our homes. He allows us minor victories. He gives little resistance. He allows us to become confident in our own strength. He draws us out of our homes and into the open field. And while we are off waging war in our own strength, he burns our homes to the ground.

We are soldiers. We want to go off and fight the battles of the Kingdom. But we must be careful that we are not leaving our homes vulnerable to Satan’s attack. He will let you succeed in a 70-hour a week job while also leading a small group and teaching a Sunday School class. While you are off waging war, fooled into thinking you are strong enough to handle it, he is destroying everything you hold dear. When you take the time to look over your shoulder from the battlefield, there may not be anything but ashes left.

Sometimes Satan himself whistles the tune, “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war…” When the Christian soldiers are busy fighting battles of lesser consequence, he creeps into the home front left undefended. On the battlefield we are valiantly victorious–so we think. But when we return home, our marriages are in shambles, our children abandoned, and our personal lives destroyed. In pride, we were so excited about going off to win battles for Christ’s Kingdom that we forgot to defend what was most important.

Brothers, may we protect our first priorities. If you are leading hundreds to Christ, but your marriage is a wreck, your kids have no dad, and your computer is full of cookies from porn sites, Satan has drawn you into the open field and your home is burning. I have no doubt that many of the pastors and Christian leaders whose names appeared on the Ashley Madison list were experiencing great victories in their ministries. Satan was content to bide his time–retreat, retreat, retreat–until the city was left unguarded. Then with a quiet flash of light and a smoldering flame, he burned down the home front–and no one was there to put out the fire.

The battle belongs to the Lord. He will have victory. We have to make sure that our personal and private lives at home with our families are guarded, well-defended, and bolstered. This may mean stepping away from ministry duties. This may mean fighting less battles. Men, this is not a sign of defeat. It is a sign that we know our true weakness. We know how easily we are lured away from the city and into the field. Protect your private life from ambush. Love your wife and your children well. Protect your devotional life and your relationship with the Lord. Keep your life pure. Build up your defenses.

Our Lord said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). That’s the story of Ai. That’s the story of Gibeah. Will that be your story? Too busy fighting to win the whole world for Christ, forfeiting your own home and your own soul. Consider yourself warned.

This was originally published here.

By / Oct 7

Tim and Jess had only been married for eight months, but the honeymoon was most certainly over. The sweet conversations that once marked their relationship had been replaced with constant bickering. Their laughter had dulled and their distance had grown. Their sexual intimacy had almost ceased.

What had gone wrong? How had Satan slipped into this young couple’s marriage? As we unpacked some of their history, I discovered that he hadn’t sabotaged them on their honeymoon or in the early months of figuring out married life. Instead, he’d begun his work before they even made it to the altar. You see, though Tim and Jess are Christians, their dating and engagement was marked with sexual impurity.

The early days of their relationship had been fine, but over time, they made consistent compromises that developed into a deeper pattern of sexual sin. When they’d sin, they confessed to each other and made oaths to not let it happen again. But it did. Because of the shame, they never truly let anyone else in on what was happening, and in hindsight they admitted that their courtship had been a big cover-up of deceit.

Unfortunately, Tim and Jess’s story is all too familiar. Many unmarried Christian couples struggle with sexual sin. And this should be no surprise, we have an enemy who is set against us and set against our impending marriage (1 Pet. 5:8). This enemy hates God and he hates marriage because marriage itself is a portrayal of the gospel (Eph. 5:32). Satan wants to do whatever he can to undermine marriage.

One of Satan’s most effective strategies to corrupt the gospel portraying union of marriage is to attack couples before they say “I do” through sexual sin. What follows are several of Satan’s most common ploys to attacking marriages before they begin. (Eph. 6:11; 1 Pet. 5:8)

1. Satan wants us to make a pattern of obeying our desires instead of God’s direction.

God’s ways are good, but Satan wants us to believe they are not. This has been his plan from the first call to compromise in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-6). His end goal is for us to develop a consistent pattern of resisting the Spirit and following our sinful desires once we get into marriage. He wants us to learn to resist service and to pursue selfishness.

If we learn to do what we want to do when we want to do it before we get married, we’ll carry that pattern into the days that follow our wedding. This is deadly because service and sacrifice is essential to a healthy, Christ-honoring marriage. Love in marriage is shown by a thousand daily decisions to do the dishes when you don’t want to or change a diaper when you don’t want to or watch a movie instead of a basketball game. If your relationship before marriage is characterized by giving into urges of the immediate desire, you’ll most certainly struggle when you get into the nitty-gritty of married life.

2. Satan wants us to underestimate how susceptible we are to temptation.

Satan wants us to think that we won’t take our sin to the next level. He wants us to think that we’re stronger than we really are. He wants to make us think that we’ll never go “that far.” This is a powerful trick because it plays upon our well-intended desire to honor God and our pride at the same time. Trust me, you’re weaker than you think you are. You can go where you think you won’t go. Sin is like an undercurrent in the ocean, if you play in it, you will be overpowered and carried away into certain destruction.

One of the ways Satan works this angle is to tempt you to think that purity is a line rather than a posture of the heart. He wants you to think that purity before God is not kissing or not taking off clothes or not having oral sex or not “going all the way.” He wants you to think that if you don’t cross a certain line, you’re “staying pure.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that Jesus says if we lust in our heart, we’ve sinned and are condemned before God (Matt. 5:27-30).

Purity is much more about the posture of our heart than about the position of our body. The age old question of “how far is too far” may be revealing a desire to get as close to sin as possible rather than a desire to “flee” as God calls us to (1 Cor. 6:18). So I ask you, what’s the posture of your heart? Are you seeking to find ways to flee from lust or getting as close as you can? Be careful to not underestimate your vulnerability, or as Paul said, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

3. Satan wants couples to weaken their trust for each other.

When we compromise sexually we’re showing the other person that we’re willing to use and abuse them to get what makes you happy. Every time we push the boundaries with our fiancée or lead each other into sin we are communicating, even though we don’t mean to, “you can’t trust me because I’m willing to use you and disregard you to get what I want.”

And even worse than that, we show that we care more about our desires than about what God wants from us. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 says “this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” And verse eight says, “whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” So when you sin sexually against each other before marriage you are saying, “You can’t trust me because I’m willing to sacrifice both of our relationships with God to do what I want.”

This is certainly one of the most deadly of all his strategies and the one I suspect hurt Tim and Jess the most. They didn’t trust each other. They never really did. So much of their dating relationship was wrapped up in the cycle of sin, shame, start-over that they never developed a deep mature battle-tested trust for each other.

It is important to point out however that when we resist sexual sin, God blesses a relationship with the exact opposite effect. Every time we say “no” to sexual sin and turn to prayer and tell each other that we value them and their walk with God too much to go one step further, God uses that to strengthen trust between couples. My wife regularly tells dating couples that one of the reasons she trusts me is because I literally ran from compromising situations before we were married. We weren’t perfect in our courtship, but the Lord used that season to build trust in each other.

4. Satan wants to deceive you with the forbidden fruit of lust.

There is a world of difference between pre-marital sex and sex within marriage. One of the reasons for this is that in pre-marital sex the forbidden fruit of lust portrays sex as something that it isn’t always in marriage. Most normally, pre-marital sexual activity is like gas on fire. The passion is high, the feelings are intense, and the drive to go further is fueled by the fact that you know you shouldn’t (Rom. 7:8).

Sex in marriage is different. There’s still passion and there’s still intense feelings and emotions—but sex in marriage is based primarily on the hot coals of trust, devotion, and sacrifice (1 Cor. 7:1-5). Couples who built their sexual expectations on the passion that the forbidden fruit provided are often disappointed and confused about why sex is so different in marriage.

Now, to be candid, my wife and I laughed at this idea when our pre-marital counselor told us. We were sure that we were gonna be the exception to the rule. But the reality is, that almost six years and three children later, he was right. Couples like us can have a strong sex life, but it is fueled by deeper characteristics than fleeting passion. Satan wants couples to get used to running on the caffeine and sugar of lust rather than mature love of service and sacrifice.

A few concluding thoughts…

  1. Wait in Faith. The Christian posture is always one of waiting. We wait for Christ’s return. We wait for an eternity with him. And people who aren’t married wait for the blessings of marriage. Say no to sin’s promises by faith in God’s promises. Renew your mind with God’s Word and keep waiting in faith.
  2. Dude, you’ve gotta lead. While both people in the relationship are responsible before God, the man in the relationship must set the pace for purity. Too often our ladies are forced to draw lines and say no. That’s just wrong and cowardly.  It’s the dude’s responsibility to care for his future wife by leading her toward Jesus and away from sin—and not into the darkness and pain of evil.  If he sets the wrong pattern here, he’ll be digging out for years afterward—and may never regain the ground he loses apart from God’s grace.
  3. Involve others every step of the way. Don’t allow your relationship to remain unexamined by other godly Christians. Both of you should have a godly couple or faithful friends who keep you accountable. Encourage them to ask you tough questions and always give honest answers. God uses transparency to give spiritual strength.
  4. If you sin, go to the gospel. The Apostle John said “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the righteous One” (1 John 2:1-2). If you sin, flee to the cross. Flee to the empty tomb. Look to Christ, confess your sin deeply, and repent. God blesses this kind of posture (Prov. 28:13).

Sexual sin doesn’t need to be dagger in the heart of your courting relationship, engagement or marriage. God is a merciful God who delights in restoring what sin seeks to destroy (Joel 2:25-2). He will not however bless on-going disobedience and presumption upon his mercy. If you have fallen into sexual sin, today is the day to plead for mercy and turn from it to Christ in faith. May God give us mercy to pursue purity for his glory and our good.

This article was originally posted here.