Early one evening, I received a frantic call from a leader in our church. He had been meeting with a couple in the church who had asked him to come over to answer some of their questions.
First, some background. I had only been part of that church for a few weeks. The woman in question had been a spiritist and palm-reader before becoming a follower of God. When she became a Christian, the evangelist working with her cast several demonic powers out of her. Yes, demons do exist. I don’t like to give them much credit, but they are real and do trouble people even today.
This woman had been a Christian for two years when I met her that night. The leader who called me explained something of her place in that church. Because she had come out of a dynamic spiritual experience before salvation, she remained finely tuned to spiritual things after becoming a Christian. She could see spiritual battles the same way you and I can see a television program. On one person she might see a demon badgering them. On another, she saw lust gripping their hearts.
A side note: This was not necessarily a spiritual gift. As I later learned, the Spirit of God was not giving her this ability, and she certainly didn’t use this ability to the glory of God. She was simply more sensitive to spiritual things than most people and this, unfortunately, impressed some. It was a church that had been starved for spiritual realities, and they were eager to embrace anything that touched on the supernatural. When I joined my friend in talking with her, she explained how frustrated she was with the Bible and God. Specifically, she wanted to know how you could “fold the Spirit.” Baffled, I looked at the church leader for help. He just shrugged his shoulders. So I asked her to explain what she meant, and she turned to the book of Revelation.
Early in the book, it speaks of the Sevenfold Spirit of God. Most Bible commentators feel this refers to seven attributes of the Holy Spirit’s work among the churches. Others feel it refers to the seven messages the Holy Spirit was sending to the Seven Churches of Asia. But when this woman read the verse, she saw a picture of the Spirit of God being folded seven ways. To this, she added something so bizarre, it makes me giggle when I think of it. A few weeks before, she had read a magazine article about properties of mathematics. It said that no paper could be folded more than six times. (Just to satisfy your curiosity, the article is wrong. A woman has now folded a paper 12 times). So when she began reading through Revelation and saw that it spoke of the “sevenfold Spirit of God” she assumed this meant people were supposed to learn how to fold the Spirit inside of them.
How did she arrive at such a bad conclusion? I can list a dozen mistakes she made in interpretation, but the simplest explanation is she let her Flesh take over. Anyone who has even a simple relationship with God’s Spirit would know instinctively this was wrong. She erred because she went by her past experience and rudimentary languages skills, and applied these to a very difficult verse. This is how many heresies start.
For those who need closure, here’s how I explained things to her. First, I advised her to let someone disciple her in how to study the Bible inductively, verse by verse, so she didn’t take things out of context. Second, I offered to give her a more modern translation, where word meanings were closer to our modern usage. I explained that the word “fold” here does not mean to actually fold something. It means ‘to distribute’ or ‘to multiply’. She made me explain it several times, after which I had a three-fold headache.
But more than anything, I began working with her on the errors involving her soul. Too many people in that church had encouraged her to walk in something that wasn’t a gift of the Spirit. Her practice of identifying spiritual forces ingrained the habit of independence from God and dependence on her Flesh. She wasn’t an evil person, but this habit caused her to leave the Spirit out of her Bible Study. This often results in heresy.
That’s a mild example, but one I see often with Christians. They develop spurious interpretations because they do not rely on God’s Holy Spirit to help them. They may rely on their own understanding—as this lady did—or on the teachings of others. Some people read the Bible out of context and assume the Bible says what they want it to say. Entire cults and cult-like movements are started this way.
One pastor in the Pacific Northwest affected tens of thousands by interpreting the Bible in the Flesh. And many who should have caught his errors were sucked in because what he taught appealed to their Flesh. I want to be careful not to glorify his heretical teachings or make light of them. He ruined people’s lives and did so in an obnoxious way.
It started simply. He was teaching that in heaven the people of God will not marry. This is an accurate teaching from the Gospel of Matthew. However, because we know so little about the Afterlife, there aren’t many implications we can draw from that. From that flimsy base, he built a foundation of error. First, he noticed that the Kingdom of heaven begins now, which is also a bible truth. He noted that the Church is a radically designed group that is told to throw off many of the strictures of the Old Testament Law. That is somewhat true, but I won’t quibble. Let’s say it is also true. Here is when he looped the drawstring of his error. Since in heaven we won’t be married, and since the Kingdom of heaven begins now, and since we are to be radically different than traditional Jewish beliefs, he began to teach that traditional marriage vows were not valid in the New Covenant.
Rather, he encouraged Christians to make “deep connections” with one another in order to be the Chosen Generation of the Last Days. He encouraged multiple “connections”. To be fair, he never explicitly said to go have sex with all those in your home group, but how could he not know that would happen? His particular church had thousands of members, and they had also planted many daughter churches in several states. Leaders of those churches came to his conferences and he kept teaching this heresy.
I know all of this and its after-effects by harsh experience. Many of the devastated parties of adultery, divorce and broken homes came to me for counseling to rebuild their broken worlds. God allowed me to help them dig out of the morass their souls were left in.
What brought on this disaster? When people heard the teaching, it is possible they were fooled by his smooth delivery and polished logic. But if they spent ten seconds with the Spirit of God, they would have realized how his teaching was false. Church members making out in the back corner with someone they’re not married to will never turn out well.
Not everyone was sucked into this false doctrine. I met a number of couples who had been part of that church who did not ultimately buy into this heresy. They left the church and refused to give in to their Flesh. These are the ones who saved their marriages.
The Flesh loves to be novel and new, to stand out above the crowd. The Flesh loves to have its own way. Unfortunately, even the Bible can be form-fitted to meet those goals if one is not careful. But there are other ways besides heresy that we can use the Bible in the Flesh.
Chapter five of John also describes another way the Flesh can rule the Bible. Jesus healed a crippled man who began to walk for the first time in years. As he walked home with new legs, he carried the small mat he had laid upon. This violated a rule of the Sabbath about carrying certain objects. According to the Pharisees, this man was guilty of not waiting until sundown to go tell his friends and family about his new legs.
We mock out such behavior because it isn’t our favorite legalistic tendency. We would be mortified if someone mocked our legalistic crutches.
The Bible contains many laws, but the Flesh has a different goal for laws than the Spirit of God. The Spirit lays down Laws as boundaries of health. If one stays within these boundaries, it will go well with our lives as far as those laws can define health from a physical or soulish perspective. The Laws are also designed to show us two other things: First, how much we need God’s help in living healthy; and second, the character of God who proposed these laws.
But the Flesh has a different goal for laws. Laws create pecking orders. Those who keep certain laws are better than those who don’t. The Flesh likes to define status by what a person does or does not do. The old adage, “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do” was invoked to separate people so a group could identify who fit in and who did not.
Some groups do this by telling others what day of the week they should worship. Others create pecking orders with food laws. Still others define the in-group by what version of the Bible you prefer, how you dress in church, what music you listen to, how much you give to the Church and how many meetings you show up to.
A friend of mine in high school was one of the only other God-followers I knew. Two years after our graduation, he began dating a girl he worked with. Within six months they were married and within the first year were expecting a baby.
After the birth of their second child, only a year after the first, his wife began to suffer post-partum depression. She decided to self-medicate, going back to her old marijuana habit. In addition to this, she admitted to her husband she had been having an affair with an old boyfriend off and on the entire time they had been married. Four years into their marriage, she became verbally abusive. My friend finally had enough and filed for divorce.
His church removed him from membership because he was getting a divorce. He told them about her drug use, adultery and violence, but they didn’t care about all that. The leaders told him that divorce was the ultimate sin and he had no place in their church if he chose to sever from his wife.
Legalism is the Flesh’s way of saying, “Here is how I am better than you.” Legalism spends Bible Study time looking at ways of separating people into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.
A woman came up to Dr. A.W. Tozer after a lecture series he gave. He had been teaching on the marvelous virtues of Grace, the choice God makes to forgive us and cleanse us through no effort of our own.
She approached him with a huge grin. “Oh Dr. Tozer, isn’t it marvelous. I sin, and he forgives, I sin and he forgives, I sin and he forgives.”
He looked her right in the eye and said, “Young lady, it’s time to stop sinning.”
The Flesh looks for opportunities to get its own way. If Legalism is not appealing, then perhaps Sloppy Grace will work better. Sloppy Grace is the outlook that says nothing can really harm us because God forgives all sins. In order to back that up, proponents of Sloppy Grace like to use the Bible to rationalize their behavior. Instead of developing heretical systems from the Scriptures, they simply pick and choose the verses they like when anyone confronts them on the dangers of their behavior.
More than once I have sat with Christians who have drinking or drug problems and they have quoted this verse to me: “it is not what goes into a man that harms him but what comes out of a man.” This is a convenient plum to pick off the Bible Tree for the enrichment of the Flesh. That verse is not speaking of alcohol or drug use at all: It is addressing the dangers of legalism, of assuming that one is “in” with God because certain food was not eaten at certain times, in certain ways. But as the Flesh is expert at doing, it uses a verse of correction to avoid correcting a deeper problem.
I was counseling a pastor several years ago about his lust problems. He liked to ogle the young women in his congregation and fantasize about having sex with them. He asked me to hold him accountable for keeping his mind pure, which I did.
One morning, he came to me and told me he had solved the problem. Fascinated, I asked him to explain himself.
“It all hit me this morning as I was reading my Bible.” (I had a weird feeling about this: I don’t think any bible verse can bring instant deliverance). “In Acts 10, Peter is told by God that he shouldn’t call clean anything God has called unclean. God made my sex drive and I am not committing adultery. Therefore, I am clean and I shouldn’t accept the condemnation of the enemy like I have been. Doesn’t it say in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”?
“So, bro, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying, I don’t have a problem. The Bible is showing me I don’t have to worry about appreciating the beauty around me and the “clean” girls that God has redeemed.”
Oh dear! His Flesh constructed such a convenient platform to practice Lust from, and used the Bible as the brick and mortar. In all fairness, I am worried that even if he has not committed adultery already, he is heading down that road. But even if he doesn’t, my real contention with him is that he is practicing Sloppy Grace, using the Bible as his source of rationalization.