I find studying the Bible, particularly the New Testament, endlessly fascinating, which is why I’ve kept at it for the better part of 40 years.
My favorite part of being a pastor isn’t preaching or even sharing occasional potluck dinners in the fellowship hall with my congregation (although you only need to glance at my waistline to tell I do enjoy a good potluck).
My favorite part is leading an adult Bible study on Wednesday nights.
And even when it comes to preaching, I much prefer the preparatory research —thumbing through commentaries, dictionaries and concordances to trace the etymologies of ancient Greek or Hebrew words — to delivering the finished sermon on Sunday.
Whether I’m preparing alone in my office or leading a small-group study, as I sift through the Bible slowly, carefully, verse by verse, often word by word, I feel as if I’m on a spiritual treasure hunt.
And from time to time the hunt turns up sparkling little found gems of meaning, slight shifts in nuance that recolor my thinking and make all the dusty digging worthwhile.
Here’s a tiny example.
Some years ago, probably for a sermon, I looked up the ancient idioms translated into English as “the devil,” which is to say the big devil, old Satan himself (as opposed to mere demons). This devil, as you know, is the traditional adversary of God’s children, a ravenous beast who goes around seeking whom he may destroy.
I found that two Greek terms used by the New Testament’s writers for “the devil” both meant literally “the accuser.”
The New Testament characterization of Satan, then, is of an evil being who preys on us mortals not by chomping us with fangs or tearing us with claws, but merely by accusing us of grand sins and personal shortcomings and mundane failures. He slanders us. He mocks us. He heaps inappropriate guilt on us.
I have no idea what you believe about the reality of the devil.
Perhaps you think of him as a real-life hobgoblin who sports horns, cloven hooves and a pointy tail; perhaps you think of him as a mythical being, sort of a malevolent Santa Claus, who represents the presence of evil in the cosmos; perhaps you believe he’s only a personification for the emotional wounds that cripple most humans.
As far as I’m concerned, the devil could be any of those things, or all of them. It doesn’t matter to me whether he’s “real” in a literal sense, although he very well may be. As the old-time minister said, I can preach it either way.
What does matter to me is the epiphany I took away from this Greek word-study.
From that small insight — the devil is by definition, habit and personality an accuser — I began later contrasting his approach to the Lord’s.
I considered how often I’ve heard some anonymous, belittling, soul-grinding voice whisper, “You’re a loser,” or “you’re a sinner,” or “there’s no hope,” or “you’re going to mess this up,” or “no one cares,” or “you’re all alone,” or “you’ll never be as gifted as (another preacher, another writer, another husband, another dad).”
And gradually I realized who those words were coming from: not from the Lord, but from my enemy. From my perpetual accuser. From my own personal devil.
Was there actually some invisible, malevolent ghoul standing just beyond my human planes of sight and sound, conjuring up those words as an evil incantation?
Probably my devil was some demoralizing voice from the physical world — the voice of my errant genetics or of a critical schoolteacher in my past or of a disgruntled ex-parishioner. Who knows?
But the voice, whatever its origins, produced effects just as dramatic as if its words had rolled off the sulfuric tongue of Slewfoot himself.
The devil, I decided, is the god of “no you can’t,” whether he’s a literal Satan or a figurative one. Either way, the results are the same: failure and despair.
Through further study, I was struck by how different the God’s words seemed to be: “There is now no condemnation”; “You can do all things through Christ”; “For I know the plans that I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope”; “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” On and on they go.
Such declarations prompted one scribe to exclaim that God’s promises always boil down to “yes!” and “so be it!” Or, as a buddy of mine says, “God loves to bless his children.”
So now, when I hear a voice whispering in my ear, I weigh what it’s telling me.
If it’s telling me I’m worthless, or that God doesn’t love me, or that I’m destined to make a mess of whatever challenge I’m facing, I say: “Shut up, devil. Go back to hell and toast your hooves.”
If it’s telling me God does love me, and that sooner or later we’ll come out on top of the situation together, I say: “Thanks, Lord. I believe you.”
But I digress. The point is, this helpful discernment resulted from simple deeds.
Studying the Scriptures. Looking up a couple of words in a Greek dictionary. Pondering those words with respect.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.