7-11 The Downward Spiral
There's a kind of feedback mechanism within the human psyche, whereby one bad decision or unGodly mindset tends to more easily repeat next time. This principle works itself out in various ways. For example, you could forgive someone for thinking that the Bible is written in a way which almost invites us to misinterpret it. I can recall many a doctrinal conversation with the likes of Jehovah's Witnesses, in which I've tried to show them that their idiosyncratic view of, e.g. the 144,000 or the status of the Watchtower magazine, just isn't supported in the Bible as they think it is. At the end, I want to say: 'Yes, I know that's what it seems to you, I agree; but the general teaching of the Bible, under the surface, is quite the opposite. But until you give your heart to wanting to find God's truth, that's how you'll always see it'. The superficial Bible reader will be deceived by God's word into believing things which are a false Gospel; a system of understanding which has an appearance of the Gospel, but which is actually an anti-Gospel (cp. 2 Cor. 11:4; Gal. 1:6). The fact that so many apparently sincere Bible readers are so wrong shows that there is a power of delusion at work greater than those people just making a few mistakes in their Bible exposition. The super-human power of deceit which is at work is from God. The hobbyists, the part-timers, those who in their hearts are not wholeheartedly committed to God's Truth, are deceived.
God works both positively and negatively. We are perhaps more familiar with the Bible teaching that God will confirm men in their efforts to be spiritual by the work of His Holy Spirit; but we perhaps shy away from the fact that the opposite process also operates in the lives and minds of those who have turned away from God's Truth. It is evident that God does not force us to be righteous or evil in a robot-like sense. And yet it is also evident that if our salvation was purely by making the 'right' decisions and behaviour using our unaided freewill, then salvation (if ever we got it) would be by works and the steeling of human will power, rather than by God's gracious working in us through His Son. As a synthesis of all this, it seems that God expects men to make freewill decisions, which He then confirms. Those who turn from Him and put His word into second place in their lives are confirmed in this, until they are progressively caught up in a downward spiral of declension. On the other hand, those who try to be lead by God's word are progressively lead ever higher in an upward spiral of spirituality, whereby God eases the way to obedience, shields them from temptation, and opens their minds to the Truth of His word (e.g. 2 Chron. 30:12; Ps. 119:173; Prov. 16:3; 2 Thess. 2:17). I have extensively discussed this issue elsewhere (1). The antithesis to all this is what I now want to talk about: the way in which God will make obedience more difficult and cloud men's understanding of His Truth. It is possible that God will lead us into the way of temptation (as He did Adam), even though the process of temptation is internal to our mind (James 1:13-15). Surely the Lord had this in mind when he bade us pray: "Lead us not into temptation (down the downward spiral) but deliver us..." (Mt. 6:13). Jonah is a classic example of a man slipping into the downward spiral- he goes down to Joppa, down into the ship, down into the very bottom of the ship, and finally down into the depths of the sea (Jonah 1). Sin, but its very nature, leads to more sin- e.g. adultery is a fire, once committed it tends to burn ever more fiercely to a man’s destruction (Job 31:12).
Confirmation In Sin
There are times when God has influenced men not to respond to the evidently wise words of other men, in order to fulfill His purpose (e.g. 1 Kings 12:15; 2 Chron. 25:20). Take Amaziah. A prophet warned him not to pursue a certain course of action- but commented: “But if thou wilt go, do it, be strong…God shall make thee fall” (2 Chron. 25:8). God was willing to confirm and even encourage Amaziah in a wrong way- if this was Amaziah’s choice. Therefore God has the power to influence the minds of men in this way, and He uses it. "He taketh away the heart of the chief of the people, and causeth them to wander" (Job 12:24 cp. 42:7). And God uses this ability to make men refuse to respond to the evident Truth of His word (e.g. 1 Sam. 2:25). Yet in all this, God is only confirming men in the path they chose to tread. The very experience of sin confirms sinners in that way: “the way of the wicked seduceth them” (Prov. 12:26). The more men sin, the more sin God counts to them, even if they may not have actually committed it. Thus Lk. 11:50 warns the first century Jews that the guilt of killing all the Old Testament prophets would come upon them when they killed Christ- even though they themselves hadn't killed them. This was prophesied centuries before: "Add iniquity unto their iniquity; and let them not come into thy (imputed) righteousness" (Ps. 69:27). In the same way as God will add sin to the sinner's sin, so He will add His gift of imputed righteousness to the man who at least tries to be righteous. It was through this principle that God could count Abraham as if he had actual sacrificed Isaac, even though Abraham didn't physically do it. He was willing to do it, and this was counted as if he had done it. And the reverse is also true.
The changeover from the downward spiral to the upward spiral ought to have begun at baptism; but as with some of the Roman believers in the first century, a believer can slip back into the downward spiral: "Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness" (Rom. 6:19 NIV). The life of sexual impurity is an "ever increasing" downwards path; the endless quest for new relationships and sexual novelty doesn't need to be described. It is significant that having "left the natural use of the woman"(Rom. 1:27), male homosexuals descend on an "ever increasing" path of perversion; they rarely remain where they are, in moral terms. At least two independent surveys of gay men found that around 20% admitted having sex with animals, compared to 3% of heterosexual man (2). The majority of homosexuals have literally thousands of encounters over a lifetime (hence the rapid spread of disease between them), with very few developing stable relationships (3). There is also well documented connection between homosexuality and masochism. The top six male serial killers in the US were all gay; as were many Nazi concentration camp operators. The same connection is also witnessed Biblically (Gen. 19:6-8; Jud. 19:16).
The principle of the downward spiral is true on a racial level as well as a personal one. As human history goes on, it is inevitable that man's perversion both of himself and of God's word will get progressively worse. It is for this reason, I suggest, that we now have widespread pressure to accept homosexuality as acceptable behaviour for Christians- pressure which comes from people who genuinely believe that they are reflecting the will of God as expressed in the Bible. Their sincerity is not at question; but evidently they are willing victims of the downward spiral of declension which Paul recognized 2000 years ago.
Paul expressed his concept of this 'upward' and 'downward' spiral in two words: "the spirit" and "the flesh". "Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh (this doesn't mean the Spiritual believer won't sin; but he won't be on the downward spiral at the same time as he's on the upward spiral). For (in some of the early believers in Galatia) the flesh lusteth against the Spirit...and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye (weak believers) cannot do the things that ye would (this isn't a sympathetic lament from Paul, because of what follows:). But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law...they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (i.e. they shouldn't have been experiencing the "lust" between the flesh and spirit which they were). If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk (live each moment) in the Spirit" (Gal. 5:16-25). It is apparent that in the early church, there were those who had slid back from the upward spiral (life in "the Spirit") to the downward spiral of "the flesh". The tragedy is that mainstream Christianity today has so morally retreated that it effectively teaches that the way of "the flesh", this downward spiral of justifying sexual immorality as acceptable, is in fact the way of the "Spirit", in that they believe that their newfound moral 'freedom' is part of a more mature spiritual level which they have reached.
The Mosaic Law required that Israel leave their homes undefended in order to go to the sanctuary to "appear before the Lord". This was intended to be feasible because the Lord would drive out all the nations in the land (Ex. 34:24). Yet Israel failed to drive out the nations; and thus made it far harder for themselves to obey the command to leave their homes and go to the sanctuary. Failure to obey one command made obedience to others far harder; and the same principle operates today.
The Deceptive God
God does not just disregard those who turn away from Him. He deceives them, and leads them into a downward spiral of moral and doctrinal declension. The idea of "the God of Truth" deceiving people may seem strange at first. But consider the following evidence:
Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 7:22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34,35). And yet God hardened his heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:8). The references to God hardening Pharaoh's heart generally occur after Pharaoh had first hardened his own heart. The fact Pharaoh hardened his heart was a sin (Ex. 9:34), and yet God encouraged him in this. God offered Pharaoh a way of escape after each of the plagues; all he had to do was to agree to let Israel go. But the conditions got tougher the longer he resisted God's demand: he finally had to not only let Israel go, but also provide them with sacrifices (Ex. 10:25). Likewise when Nebuchadnezzar lifted his heart up, God hardened it (Dan. 5:20).
Shimei was a wicked man who hated God's servant David. God told him to curse David (2 Sam. 16:10). Afterwards, Shimei repents and acknowledges that by doing so he sinned (2 Sam. 19:20). And although David recognized that God had told Shimei to curse him (2 Sam. 16:10), David tells Solomon not to hold Shimei "guiltless" for how he had cursed him (1 Kings 2:9). Again, a man is encouraged by God to do the sinful act in which he has set his heart.
Balaam was one of God's prophets. Balak, an enemy of Israel asked him to curse Israel, in return for money. Balaam really wanted to curse Israel and get the reward, but God wouldn't let him. Balak sent a messenger to ask Balaam to come to him. Balaam asked God whether he should go. The answer was that he should not go. Then the messenger came again; and this time, God told Balaam to go with them, but only to speak God's word. It was as if God was pushing Balaam down the road to spiritual ruin. The end result of Balaam meeting Balak was that he advised Balak to make Israel sin with his women, which would mean that God would curse Israel. And for this Balaam was condemned. If Balaam had not gone with the messengers in the first place, he would not have fallen into this sin. But God told him to go with them (Num. 22:20).
The Lord’s words to Judas: “Do that for which thou art come” (Mt. 26:50 RV) can surely be read as nothing else than confirming a wicked man in the evil way he had chosen to take.
Israel: Prime Example
The principles which we have discussed are embodied in the experience of Israel. All their history is recorded for the learning of the Christian church of today, in their role as spiritual Israel (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11).
Abraham was called to leave Ur and travel to Canaan, the land promised to him. If his heart had remained in his native land, God would have worked in his life to make it possible for him to return to it, and thereby reject God's covenant with him. The fact Abraham wasn't given this opportunity indicates his faith (Heb. 11:15). This shows that God gives us the opportunity to renounce our faith if that is what we want in our hearts (cp. Balaam).
The descendants of Jacob / Israel were not righteous, although they were God's people. The law of Moses was given to them "because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19). And yet the very existence of the Mosaic Law generated sin, and thereby the experience of God's wrath upon His people (Rom. 4:15). So why were Israel given the Law? In some ways (and this isn't the only reason) to confirm them in their sinfulness. The original Mosaic Law was "holy, just and good" in itself (Rom. 7:12). But later, God gave Israel "laws that were not good" (referring to the Halachas of the Scribes?) so that they would go further away from Him (Ez. 20:25). He must have done this by inspiring men to say things which were genuinely communicated by God, but which were false. As men turn away their ears (of their own volition) from the truth, so God will turn their ears to fables (2 Tim. 4:4). If you turn away your ears from truth, Paul says that you are turned unto what is untrue (2 Tim. 4:4). He doesn’t say that a person turns their ears away from truth and then turns their ears to untruth. By turning away from truth, God confirms the person in that- and He turns them towards untruth.
On their journey to Canaan, the Israelites worshipped idols. Because of this, "God turned, and gave them up (over) to worship the host of heaven...I gave them up to the hardness of their hearts" (Acts 7:42; Ps. 81:12 AVmg.). God reached a stage where He actually encouraged Israel to worship idols; He confirmed them in their rejection of Him. And throughout their history, He encouraged them in their idolatry (Ez. 20:39; Am. 4:4).
Israel were told to work with God to drive out the nations who lived in Canaan, because if those people remained there, they would be a spiritual temptation for Israel. But Israel sinned, they willfully followed the idols of Canaan rather than the God of Israel. And therefore God said that He would not help Israel in driving out the nations any more (Jud. 2:20,21). It was as if He was confirming them in their desire to succumb to the temptations of the surrounding nations.
Later on, Israel requested a human king. God was Israel's king, and therefore their desire was effectively a rejection of God and Israel's special relationship with Him. And yet God gave them a human king. If they had a human king, it was harder for them to be God's Kingdom, to personally realize that God was their King, that He was the one to whom they owed all allegiance and duty. And yet God gave them a human king, because this was the path they had chosen. 1 Sam. 12:14,15 states what is apparently obvious: "If ye will fear the Lord, and serve Him (as your true king) and obey His voice...then shall both ye and the king...continue following the Lord...but if ye will not obey the voice of the Lord...then shall the hand of the Lord be against you". Surely this means that if Israel kept on obeying God, He would help them to keep on obeying. But if they disobeyed, He would be against them, with the implication that this would result in them being even more disobedient.
The confirmation of Israel in their evil way was brought to its climax in the crucifixion of Christ. The leaders of first century Israel initially recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah (Mt. 21:38 cp. Gen. 37:20; Jn. 7:28). They saw (i.e. understood, recognized) him, but then they were made blind by Christ (Jn. 9:39). It was because they "saw" Jesus as the Messiah that the sin of rejecting him was counted to them (Jn. 9:41). This explains why the Roman / Italian nation was not held guilty for crucifying Christ, although they did it, whereas the Jewish nation was. And yet there is ample Biblical evidence to suggest that these same people who "saw" / recognized Jesus as the Christ were also ignorant of his Messiahship. "Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am...Ye neither know me, nor my Father...when ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he" (Jn. 7:28; 8:19,28) were all addressed to the same group of Jews. Did they know / recognize Jesus as Messiah, or not? As they jeered at him on the cross, and asked Pilate to change the nameplate from "Jesus, King of the Jews", did they see him as their Messiah? It seems to me that they didn't. In ignorance the Jewish leaders and people crucified their Messiah (Acts 3:17 RV). And yet they knew him for who he was, they saw him coming as the heir. I would suggest the resolution to all this is that they did recognize him first of all, but because they didn't want to accept him, their eyes were blinded, so that they honestly thought that he was an impostor, and therefore in ignorance they crucified him. And yet, it must be noted, what they did in this ignorance, they were seriously accountable for before God.
If we accept the above thesis, we can better understand why God has allowed His word to be written and translated in such a way as seems almost intended to mislead. Likewise Ex. 16:20 says that the manna, symbolic of God's word, "bred worms and stank" if it was not used properly. The Scriptures, we are told, can be "wrested" by those who claim to believe them, until the "unstable" 'believer' is destroyed morally (2 Pet. 3:16). The only other occurrence of the Greek for "unstable" is a few verses earlier (2 Pet. 2:14), where it is used in a sexual context. The implication is that those 'believers' who want to justify a deviant sexual lifestyle will find that they can "wrest" the Scriptures to suite them, but in so doing they will be working out their own destruction. This is the category who turn God's grace into license for sexual sin (Jude 4). It would be interesting to know who gay 'Christians' think these warnings refer to, seeing they evidently think they are not the subject of them. Thus Paul warns the Corinthians not to be deceived by the idea that homosexuals would enter the Kingdom of God; the implication was that there were homosexuals being wrongly tolerated within the Corinthian church, who were justifying their behaviour as being worthy of God's Kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9-11). The 'new wave' reinterpretation of Bible texts in order to justify homosexuality is a clear example of this. Sin, our very nature, is a deceiver (Heb. 3:13); hence the Bible personifies our nature as a deceiver. "There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death" (Prov. 16:25).
There are other examples of the Bible purposefully giving scope for serious misinterpretation. Thus God allowed "Gehenna" to be interpreted rather than transferred as a proper noun; nephesh has so misleadingly been translated "soul" in the AV, when all it usually means is 'person', 'body' or 'being' (modern Bible versions render it like this). Likewise, "satan" just means "adversary"; and many fanciful ideas would have been stillborn if this was how it had been translated. All the passages quoted above clearly teach that God is the one who deceives men who reject His Truth. He is the originator of both light and darkness, goodness and disaster (Is. 45:5-7). This leaves no room at all for the popular idea that 'satan' refers to an evil being responsible for human deception and spiritual failure. The Biblical picture is that moral and doctrinal apostacy is the result of man's very own nature and the confirmation of God working in tandem.
There are whole verses whose translation in nearly all versions might seem to hopelessly confuse the seeker for truth (e.g. "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise", or "When he cometh into the world, he saith...a body hast thou prepared me", Lk. 23:46; Heb. 10:5). Amazingly, these bad translations have never been a serious impediment to even the most simple person who genuinely wants to find the Truth. I find this nigh on a miracle. From this alone it seems clear that the genuine seeker of Truth will always find it, but the Bible is written in such a way, and its translation has been over-ruled in such a way, as to deceive the insincere or uncalled reader into thinking that they have found the Truth when actually they haven't.
It is often commented by some that doctrinal differences are not so important, and that it is wrong to limit fellowship to only those who accept and practice the basic doctrines which constitute the saving Gospel. The implication of this attitude is that we should count ourselves as lucky if we have the true doctrine of Christ, but not think that such differences affect our standing before God. But the fact is, if you agree with the thesis presented above, those who hold false doctrine have been deceived by God into the doctrinal positions they are in, and their deception is a sign of His displeasure with their 'hobbyist' approach to His word.
Of course, it isn't only apostate 'Christians' who are deceived by God. Such deception can be frequently seen operating in the weak believer who may apprehend perfectly every doctrinal aspect of the true Gospel- and in some ways at some times, we're all weak. Bible reading is skipped, prayer pushed into the background, meals gulped down with no further thought for the Father who provides, self-examination never tackled... and yet the brother or sister feels they have come to a higher spiritual level, whereby as they understand it even from the Bible (e.g.) God quite understands if we marry unbelievers, or (e.g.) they come to the 'realization' that actually friendship with the world, or total commitment to our careers, is really serving God, or that really, doctrine doesn't matter.... And so their real fellowship with God slips away, but they are convinced that actually they are spiritually growing into a higher relationship with God. God, working through their deceitful natures, has deceived them. For this reason the Truth is in one sense the most dangerous thing in the world. It can destroy us, blow us apart; God can terribly, terribly deceive us, until at judgment day we gnash our teeth in white hot rage against Him and ourselves (Is. 45:24).
God has written the Bible in such a way, whereby the majority of readers are deceived by His way of writing into thinking that they have the Truth when they don't. Once we appreciate this, the wonder of the fact that we can have, in basic terms "the truth of the Gospel" should really touch our hearts. "We know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him" (1 Jn. 3:19). "We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life" (1 Jn. 5:20). The Truth of Christ is precious, very precious, it is a tremendous privilege that we have been shown it, and therefore we must search for it and then hold it like diamonds, study it, meditate upon it, make it our life. For it will gloriously save us, or miserably destroy us if we neglect it. "But we are not of them who are drawn back (by God) unto perdition; but of them that believe toward the saving of the soul" (Heb.10:39 Gk.).
To be caught up in the downward spiral [as we all are at times] doesn't mean that there's no way out. The hearts of Pharaoh's servants were hardened (Ex. 10:1 cp. 9:34), and yet they did in fact soften when they beg Pharaoh to let Israel go (Ex. 10:7; 11:8). Yet each refusal of Pharaoh to soften his heart made it harder for him to soften it the next time the opportunity was presented. Conditional language is always used about Pharaoh-if he were to refuse to release Israel, more plagues would happen (Ex. 8:2; 9:2; 10:4 cp. 8:21; 4:23 RSV). In fact God wanted Pharaoh to come to realize that there is none like Yahweh in all the earth- and that was actually why He did not immediately kill Pharaoh, but rather appealed to him through the plagues. That's how I read the enigmatic Ex. 9:24: "For now I should have put forth my hand, and smitten thee... and thou hadst been cut off from the earth". Fretheim paraphrases this: "If I had not had the intention of your knowing that there is none like me in all the earth... then I should have put forth my hand and cut you off from the earth. This is what you have deserved". (4). The hardening of Pharaoh's heart didn't mean that he was thereby bound to chose wrongly each time. Indeed, the plagues themselves were designed to warn Pharaoh and thereby appeal to him to change, in order to avoid worse plagues. Thus the land was 'smitten' in Ex. 8:2 as a foretaste of the 'smiting' of the Egyptian firstborn (Ex. 12:23,27). The 'covering' of Egypt with frogs in Ex. 8:6 and locusts in Ex. 10:5,15 looked ahead to the 'covering' of the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:28; 15:5,10). The East wind which blew the locusts in and then to blow them away again, until "not a single locust was left" (Ex. 10:19) is just what happened to the Egyptians- the East wind blew the waters to and fro, and left not a single Egyptian soldier alive (Ex. 14:21,28). And of course the plagues begin affecting everyone, but then focus in on the Egyptians and then on the personal possessions of Pharaoh. In Pharaoh's case, it would be true to say that God's hardening activities gather momentum, like a swimmer sucked closer and closer towards the waterfall. There has to come a moment when the pull is now too strong, and the plunge is inevitable. It is that moment which perhaps we need to fear more than anything else in human experience. It happened to Israel- their hearts too were hard, and in the end, after a period, God have them over to their hard hearts (Ps. 81:11,12)- the implication being that even whilst He hardened their hearts, He kept them by grace from the full consequences... but in the end, the final inevitable drag towards the waterfall set in. This is why there were times when even repentance, as a change of mind, could not save Jerusalem from destruction (Jer. 4:28; 15:1-9; 16:12; Ez. 7:1-9). This was the moment after the inevitable tug towards the waterfall beings, but before the actual plunge. It's Saul cowering before the witch of Endor, lying face down in the dirt that fateful night... and again I say, this is the human condition we should most dread.
(4) See Terrence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991) p. 124. Brown, Driver and Briggs in their Hebrew Lexicon (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996 ed.) p. 774 understand the implication of the Hebrew likewise.