Why are we so ready to throw happiness away?
This last week my wife and I took a walk through the neighborhood, and saw a lot of pandemic gardening. That’s the gardening you do when shelter-in-place might be winding down, and you’d like to accomplish something before it’s all over. I’ve seen more mulch and tulips than I have in years, some lawns so manicured you could shoot pool on them. I appreciate the effort. We’re trying hard to beautify an ugly time.
I ran across a story of somebody who was trying to grow a designer garden—with the miniature contours, strategic patches of flowers here and there, and a little ceramic gnome. He was getting there with it. But then he began to notice something was eating his plants. At first he tried to section the garden off with a knee-high decorative picket fence. But the varmints weren’t giving up. The salad bar continued. Fuming, he ripped out the little fence, and went all Berlin wall, bricking in the garden to waist level.
That didn’t work either.
Finally, the hapless gardener realized his problem. He had made the mistake of thinking the only threats to his garden were on the outside. When he put up the wall, He had actually enclosed and concentrated pests that were already on the inside.
Sometimes we think if we could wall off the problems outside of us—this person, that situation, those circumstances—everything would be okay. That’s not what the Bible says.
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:18-20).
I could have a perfect situation all around me and still manage to ruin it. How many happy families have been demolished because a mysterious factor of unhappiness rose up from inside someone in the house? How many churches have experienced this? Something in us is broken and cannot fix itself. We’ve often imagined on an even grander scale, that if there was global equity, peace, harmony, we’d be happy.
Revelation 20 shows how the whole future world becomes more idyllic than anytime in living memory. And how the human beings living there don’t like it.
“And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison” (v. 7).
Let’s make sure you’re situated on this timeline. In the previous six verses, we saw the devil bound, giving the world a one thousand year hiatus from deception. During the break, Christ reigns over the world through his believers.
But afterwards, when Satan’s long prison experience is over, why is he released, especially given the magnitude of his severe crimes? Back in verse 3, it said, the Devil must be released, reflecting necessity of some sort. It is as though the Lord finds it imperative to demonstrate something.
Having been released, the evil one “will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog (v.8). The old serpent has not been rehabilitated, and his career of deceiver of the whole world continues (12:9, 20:3), as he travels the nations, fomenting dissatisfaction, and sowing discord “to gather them for battle.”
How could human beings sign up for an attempted Armageddon 2.0? Sin is like a disease that you can carry around inside without knowing you have it. Then one day, your immune system dips, the environment is right, and suddenly you have a full blown case of it. This is what we’re concerned about right now—a resurgence of Covid-19. After the death and infection rate dwindles down to a barely noticeable level, it might roar back to life.
In these verses, human beings—the nations—have been living on a restored earth minus all the outward evils we experience today. They were carriers of sin, but not experiencing the symptoms we experience every day in our current time. But the devil comes and stirs up that latent sin nature.¹ He is successful. The number of those joining him is “like the sand of the sea.” The devil implicitly trusts numbers, always thinking a consensus will scare God, that popularity, or the lack of it, will defeat Him.
“And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (vv. 9-10). We might have expected a drama befitting the Lord of the Rings, but God resolves it all in less than half a sentence, book ending it with conscious pain and shame forever.
We’re talking about things that seem to be off at a great distance in the future. But there are definite applications today. For instance, whenever Jesus is culturally popular, people who don’t respect Him tend to keep their mouths shut. But take the cultural lid off, rail against the Bible, criticize God, model blasphemy as cool, atheism as smart. These things that were also hidden in people will come out.
If the external environment was the only thing restraining sin, then sooner or later, when it is removed, sin will emerge like the lava flow out of a volcano. Poisonous sentiments previously hidden in the magma chambers of the heart, will erupt. You could say God proved that principle in these verses.
I was raised in the deep south. The most dominant forms of Christianity there were Catholicism, Southern Baptists, Pentecostalism, and Methodism. Between these four, a powerful Jesus-friendly conservative culture developed. That meant, especially in the seventies, if you were an atheist, or into alternative sexuality, or exploring the occult, or a closet Marxist, or a church-hater, you kept it secret. You kept it walled inside because the prevailing culture outside of you wouldn’t tolerate it.
I was one of those people who had no interest in Judeo-Christian things. I would rather have had a case of head lice than to go to church, and found the concept of being good the ultimate sleeping pill. But rather than look like Darth Vader to my friends, I kept it all on the down low.
However, one day I left home and there was no more disapproval on the outside. My new peer group encouraged, even celebrated whatever was in me coming out. They made it sound like the worst sin of all was self-repression. I began living by concepts like “freedom,” and “the real me.”
Then I got to spend my eighteenth birthday in jail. That was a wake-up call, that the things in me were not my friends, and could ruin my life. If I kept releasing them I would probably lose jobs, and damage my future marriage. Maybe I would become like one of those people in Revelation 20, who, while having a nearly idyllic environment, would still find fault with God and seek to overthrow Him.
Previously I had thought of the Christian faith only as dealing with after-life issues like hell (which is still vitally important), but unable to do much with me in the here and now. At this point in my life I had begun to desire salvation from my own interior darkness. I knew it had to be about more than re-erecting external barriers.
Within a short period of time, I met Christ. I had expected it would involve asking Him into my life to fix the things I didn’t like. Salvation however, was going to be something far more comprehensive.
Here’s how it works, not only for me, but for everyone: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). Notice we are not instructed to confess “Jesus is Savior,” but “Jesus is Lord.” We’re being introduced to Him as Lord, which means He has the right to set the terms of salvation. And those terms begin, first of all, with believing in Him, not ourselves. This runs counter to the entire self-help industry and all its gurus. When it comes to biblical salvation, belief in self is a bust. Our faith in Jesus particularly includes His cross, and resurrection. When “God raised Him from the dead,” it had nothing to do with some accomplishment of our own. And when we think of what we need, we don’t call it “help,” or “improvement.” We need to be saved.
When you confess, “Jesus is Lord,” you’re saying these things, and while you’re saying them, you’re believing them in your heart. That is, inside your garden.
That’s where the pests get dealt with.
1. It is difficult to say what this will look like. Some theologians have proposed that the nations referred to in chapter 20, are God-preserved, but unregenerate people who populate the earth. They have continued bearing children, most of which were not yet born at the time of Armageddon in Revelation 19. Whether because of change in covenant/dispensation, or some other factor, personal or corporate, they have not been born again according to our current biblical understanding. This view is not without its difficulties however, and other theologians have various responses based on their interpretations of the millennial kingdom (i.e. Premillenialism, Amillenialism, or Postmillenialism). I feel that each school of opinion makes its own contribution to the topic, and none stands alone as completely right or wrong. However, as apparent through my writing, I favor Premillenialism, while noting its shortcomings.