Satan's Subversive Strategy in Gospel Proclamation
In Mark 4:15 Jesus tells us that when the gospel is preached Satan will often come and “take away” the word that is “sown in” the people who hear it. How seriously have we thought about the Enemy’s efforts to undermine our gospel proclamation? Perhaps it’s time we did. Continue reading . . .
In Mark 4:15 Jesus tells us that when the gospel is preached Satan will often come and “take away” the word that is “sown in” the people who hear it. How seriously have we thought about the Enemy’s efforts to undermine our gospel proclamation? Perhaps it’s time we did.
It’s so easy for us to walk into an auditorium each Sunday, or to gather during the week for a small group meeting, or to sit down with a few close friends over coffee, or attend a Bible study, and never give a second thought to the profound, invisible dynamics of what is happening unseen and imperceptibly in the spiritual realm. Do you have any idea what is happening when anyone explains Scripture or preaches the gospel? Do you have any idea of the spiritual activity that is hidden, unannounced, yet ultimately responsible for the response in people’s hearts to what is said? Do you have any idea how energetic Satan is to undermine everything that is said, to confuse those who are listening, to distract those who are trying to focus, to divert their attention at some crucial point when it seemed the truth of the biblical text was just beginning to penetrate their hearts?
Most people gather for a bible study or prayer meeting or a Sunday morning celebration with little if any awareness of the spiritual battle that is being waged beyond what their eyes can see or their ears can hear. They are largely unaware of what Jesus describes in Mark 4. Most would think that Satan wouldn’t be caught dead in a meeting like we all typically attend on a Sunday morning. What could he possibly do there? Starbucks or a park bench or your kitchen table simply don’t seem like the kinds of places that would be appropriate contexts for spiritual battles that carry eternal consequences.
Yet, we are told here in what has come to be known as the parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20) that whenever the word of the gospel or the proclamation of the kingdom of God goes forth, Satan is very active to undermine its effect in the hearts of those who hear.
Of course, some are uneasy, if not embarrassed, that I would speak so confidently about the activity of Satan. It’s ok if Jesus mentioned him. After all, he lived back in pre-industrial days when people still believed the earth was flat. But for a 21st century preacher to take seriously the existence and activity of Satan strikes them as outrageous. Suffice it to say that the passing of time has not affected the reality of Satan or his existence in the least. So, yes, I believe unashamedly that Satan exists and that he and his demons are actively working even as I write. In fact, one way in which they are active is in trying to convince you right now that he doesn’t exist and that to believe otherwise is dumb.
When Jesus interprets the parable of the soils in Mark 4:14–20, he only refers to Satan once. He says in verse 14 that the sower is sowing the Word, and then in verse 15 he says, "These are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word which is sown in them."
But there are two other kinds of soil where the Word bears no fruit. There is the rocky ground in verse 16 and the thorny ground in verse 18. Jesus doesn't mention Satan in connection with these. But we know from other teachings in the New Testament that Satan is very much at work in these soils to nullify the Word of God and make the hearers fruitless. So there are actually multiple strategies that Satan employs to undermine the effectiveness of preaching and teaching of the Word.
• He distracts them when an opportunity to hear the gospel is at hand (interruptions, day-dreaming, the phone rings, an emergency of some sort, the sudden remembrance of a job or other responsibility that needs immediate attention, the intrusion of a friend [cf. Acts 13:7b-8], etc.).
• He stirs up hostility and suspicion in the person's mind concerning the competency and integrity of the person presenting the gospel. The unbeliever suddenly imputes sinister motives to the Christian: "He's in it for the money," or "She only wants to gain control over me," or "He's just looking for another notch on his Bible so he can boast to others of one more convert," etc. Sometimes the unbeliever will excuse his/her unbelief by questioning the educational and academic credentials of the believer ("he/she is so uneducated; what does he/she know anyway").
• He stirs up the non-Christian to distort what is being said into something the speaker never intended. Cf. Jesus and the Pharisees (John 2:19-21; 6:48-52; 7:33-36; 8:51-53).
• He stirs up their minds to draw false conclusions or implications from the gospel that make it seem absurd (e.g., doctrine of Trinity = 3 gods; doctrine of grace = you can believe and live like hell).
• He inclines their minds to link the Christian with people who've disgraced Christianity in the past, giving him an excuse to reject what is being said (i.e., guilt by association). "All you Christians are just like those hucksters on TV! You're in it for the gold and the glory!"
• He puts in their minds all sorts of questions and convinces them that if they can't get completely satisfying answers, Christianity can't be true. Right in the middle of witnessing to someone, he/she suddenly blurts out questions like: "What about evil?" "What about all the hypocrites in the church?" "What about the heathen in Africa?" "Why is there only one way? It seems egotistical." "Why are there so many denominations?"
• Just as the gospel is beginning to make sense, Satan stirs up pride or produces feelings of independence and self-sufficiency: "I don't need a religious crutch. I'm my own man!"
• Before serious consideration is given, Satan snatches the seed of the gospel (Mt. 13:4,18-19) from their mind: on the way home from church the car breaks down, or the conversation turns to politics or sports, or a sexy billboard diverts attention, or something on the radio captivates his mind.
• Satan might suddenly prompt him/her to place a higher value on things he/she might lose if one were to become a Christian: friends, fame, money, fleshly pleasures, approval of others.
• Satan stirs up feelings of hopelessness: "Not even this will work. There's no hope. My life is a lost cause. Not even Jesus can help."
Although I’ve been talking about how Satan works to undermine the reception of the gospel in the hearts of unbelievers, don’t think for a moment that he doesn’t seek to undermine the hearing and response to God’s word in the hearts of those who are already born again.
• He may convince you that scheduling a late event on Saturday night is no big deal. So when Sunday morning comes you are exhausted, your attention span is short.
• He may orchestrate a dozen different distractions throughout the course of worship or during your observance of the Eucharist, or when you pray, or when someone is preaching.
• He may provoke an argument between you and your spouse, or between you and one of your children, such that you can’t concentrate on anything that happens after that.
• He may preoccupy your mind with what your employer is expecting of you tomorrow morning.
• He may work to convince you that the pastor is a complete dufus and not worth listening to.
• And don’t think that Satan gives up after you walk out of a building, or after you leave your small group meeting, or after you’ve just finished reading a book. He may delay his attack for quite some time precisely to lull you into a false sense of security so that you lower your guard and you are less aware of his presence or less aware of his strategy.
May God grant you diligence, discernment, and above all else, grace and power to “resist” the Devil, “firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9).