A while back, a friend of mine was trying to buy a house.
At first things were falling into place. Then, as so often happens with a home purchase, they started stampeding south. Renovation needs were discovered. Her loan officer bolted. Inspection after inspection failed. It became a drawn-out trial, and the burden was greater than living arrangements. She was trying to escape a demoralizing roommate situation; she needed to get out of her apartment for the sake of her heart.
But as the obstacles stacked up, Christian friends and advisers in her life started falling back on a familiar refrain: “These obstacles are probably God trying to stop you. You should let go of the house.”
Okay. Let’s start at the beginning.
As Christians, we know God does place obstacles in our path to turn us aside from unforeseen dangers and bad decisions. Given our limited visibility in life, we should always keep a weather eye out for these signs.
But it was striking how these Christians in my friend’s life arrived at their assumption – that it must be God doing the blocking – so quickly and naturally. It’s a sign of another assumption, one shared by a lot of believers, especially in the last few generations of the church: the idea that God is the only source of opposition in this world.
It’s not a true assumption.
Scripture teaches pretty plainly that Satan is an active and powerful agent in this age. Not all-powerful, but yet not fully bound either. And it teaches that he has modes of operation other than temptation, though that is one of his favorites. It was Satan whom Jesus faulted for a woman’s illness in Luke 13:16, Satan whom Paul identified as the roadblock between him and the brethren in 2 Thessalonians 2:18, and of course Satan who wrecked Job’s life and body. Those are just a few examples.
You could point out that God allowed Satan’s activity, even claim that he had a purpose in them. And he does. Yet it’s noteworthy that God, a very intentional author, doesn’t “Romans 8:28” these stories away as pieces of his plan, as he does at other times. He simply paints the enemy for us as a real opponent, one whose actions displease him. It happened, Satan caused it, and God is out to fix it. Let’s get to work.
Most importantly, he tells us to resist Satan.
Yet I have found that many Christians don’t want to accept Satan as a reality. Not really. Some are frightened by the idea. Others think it diminishes God. Still others think that blaming Satan is an end-run around our own responsibility: “Quit looking for Satan under every rock”. All these arguments are valid.
But their end conclusion – that “Satan can’t really bite anymore, he can only ‘gum’ you”, to put it in the words of another church I once attended – is exactly why we have this “blanket meme” floating around:
Because if there’s no enemy, and no human agency because it’s all under God’s direction, then who else could be shutting the door but God? So we might as well just give up and call it faith, right?
Perhaps this is the reason we so often lose.
You know something interesting about the whole “when God shuts a door, he opens a window” theology? It’s nowhere in the Bible. Not in that form. You know what door theology you do find there?
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)
You find Elijah praying seven times for rain he already knew to be God’s will. What are the implications of that? You find Daniel on his knees for three weeks awaiting a dream interpretation; when the angel shows up, instead of explaining the delay as God’s way of sanctifying him or something, he simply apologizes, mentions a “prince of the Persian kingdom” (Daniel 10:13) and gets on with the message.
Maybe what’s behind that door wasn’t meant for you.
Or maybe God isn’t the only source of resistance in this world and you’re being fought by something else.
How disheartening it would be if God were behind every resistance you’ve ever hit. If that were the case, then he is opposed to mission work, marriages, church unity, freedom from addiction, any joy or good gift that could come our way, not to mention every move towards personal holiness, inner peace, or the fruits of the Spirit – pretty much everything good that’s ever hit a snag. How do you explain that? Talk about a confusing view of God. Sure, you could hide behind “well, God’s ways are higher than ours”. It’s a nice, unassailable position. And many people do.
Or…you could keep it simple and take God at his Word, accept the nature of the world as he depicts it. “Satan can only gum you”? Don’t mock 1 Peter 5:9. Its words were not picked idly. He’s a threat. He’s a disruptant. You may not like the idea that he is opposing things, but that has no bearing on whether he actually is.
Now, here’s the fun in that belief: if Satan is operating against something in your life, it might hint that God is operating for it. (A prayer warrior at my church once told me, “The devil always overplays his hand.”) That’s good news! Satan isn’t king of this hill; he can be resisted and overcome. Jesus has a track record of healing Satan’s afflictions (Luke 13:16), reversing blindnesses that he’s imposed (2 Cor. 4:4, Acts 9), and protecting unbelievers from temptations (Luke 22:31). And he generously shares with us his power and authority to do what he modeled (Luke 10).
We serve the true King. The fact that said King has a real war to fight – even though the final outcome is already decided – should not discourage us.
Now, of course, not every snag is the enemy. Don’t read this and run off claiming “yes” answers to every struggling prayer. Delay might still be a sign of God’s opposition, or his better timing.
How do we tell the difference? One way is to ask him. Crazy, right? Ask him whether the hardship or trial or struggle is from his hand or from the enemy’s. I love this idea, because it requires relationship with God. Simply assuming what the source is – whether you attribute it God or Satan – requires no relationship with God. You can just speculate and then go back to your breakfast. But seeking guidance straight from God requires us to enter his presence, repent of our sins, listen for his voice, test it by Scripture, and yield to the answer. It requires us to know him. Perhaps that’s exactly why he set things up this way.
Take heart when your prayers and good works seem opposed. It might be God. He’s certainly allowed to oppose us. But at least include the enemy in your thinking. Yes, even in the matter of good gifts. Satan will absolutely oppose them, purely because God gives them. Ask God what’s needed – perseverance, spiritual warfare, surrender, whatever – and follow accordingly.
By the way – my friend eventually got the house.