The words that have become the title of this blog piece struck me in my daily Bible reading this morning. They are pulled from 2 Peter 2:19. I highlighted them in my digital Bible app.
We may tend to focus on the more encouraging provisions of the Bible and gloss over provisions like the one I am quoting here, but the Bible is a double-edged sword. It sometimes cuts to the marrow. It discerns and reveals the thoughts and intents of the heart. It is living and active… if we let it in to our hearts to do its job.
I am convicted today, as I should be, and I am encouraged, because God, the Father, disciplines His children whom He loves. God watches out for the ones He loves. He warns us when we are straying into dangerous territory.
If we are paying attention and willing to respond, these warnings will protect us. If we rush headlong ahead, not heeding the warnings, as we are apt to do, we find ourselves entangled in difficulties that can threaten to undo us if we fail to repent and turn around.
Even then, the going can be difficult. Bad habits are easy to form and very difficult to break. If we go too far down the road with them, we find reversing course to be very difficult, indeed. Forming new, good habits is many times more difficult than the path we followed into those bad habits.
Bad habits are easy to form because they come from a place that is instinctual. They are outgrowths of natural tendencies of people who simply do “what feels good”.
Bad habits form from desires that are common to people – not necessarily bad desires. Evil isn’t a thing in itself. Evil is the corruption of good. Bad habits for when we seek to satisfy our desires in the easiest, most accessible, self-centered and least beneficial ways.
For instance, loving God and loving our neighbors – the two greatest commandments of God – are wrapped up in loving ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves, we have a hard time loving others. If we love others, we usually have an easy time loving ourselves. Loving God and loving people are intimately related to loving ourselves.
The popular idea of “self love”, getting some “me time”, and “focusing on myself”, however, can be a corruption of what is basically good. We are naturally self-centered. We naturally love ourselves more than others. When Jesus told us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, he was implicitly acknowledging the fact that we are naturally focused on ourselves and our needs.
We instinctually love ourselves and seek what is best for us. We have to be purposeful, intentional and self-sacrificing to consider others, and especially to consider others ahead of ourselves. It isn’t natural, and, therefore, it isn’t easy.
Loving others isn’t hating ourselves; it’s learning to love others on the same level as we love ourselves. It is thinking of others on the same level as we think of ourselves.
Many people today are self-loathing, which is also a corruption of what is good. People who loath themselves are equally as self-absorbed as people who are corrupted in self-love.
We are made in God’s image, so to loathe ourselves is to loathe the very image of God. We shouldn’t confuse loving our neighbors as ourselves with loathing ourselves.
Self-loathing is a kind of self-centeredness. People who are self-loathing are self-absorbed in a negative way. Self-absorption and self-focus are a corruption of what is good, regardless of whether the result is pleasurable or painful.
The words of Jesus are transcendent. They direct our eyes away from ourselves to God and to others. When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”, he is speaking to the reality that our self-focus (the burden of the self) traps us into unhealthy and ultimately destructive behaviors that are more of a burden than a help to us.
Such is the burden of sin. When we are unable to overcome sin, we are enslaved to it. As Peter says, “We are enslaved to whatever defeats us.” And so, I have come back to the focus of this blog piece: these words in 2 Peter 2:19.
The context of 2 Peter 2 is laid out in 2 Peter 1, where he says, “[God’s] divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3) By His divine power, we have His promises, “so that through them [we] may share in [God’s] divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire”. (2 Peter 1:4)
The ultimate goal and purpose of the promises God has given us is that we will share in God’s divine nature and escape the corruption in the world. That corruption comes from “evil desire”, which is desire that is corrupted of what is good (evil being a corruption of what is good).
In this vein, Peter says:
“[M]ake every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”2 Peter 1:5-6
This is a description of God’s divine nature. Faith is intended to lead us into becoming more like God, shedding the corruption in us that is also in the world, and taking on God’s divine nature.
Peter goes on to identify that “divine power” with the coming of Jesus. Peter makes his assertion with the confidence that comes from being an eyewitness who heard the voice of God, the Father, on the mountain say, “This is my believed Son, with whom I am well-pleased!” (2 Peter 16-18) Peter also refers for authority to “the prophetic word strongly confirmed” (the Old Testament prophets) who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit”. (2 Peter 1:19-21)
Peter, then, contrasts those prophets of God with “false prophets” in the Old Testament, and he warns of “false teachers” to come, who He says will share “destructive heresies” and deny Jesus whose atoning death on the cross “bought” us. (2 Peter 2:1-2) In the context of Chapter 1, we understand that Jesus is the one who bought us out of the corruption in the world.
Indeed, Jesus introduced us to a new “kingdom”, the kingdom of God. The goal of Jesus introducing us to God’s Kingdom is for us to share in the divine nature of God as partakers in His kingdom. .
This is the context in which Peter warns of false teachers who have “depraved ways” and malign “the way of truth” (2 Peter 2:2), exploiting people with their greed. (2 Peter 2:3) He says these people “follow the polluting desires of the flesh and despise authority”; they are “bold, arrogant people” who “are not afraid to slander” the good. (2 Peter 2:10)
Peter goes on to say that these false teachers are “creatures of instinct”. (2 Peter 2:13) This alludes back to a subtle theme in the story of Adam and Eve: that people were created in God’s image. They were instructed to have dominion over the earth and the animals of the earth. Adam and Eve were created to be different from the animals – not to be creatures of instinct – because God gave Adam and Even the freedom of choice.
Of course, Adam and Eve exercised that choice to go against the instruction God gave them. Our circumstance now flows from that unfortunate choice, but God offers us a new choice: the choice to submit, again, to God our Father who created us in His image and who desires us to partake in His divine nature.
Thus, Jesus redeemed us (bought us) so that we might escape the corruption in the world and become like God. The problem with Adam and Eve isn’t that they wanted to become like God; the problem is that they wanted to become like God without sharing in His divine nature. They wanted to be like God on their own terms.
Likewise, false teachers “carouse in broad daylight”, says Peter (2 Peter 2:14), with “eyes full of adultery that never stop looking for sin”, seducing in their greed (for their own benefit) people who are not firm in their faith. The poster child for the type of people Peter is describing is Balaam. (2 Peter 2:15)
As I write these things that Peter describes, I am aware of how “prudish”, uncool, “self-righteous” and against the modern grain all of this sounds. At least, those are the thoughts that ring in my ears as I relate to how “the world” might react. Indeed, this is how the modern “world” thinks of these things.
What was it that Balaam did that was so bad?
Remember that Balaam was asked to curse the Israelites, but he couldn’t curse them. God wouldn’t let him. Balaam heard the voice of God, and he responded to it, but Balaam is still considered a false prophet.
Balaam was not a false prophet in the sense that he didn’t accurately hear from God. He even accurately conveyed what God had to say, but only reluctantly. Balaam told the people who wanted to pay him to curse the Israelites the truth: that God would not curse them.
Balaam was still a false prophet, however, because he wanted the money offered him to curse the Israelites. When he discovered that God would not allow him to curse the Israelites, Balaam tried a different tactic. According to Revelation 2:14, Balaam devised a plan to entice the Israelites into sexual immorality and to consume food sacrificed to idols.
Balaam was a false prophet not in what he said, but in his ways. He was responsible for enticing God’s people into corruption, into following their instinctual desires, into choosing to lean into their instinctual nature over the divine nature God desires us to share with Him.
Peter says that “false teachers” will come who similarly “entice [others] with the passions of the flesh to sensuality”. (2 Peter 2:18 (Greek interlinear translation)). Breaking the phrase down can provide us a better sense of what Peter is saying here.
The word translated “passions” (epithumia), means desire, passionate longing, lust, with a connotation of inordinate desire. Passions/desires obviously can be good or bad; it’s the object of those desires and the character of them that can be a problem.
The word translated “flesh” (sarx) means flesh, body, human nature, materiality. This word is often, but not always, used in a negative way. This word is used in the context of sexual intercourse in marriage in a positive way. However, it often is used negatively to include a particular focus on self, rather than God or others.
Finally, the word translated “sensuality” (aselgeia) means licentiousness and wantonness, often used to convey the idea of outrageous or shocking conduct and lewdness. It conveys the idea of rejecting constraints, wanton caprice, and even violence.
Going back to the words that drew me into this study, Peter says, “We are enslaved to whatever defeats us.” When we enter into the life God offers us by His promises, we are entering into a journey or process by which God intends us to share in His divine nature. We dare not relax and allow ourselves to be enticed into a wanton lack of self-control.
We are meant for better than that. God saves us to set us free from sin. We are meant for a freedom that empowers us to be good, knowledgeable, self-controlled, enduring, godly, filled with brotherly affection and with love. We cannot, therefore, allow ourselves to be enticed into the habit of gratifying ourselves like animals who simply do what they are driven by instinct to do.