Live No Lies
Recognise and resist the three enemies that sabotage your peace (2021) © SPCK
“During this earthly pilgrimage our life cannot be free from temptation, for none of us comes to know ourselves except through the experience of temptation, nor can we be crowned until we have come through victorious, nor be victorious until we have been in battle, nor fight our battles unless we have an enemy and temptations to overcome.”
(St Augustine, AD 418)
The Portland-based pastor and writer, John Mark Comer, sets off on a journey to document and demonstrate the power of the enemies of the soul. He writes, ‘My intent with this book is to reinterpret the ancient paradigm of the three enemies of the soul for the modern age. While it’s easy to scoff at the ancient categories, I believe the world, the flesh, and the devil are alive and well; and aided by our scepticism, they are wreaking havoc in our souls and society.’ (p.xxii)
Writing from the turmoil of the United States in this new decade—divided by politics, deracinated by culture wars, and dogged by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic—Comer is uniquely placed to comment on the ‘spiritual health’ and wellbeing of modern, Western people in this cultural moment.
‘Our nation is more divided than it’s been since the Civil War, and the last thing we need is more gas on the fire. All I want to do is name the felt experience of following Jesus in our cultural moment, and I just can’t find a better metaphor; it feels like a war for the soul. We feel this constant conflict not just “out there” in culture or in our digital newsfeeds but inside the fabric of our own minds and bodies. A kind of inner tug-of-war that is emotionally exhausting and spiritually depleting, a tearing at the fabric of our souls’ peace… Why do I feel so tired? Worn down? Not in body, but in mind? Why do I feel so battered and bruised? Why does every day feel like a battle just to stay faithful, to keep following Jesus? Here’s an idea: maybe because it is.’ (p.xx)
Comer gives us a working theory for how this looks in practice. He says, ‘as followers of Jesus, we are at war with the world, the flesh, and the devil, and the three enemies’ stratagem is as follows:” (p.xxiii)
Deceptive ideas…. → That play to disordered desires… → That are normalised in a sinful society
(the DEVIL) (the FLESH) (the WORLD)
From here, Comer gives us a wonderful walking tour of contemporary affairs in America (and the West more broadly) through the lens of the three enemies of the soul. Broadly, his categories follow:
- The devil: lies and deceit; ideas, weaponised; dezinformatsiya; standing firm in the faith (Ephesians 6)
- The flesh: the slavery of freedom; ‘passions forge our fetters'; the law of returns; living by the Spirit
- The world: the brutal honesty about normal; living as a remnant; self-denial in an age of self-fulfilment
This short review can scarcely scratch the surface of these enormous topics. Suffice to say, the book is well worth a read, fast-paced in narrative and style while covering over 250-pages of writing in just a few days of reading. In this short space, let me introduce two stand-out ideas from Comer’s text.
Firstly, in the very first chapter of the book, Comer boldly wades into the centre of the culture wars of today and broaches the touchy topic of human sexuality. In this section, he paints a picture of the deceit and deception of the devil, working lies to foment confusion in society at large. I quote this section at length.
‘Let’s broach a sensitive example but one we simply can’t skirt around, as it is the leading moral question of our generation—human sexuality. And remember as you read this, I’m a pastor, not a politician. My goal is to journey with your soul on its way to healing in God, not to legislate anything. I don’t expect secularists to live like Christians. As Paul put it, ‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?’. The move of the Spirit is inward to conviction, not outward to critique. I’m not trying to critique the culture, much less control it; I’m trying to flourish a counter-culture. The sexual liberation of the 1960s set in motion a cascade effect: the reversal of the long-standing moral consensus around promiscuity (which separated sex from marriage) worked in tandem with the advent of birth control and the legalisation of abortion (which separated sex from procreation), which moved on to the legalisation of no-fault divorce (which turned a covenant into a contract and separated sex from intimacy and fidelity), then to Tinder and hook-up culture (which separated sex from romance and turned it into a way to “get your needs met”). From there it’s moved on to the LGBTQI+ revolution (which separated sex from the male-female binary), the current transgender wave (which is an attempt to separate gender from biological sex), and the nascent polyamory movement (an attempt to move beyond two-person relationships). Amid the revolution, the questions nobody seems to even be asking are, Is this making us better people? More loving people? Or even happier people? Are we thriving in a way we weren’t prior to our “liberation”?’ (p.28-29).
From here, Comer reminds us that ‘ideas are assumptions about reality’ (p.29) and that our ideas about ‘happiness’ and ‘fulfilment’ when it comes to sexuality and intimacy are deeply misled. He provides three pages of statistics from US surveys, suggesting that rather than providing ‘liberation’, the sexual revolution has reduced happiness levels, increased divorce rates, caused an epidemic of sexual addiction, and may even have contributed to abuse, assault, and worse, across Western culture.
The environment we live in, in the West, is soaked with the fallout of deconstructionism. Comer writes that ‘our new environment is one in which a battle is raging between truth and lies, and truth is losing. Disinformation – or in the language of Scripture, deception – is at the root of almost every single problem we face in our society and our souls.’ (p.54)
David Foster Wallace writes, ‘what’s been passed down from the postmodern heyday is sarcasm, cynicism, a manic ennui, suspicion of all authority, suspicion of all constraints on conduct, and a terrible penchant for ironic diagnosis of unpleasantness instead of an ambition not just to diagnose and ridicule but to redeem. You’ve got to understand that this stuff has permeated the culture. It’s become our language; we’re so in it we don’t even see that it’s on perspective, one among many possible ways of seeing. Postmodern irony has become our environment.’ (quoted on p.54)
The call that Comer gives us, in these cultural waters soaked by deception (as well as sarcasm, cynicism, and ennui), is to live as ‘a group on the margins of the host culture, living in an alternative but compelling and beautiful way. A prophetic signpost to kingdom life in a culture of death’ (p.230). More than this, in fact, Comer believes that this may well be our cultural moment, as the church. He writes, ‘there’s a tremendous opportunity in our cultural moment for the church to come back to her roots as a counter-anti-culture’ (p.230); to be a city on a hill, to let our light shine before others, to be modern-day exiles in our cities, to be the church of Acts 2, Romans 13, and Revelation 3 – to be prepared to be a minority in a hostile majority culture.
Comer continues; we can ‘become a robust counter-anti-culture not just against the world but for the world. Because we’re not just against evil; we’re for good. We’re for love, joy, thriving marriages and families, children brought up in loving delight, adults moving off the egocentric operating system to become people of love, true freedom, justice for all, and unity in diversity’ (p.231). For this to be enacted, he re-centres us on the centrality of the church and the close-knit ties and bonds we are to nourish there. Comer adds, ‘while church is not less than Sunday services, it is far more. It must be more to survive the Western spiritual apocalypse. Church must become a thick web of interdependent relationships between resilient disciples of Jesus deeply loyal to the Way.’ (p.231)
- A community of deep relational ties in a culture of individualism and isolation
- A community of holiness (“set apart, unique, different”) in a culture of hedonism
- A community of order in a culture of chaos (following a Rule of Life)
Comer ends, 'a deep happiness and calm spirit come over those who have died to self. Their desires have been put to death or, at least, put in their proper place below God. As a result, they have been set free from the domination of want.’ (p.249)
This highly readable book is both intriguing to read (in its cultural commentary and astute observations) as well as encouraging and life-giving (in its commitment to discipleship-formation and self-surrender to the call of Christ).
**** Readability (4/5): easy and narrative-style language (though beware, written in a highly conversational tone!)
**** Application (4/5): we all deal with the three enemies of the soul; the devil, the flesh, the world
*** General Appeal (3/5): written from an American standpoint, yet also applicable a broader audience
** Commitment (2/5): Weekend read or major commitment? An easy weekend or 3-day read, with large font
*** Challenge (4/5): a good, stimulating book, with plenty of personal challenge, question, and rebuke
**** Recommendation (4/5): read it, reflect on it, live it, and pass it on