1 Timothy 4.1-5:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
At the heart of demonic resistance to God’s purposes is this: the goodness that God endowed to created life. When we read a passage like 1 Timothy 4, we might be tempted that “the teachings of demons” is about specific doctrines about marriage and food. I remember in my early college years, I got so focused on those specific doctrines that I associated Catholicism with it due to enforced celibacy of the priesthood and the way they chose to fast from foods. Zeal without knowledge, as Paul’s ultimately point is about creation, not the specific doctrines.
Yet, there does seem to be some characteristic about the teachings that Paul warns against. He says the teachings come from the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. This collection seems to suggest that these teachings, whatever they are, are put forward by people whose lives are in utter contradiction to what they teach to the point that they no longer have a conscience that is sensitive to their own sins and transgressions. On the surface of it, then, these teachers seem to be people who put forward ethical and moral teachings about life but yet they their lives are in contradiction to what they teach.
When I think about this passage, I hear an echo from Colossians 2.20-23:
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe,k why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.
Here, we see Paul removing the veil about certain type of moral prescriptions, suggesting that while they appear to be wise in what they propose, they are actually ineffectual in addressing human behavior. Thus, Paul seems to be implying that certain moral teachings actually create and reinforce a severe dissonance between what is put forward and how one lives. To be clear, we aren’t talking about people who struggle to live faithfully to God and His Word and fall into sin, but those people who take on the mantle of moral authority and expertise while flagrantly dismissing the very persona they convey.
At the heart of demonic moral teaching is an appearance of wisdom that actually denies the very nature of our created natures and life. God created us to live in the world and to enjoy it properly. There is the reality of harmful and wrong use of God’s creation that is promoted by self-indulgence, but so many moral teachings and reactions have a form of asceticism that sounds good rather than a more realistic sense of appropriateness underlying the teaching. So often times, the imagination of the good that a moral prescription would have if put into practice is taken as a personal substitute for its actual growing realization in one’s life. One’s idealized self-image actively obscures a more realistic awareness of what we do, numbing people to their own sense of sin and failure.
For instance, the moral principle “don’t be selfish” has an air of moral authority to it. In some circumstances, it may be a relevant to apply to our actions as there may be specific points where we need to think less of ourselves and more of others. However, at the same time, “don’t be selfish” as a general moral principle has no real power to transform our character. It’s wisdom is in how it sounds and how we imagine what its application my look like, but in fact, the moral principle has a way of reinforcing itself. The more we think about selfishness, even if it is in the idea of not being selfish, the more inclined we are to be selfish, much like Paul discusses about not coveting in Romans 7. Why? Because there is a goodness to our life that we should seek and broad principles like “don’t be selfish” may help give us a picture of what sin might look like, but they don’t actually provide an ethical redemption. Applied more extensively, “don’t be selfish” can essentially be taken to mean “don’t enjoy things for yourself” or “don’t protect yourself” and that one should always submit to the wishes of others. In this way, “don’t be selfish” can turn into a denial of the goodness of life if taken to an extreme. Yet, people can imagine that they teaching people to not be selfish and they can think of a few times they successfully manage to be selfless, that they are not selfish, allowing only a very narrow picture of who they are to enter into their mind.
Now some of you who know your Bible might be thinking, “But what about Philippians 2.3-4?” Good question. There, Paul is talking about ambition and social status, which causes people to elevate their own concerns above that of others. Paul’s instruction is to not try to let one’s own sense of one’s own desired status control how you regard others, but consider other people’s interests as having a higher status. This isn’t a form of humility that says “Whatever you want,” but rather “Your well-being is of higher concern than my own.” However, Paul doesn’t say “Don’t be selfish and seek for the good in your life.” You’re job is not to simply please everybody’s whims at the sacrifice of yourself. There is an actual wisdom to what Paul says as it is not about a self-denial of what one wants, but simply a raising up of the interests of others. If my immediate pressing need is of something that in general would be taken to be of a greater importance to my well-being than the wishes on another person, Paul’s ethical prescription does not say “Deny yourself that.” Of course, this entails having a basic sense of moral good and bad and the ability to weigh and distinguish between the two, but that is at the heart of the good life: the ability to distinguish between the goodness of life and its less helpful or even harmful forms of self-indulgence. “Don’t be selfish” can be taken to deny the self in all things, to deny this fundamental goodness of life.
So, when we return back to 1 Timothy 4, perhaps it sheds light on the nature of the deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons: moral prescriptions that on the one hand seem to be wise, but yet ultimately denies the fundamental goodness of life that God endowed creation with and leaves its teachers in a unrelenting hypocrisy that they are entirely numb to recognizing.
This is why it is important to pay close attention to the words of Jesus. We often times translate Jesus’ words into other, similar sounding moral prescriptions because they use similar language and approach similar themes, but the specific details are readily glossed over. For instance, we might be tempted to interpret Matthew 5.21-26 as “Don’t be angry,” even though Jesus says something much more complex about anger there that doesn’t deny it, but rather says that people are accountable to what they do in their anger. The difference between the redemptive realization of God’s righteousness and the ever failing nature of human righteousness is that God’s Word when paid attention to closely allows us to distinguish between the goodness of life and the ways we can become self-indulgent, whereas human righteousness is often a mere shadow and appearance that is ineffectual in reality.
This is why we are always in need of repenting of our sins as Christians and returning to Jesus to sit as His feet, to hear His word, and to learn afresh and anew. While part of the reason we fall into sin is human weakness, another reason we fall into sin is that we have not truly listened to and embraced the Word that can really make the discerning distinctions of the heart and our thoughts to distinguish the good from the bad (Hebrews 4.12). So often, we have instead accepted wise-sounding, counterfeit moral prescriptions that may have the ring of truth in many situations, but as general moral guides to our life they are ineffectual. They may reveal to us our sin, but they don’t provide us the light for the path of righteousness. Then we begin to convince ourselves “We can’t help but sin” when we fall short of these second-hand teachings, not recognizing that it may be the case that we need to continue to be lead by the Spirit to learn and understand Jesus’ teachings and discern the deeds of the flesh in order to put them to death. It is by this ever return to the words of Jesus as our Teacher through the Holy Spirit who directs us that we continue to learn to discern and recognize the goodness of God’s creation from the sins that we can creep into. Without this ever ongoing return to Jesus, however, we are susceptible to the deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons that are ultimately ineffectual facsimiles that distract us from the true goodness of creation if taken as absolute moral truths that we can build our lives upon.