It's never easy, but some things simply need to come to an end.
In C.S Lewis's book, "The Great Divorce" he tells the story of a busload of people who journey to the outskirts of heaven on their way to hell. During the tour, many of the bus-riders are turned off/intimidated by the atmosphere of heaven and run back to the comfort of their bus. One individual, however, a Ghost who is continually pestered by a talkative red lizard (symbolic of lust) constantly perched on his shoulder, presses into the surroundings of heaven and encounters a fiery angel.
C.S Lewis uses the ensuing encounter between the angel and the Ghost as a parable of God's invitation to break the power of sin in our life and to transform it into something for his glory. For the purposes of this blog post, I will use it as an illustration of what it looks like to sever off unhealthy toxic relationships that may be leading us to compromise our integrity.
In the story, the great flaming angel approaches the Ghost and seeks his permission to rid him of the burdensome red lizard on his shoulder. The Ghost hesitantly agrees at first, but backs away when it dawns on him that killing the lizard will involve some pain on his part.
The angel makes his request again, seeking the Ghost’s permission to help him kill the red lizard. But again, the Ghost complains about the pain he is having to endure as a result of being separated from his beast of a friend.
"May I kill it?" The angel persisted.
"Honestly, I don't think there's the slightest necessity for that. I'm sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. Some other day, perhaps." The Ghost tried to argue.
"There is no other day …." Replied the angel.
"Get back! You're burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You'd kill me if you did." The Ghost countered.
"It is not so."
"Why, you're hurting me now."
"I never said I wouldn't hurt you. I said it wouldn't kill you."
On and on their conversation went, until finally, the Lizard itself chimed in (in a last bid attempt to save its own life). "Be careful," it said. "He can do what he says. He can kill me. One fatal word from you and he will! Then you'll be without me for ever and ever. I'll be so good. I admit I've sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won't do it again…."
Ignoring the voice of the red lizard, the angel again sought the Ghost's permission to once and for all kill the creature. In his desperation to finally be free, he relented and permitted the angel to do as he pleased.
Lewis beautifully captures what follows, “Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard. The Burning One [angel] closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf. Then I saw, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the Ghost materialize into a man, not much smaller than the Angel. At the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Suddenly I stared back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. The man, now free from his torment, climbed upon the stallion that had been his sin and rode into the glowing sunrise towards the Savior.” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (HarperCollins, 2009), pp. 106-112)
Check your shouldER for "red lizards"
Like the Ghost in Lewis's story, some Christians are presently yoked in a relationship with their own "red lizard", a relationship which may be proving to be spiritually toxic to their faith.
In this 4th part of our blog series through the 7 letters of Revelation, we will meet a Church congregation in the city of Pergamum that has fallen into this trap, a Church that has compromised its values and literally allowed Satan to get a foothold in its community.
Jesus has some strong words for her, as well as for us if indeed there are spiritually toxic relationships in our lives we're allowing to carry on. Here's the story of how to break free and bring to an end those unhealthy friendships.
A KILLER OPENING LINE
This introduction from Jesus is a little scary. It’s not the opening line you ever want to read in a letter or an email from a loved one.
To give you some perspective on how troubling this introduction is, compare it to the way Jesus introduces Himself to the two previous Churches. To the folks in the Church of Ephesus, Jesus says in Revelation 2:1, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands.”
To the congregants in the Church of Smyrna, Jesus says in Revelation 2:8, “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. Both uplifting, right?
But, to the folks in the Church of Pergamum, Jesus essentially opens His letter with this terrifying picture, “These are the words of the one wielding a sharp double-headed machete, and oh, by the way, I also see that Satan has an apartment in your backyard!”
This immediately tells you something is wrong in the Church of Pergamum, and the city itself is probably not the most hospitable place to live.
WHEN SATAN LIVES IN YOUR BACKYARD
Twice in verse 13, Jesus actually points out that Satan has his throne in their city!
It’s a troubling thought, but it makes me wonder what city in the world Satan presently has his throne? While no one can say for certain where it is, can we at least agree on NOT rolling out the red carpet for him? (Yes, I’m talking to you, New York’ s temporarily shelved project to rebuild replicas of the arch from Syria’s Temple of Baal!!!!)
If you want to know what happens when you let Satan hang out on your front porch, let’s get back to Pergamum and see.
The city of Pergamum was one of the most influential cities in the Roman empire. It was an important center for pagan and imperial religion. In fact, the people of Pergamum were known as the temple keepers of Asia. That's because the city hosted temples dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing, to Zeus, in whose honor an especially massive stone altar was built and set on the Acropolis (one of the highest points in the city), and to “divine Augustus and the goddess Roma.”
Satan felt at home in this city and established his throne there.
The Christians in the city lived in constant danger of harm from the emperor worship cult. Whereas, Christians in other cities were primarily in danger on the one day of the year when they were required to offer sacrifices to the emperor, the believers in Pergamum were in danger every day of the year because of the strong demonic influence in the city.
Living as a Christian in Pergamum in those days may have been indistinguishable from living as a Christian in Ramadi, Iraq under ISIS’s rule today. Except, in Pergamum, instead of an Islamic Shiite agenda, it was literally Satan’s agenda.
It’s to these small gathering of believers in this demon-run city that Jesus writes His letter to (Revelation 2:12-17). It’s also for this reason that Jesus introduces Himself with such fierce imagery, “These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword” (v.12). He was trying to let them know that He too knows how to do battle and bears a razor-sharp double-edged sword that penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; and judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
This is vital for every follower of Jesus Christ to grasp, especially in the heat of battle of a spiritual attack. You are not powerless nor are you weaponless in the fight (2 Corinthians 10:4-6). Christ, who is seated far above every spiritual authority, has delegated His authority to you to stand against the fiery attacks of Satan and has provided you with a spiritual armor to withstand whatever may come. So, you’re not a victim.
Stand! Submit to God. Resist the enemy and fight back!
YOU'RE DOING GREAT ...FOR THE MOST PART
For the believers living in Pergamum, they not only withstood the direct onslaught of Satan, but Jesus Himself commends them for their faithfulness to Him in a place where they could have easily assimilated into the idolatrous culture. In verse 13, Jesus says to them, “I know where you live—where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.”
Tradition suggests that Antipas was a pastor in Pergamum and was martyred by being burned to death inside a hollowed brass bull. One account records this: “They (his persecutors) became enraged as wild beasts and dragged the aged Antipas to the temple of Artemis before which stood an ox cast in bronze. They heated the bronzed ox and hurled the servant of God into the red-hot molten ox as he burned to death. From within the molten ox, St. Antipas glorified God with thanksgiving, as once did Jonah in the belly of the whale or the three Youths in the fiery furnace in the book of Daniel. Antipas prayed for his flock and for the entire world until his soul parted from his weakened body and ascended among the angels into the Kingdom of Christ.”
Like Antipas, the Pergamum believers fought a really good fight, even though it came at the cost of some of their lives. They always remained true to the name of Christ.
YOUR FRIENDS MAY BE TOXIC, ...AND MANIPULATIVE....
While all that was good and true, they left a few “cracks” open through which Satan [red lizard] had slipped into their Church. I’ll let Jesus tell you Himself in V.14-15, “I have a few things against you: There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
In order to understand the problem Jesus is referring to, you need to know the story of Balaam. In the Old Testament book of Numbers 22-25, and 31, we’re introduced to a Moabite king named Balak. Balak wanted to weaken and destroy the Israelites, who on their way to Canaan [the promised land] had moved in on his territory. So he sends for a rogue prophet named, Balaam to place a curse on them with the promise of a hefty financial compensation.
Balaam, however, was instructed by God to do no such thing. Instead, He was told by God to bless, instead of curse the Israelites. Eventually realizing the futility of trying to go against God’s direct instruction, Balaam took a backdoor approach to ensure he received a monetary reward from Balak. Since he couldn’t curse Israel directly, he came up with an evil scheme for Israel to bring a curse upon themselves. He counseled Balak to have his Moabite women seduce the Israelite men so that their hearts would be gradually drawn away from the devotion to God. Part of the seduction involved the Israelite men engaging in sexual orgies with the Midianite women, which involved eating foods sacrificed to idols and the actual worship of idols (Baal of Peor). For this, God plagued the Israelites and 24,000 men died, (Numbers 25; Deuteronomy 23:3-6) and Balaam himself was eventually killed (Numbers 31:8).
As a result of this devious act, Balaam’s name became synonymous with the use of God’s gift for illicit purposes. “The [false] teaching of Balaam” Jesus speaks of in Revelation 2:14 is the philosophy that one can be fully immersed in the lusts of the world, yet, still wholeheartedly serve God. Several Bible passages speak of Balaam’s deceptive philosophy of ministry:
- 2 Peter 2:15 says they are the ones who have, “… left the main road and are directionless, having taken the way of Balaam, son of Beor, the prophet who turned profiteer, a connoisseur of evil”
- Jude 1:11 describe them as those who have, “…been sucked into Balaam’s error by greed; ”
- Earlier in Jude 1:4, he explains how their sins affect the Church, “I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. ”
Putting all of these together, it becomes apparent who and what Jesus was speaking of when He says to the Church in Pergamum, “There are some among you who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin so that they ate food sacrificed to idols and committed sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” (Since we don’t have much detail on the teachings of the Nicolatians, we can safely assume it had many similarities with the teaching of Balaam).
Clearly, some ill-intentioned people [red lizards] had finagled their way into a position of influence in the Pergamum Church and were convincing the congregation that they could engage in all the idolatrous affairs in their demon-run city and still wholeheartedly love Jesus. So whereas Jesus speaks of His followers being “in” the world, but “not of” the world (meaning that we’re to live with a missionary mindset), the Baalamites and Nicolatians were encouraging the Christians that they were not only “in” the world, but were “of” the world, needed to be loved by the world, and should have no problem compromising with the world!
It’s the modern day belief that a “little sin” or a little compromise here and there in our faith isn’t so bad, especially if it results in some form of personal profit, or even better yet, “if it will bring more people to Jesus.”
Jesus would of course, beg to differ because “It only takes a minute amount of yeast…to permeate an entire loaf of bread.” (Galatians 5:9). In Balaam’s day, it only took one small flirty look from a Midianite woman for most of Israel to fall into apostasy. Unfortunately, the same was happening and had happened in the Church in Pergamum.
What Jesus seemed to have the greatest problem with, however, was the fact that the believers who had “remained faithful to His name” were tolerating the false teaching in their Church. They had become super-comfortable with the red lizard to remain on their shoulders!
DEAL WITH THIS, OR ELSE I WILL!
Why do you think the Jesus-loving believers were allowing the demon-influenced false teachers to carry on their unbiblical agenda in the Church?
Having grown up in the Church, let me propose a few reasons I’ve observed for why this so easily happens in our Churches. It’s possible that the folks corrupting the Church were family members or even friends of key leaders in the Church. It’s even possible that these individuals causing problems were some of the biggest financial givers in the Church and their expulsion would have resulted in a financial crisis for the Church. It’s also very possible that the believers in Pergamum simply hadn’t grounded themselves in truths of the Gospel so that the false teachings appeared as Biblically sound.
Though speculatory, they’re certainly all plausible; otherwise, why would they tolerate such toxic relationships in their congregation?
Allow me to turn this mirror around for a moment.
Are there presently relationships in your life that are spiritually toxic to your maturity as a follower of Christ? Perhaps someone, or a group of “friends” who draw your affections further and further away from Christ? Is there a red lizard on your shoulder?
The question we’re asking the congregation in Pergamum is also the question I must ask you now, “Why are you tolerating these spiritually unhealthy relationships in your life instead of just nipping them in the bud?”
IT'S SO HARD TO SAY GOODBYE, BUT YOU MUST!
Whatever your reason is, and whatever the reasons the believers in Pergamum had, here’s what Jesus had to say about it in verse 16, “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” In other words, “If you don’t wise up and sever those relationships quickly, I will step in myself and cut them to pieces with my sword-sharp words.”
I don’t know what that looked like in real life relationships in Pergamum, but here’s what I know: Swords hurt when they slice and harsh-but-true words cut deep. If I’m in a close relationship with someone experiencing either , I’m bound to experience some of its residual impact.
So, painful surgery needs to be done.
I suspect that in such a scenario [in your life], it's no point pulling off the bandage gently. You may need to abruptly break off contact from those unhealthy toxic friendships. Make no mistake about it, it will not be easy nor will it be fun, but it will be the right thing to do!
You may need to utter something similar to this, "Hey, in order for me to mature in my faith in Christ and to remain healthy, I cannot continue in this manner of friendship with you. I think it best we bring this to an end."
Like the red lizard in Lewis's story, toxicity will fight to maintain its hold on your life. You simply have to desire spiritual health, Jesus Himself more than you desire whatever fulfillment you perceive you're receiving in what's clearly an unhealthy relationship.
I don't know how else to say it, some unhealthy people in your life simply need to be gone!
HERE'S TO NEW BEGINNINGS!
As in the two previous letters, with obedience to Jesus’ instructions come several mysterious rewards. There’s two of them in verse 17, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.”
Let talk about Manna. If you recall the episode of the Israelites in the Sinai desert after fleeing Egypt, you’ll remember that God provided them with food from heaven, literally. In the evenings, He sent them poultry dinners falling from the sky, and in the mornings, He rained down some sort of honeyed bread called, “Manna.”
So, in that arid environment, God nourished their physical needs with heavenly food.
This promise of Jesus to the Church in Pergamum, then, is a reassurance that if they sever those spiritually toxic relationships with the Balaamites and Nicolatians, and even if it comes at a financial or emotional cost to them, He Himself will replenish their need, hence the promise of being given “hidden Manna.”
Let’s turn that mirror on ourselves one more time (Especially if you’re struggling with the thought of severing emotionally toxic or spiritually unhealthy relationships in your life).
What is it you’re afraid will happen if you sever those spiritually unhealthy relationships for the sake of honoring Jesus Christ? What is it that you think will lose or miss out on? Whatever it is, Jesus Himself is saying in these verses that you need not worry and you need not fear. In the same manner that God rained down physical nourishment from heaven to replenish the Israelite’s appetite in the dessert, so in the same way, God will replenish your unfulfilled needs if you honor Him in your relationships.
Hidden manna awaits, my friends. Hidden manna!!!
YOUR NAME ROCKS!
There’s also the promise of a very personal gift, a unique piece of white gemstone with your new name written on it, “a name known only to him who receives it.” I don’t know exactly what this stone means, but here’s what I do know. There’s 7 billion people on earth. 2.2 billion of those people profess to be Christians. Factoring all the numbers of Christians who have lived and died since the birth of the Church, we can surmise that there are many billions of believers in God’s presence.
That’s a lot of people and a lot of names to remember. I can barely remember the names of some of my cousins! Hence, the promise of this personal stone is that in the midst of a massive multitude of humanity, Jesus will not only know your name, but will know you more personally than you know yourself!
Though you’re one in several billion, Jesus’ knowledge of and relationship with you will be deeply personal.
Furthermore, a new name indicates a new story and a new destiny, right? So then, if we honor His words and sever off spiritually unhealthy relationships, Jesus is promising us a new sense of adventure and mission in the world He will establish. In other words, the question of, “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose in life?” will immediately become as crystal clear as a scene on a 4K Ultra HD screen. You will finally know, see, and live the life you’ve always wanted because it will be the life Jesus Himself has plotted out for you!
That, my friends, is worth giving up some unhealthy relationships for!
A NOTE FROM SHEGZ: I wanna hear what God is doing in and through you! So comment at the bottom (or send in through the contact page) your stories of how/if the weekly blog post has been spiritually meaningful to you, and if indeed it has reassured you that God not only loves you, but still likes you!
Husband. Dad. Pastor. Nigerian American. Storyteller. Aspiring Prayer Warrior. Steak Lover. Follower of Jesus Christ reminding you that God the Father still loves you.