What Is Spiritual Warfare?
'Spiritual warfare' is the struggle to have life in this material world reflect as much as possible the way our loving God wants it to be. It is like a 'war' because there are those who are working vigorously to thwart what God is doing. God is in charge, but there are opponents who are in full-scale revolt, and they have powerful influence all around. As with the work of the unseen God in the world of the seen, the revolt is both seen and unseen, material and supernatural. They lust after power in this world of visible, material beings. Just because a battle is unseen doesn't mean it isn't going on. It is. In every nook and cranny of our earthly existence. By the act of following Christ, the believer accepts the rulership of Christ in his/her life (that's what's meant when Jesus is called 'Lord' -- His authority and rule). This New You yields the throne of the self to Jesus, but the Old You doesn't like it one bit.
The struggle against the Devil and all his empty promises is at its heart a 'second Person' matter, a work of Christ Himself. The Holy Spirit leads us in our part of the struggle.
The Scriptures speak of spiritual warfare in several places, but most directly by Paul in Ephesians 6, where he speaks of the full armor of God. Most pointed is verse 12 : "For we struggle not against flesh and blood, but against the kingdoms, against the powers, against the world leaders of this darkness, against spiritual wickedness in the high places".
The Devil has already lost. But the Devil is trying to take as many with him as he can, as if just to hurt God. And however much the Devil succeeds in doing this, God hurts -- like a parent does over losing a child. This sort of spite is very much in keeping with the Devil's character. Satan is a leech; he is so lacking in life that the only life he has left is what he can suck out of the living.
Many people, including many Christians, do not like the use of the word 'warfare' here. I'll be honest: I myself do not like warfare imagery. War's a horrible thing, and we follow the Prince of Peace. But Scriptural imagery uses warfare language, and thus it would be wrong to simply reject it. Just as important, those who are going through the worst of the struggle sooner or later find themselves leaning on war-like terms. They're going through more than a mere 'struggle' -- they're going through a kind of hell. War imagery captures this with a precision and emotional connection no other imagery has yet come close to. Everyone knows what the imagery means, so when it's used, the point is quickly understood and felt by believer and non-believer alike. And war language, while it may make too much of any one 'battle', is the only language which successfully catches the epic proportion of what is going on in the entire created realm, including what people would generally call the supernatural. I would hope for a substitute, but 'war talk', judiciously and wisely used, will simply have to do for now.
That said, Christ's followers are called on to use a very different set of weapons: we are to be instruments of peace. The apostle Paul refers to the shoes of the gospel of peace; the belt of truth; and the sword of the Spirit -- the word of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). These are hardly A-bombs or bullets or bayonets, nor acts of hate or oppression. Such weapons are not only very destructive to the evils of the Devil's work, but are also the blocks upon which a lasting shalom is built. In ancient Judah, King Jehoshaphat took 'weapons of peace' literally : he sent out praise singers in front of the soldiers, causing such disarray that the enemy started slaughtering each other. Then as now, the lesson is that only God gives the victory over evil.
What If I Can't Love Enough?
The most important truth about spiritual warfare is that it is first and foremost a work of love. Not love for the struggle, or the love of "saving souls" or of victory. It's a work of love for God's Kingdom, and love for the people Jesus was crucified over -- which is each and every one. Some people have an easier time with loving. Their emotional makeup and life circumstances make it easier for them to make their love effective. It's much easier to love if you've been loved. Many people have a much harder time of loving. They're burdened with a heavy load of taunting, fear, oppression from people or institutions, or mental illness. Or worse, they haven't experienced love from anyone and so have no idea what it really is or what it does or how to give it.
The hard truth, though, is no one has enough love on their own for the fight. In Matthew 7:7, Jesus says to ask and it will be given. So ask God to enable you to love with God's love. The Spirit's more than happy to give you this. But like everything else God gives, it's made to be real. It will take stubborn, regular prayer, taking risks, and maybe some hard lessons and changes in outlook, for the love to start flowing out of you. If the love isn't there, it's like going into battle unarmed and unprepared, straight into the line of fire.
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Who/What is Satan?
Some things must be said first about Satan, before we go any further:
Thing 1: Belief in the existence of Satan is not an essential of Christian belief. You can fully reject all belief in an Accuser and still be a believer in the Christian orthodox beliefs. It may be hard to honestly live the life of following Christ without recognizing that there is powerful and active malevolence afoot in human life. The absence of a Satan may sound correct, but please consider that it may not be so.
If so, then thing 1-b: You also do not have to believe any of the traditional and un-traditional descriptions of Satan, whether drawn from Jewish apocalyptic stories or early Christian practice or Zoroastrian imagery or Dante Aligheri or Enlightenment art or Calvin or psychology or CS Lewis or Jack Chick or anyone else. Nor do you have to believe in demons or a realm such as Hell or such things as demonic possession. Not even if you believe in active malevolence. You can leave Satan undescribed, or create your own description, and if it's done with some care, you can still be a follower of Christ.
If so, then thing 1-c: Christians who do not believe that there's a Satan are not 'allied with the enemy', consciously or unconsciously. Their task is to follow Christ and live the life Christ wants them to live, as the Spirit leads them to live it. As they do that, they're in Christ's camp with you, no matter what they think of your view of supernatural or spiritual matters, or you theirs. Treat each other accordingly. Unless you do, you are acting satanically.
Thing 2: However, if such an entity really exists, it really doesn't matter much if we think it's harmful to conceive of evil in this way, or if we think we'd be more at peace with ourselves without the idea of an entity behind evil, or if we think the human race should grow out of it, etc. etc.. What matters most is not what you or I or the whole rest of humankind thinks, or would like to think, or thinks is most beneficial. What matters most is what actually is. I'm personally convinced such an entity (in whatever way it may be described) actually IS. And if it is, then all those intelligent, rational thoughts telling us it *isn't* take us away from really dealing with what evil is doing. That would do even more harm than does the image of a personal devil.
Satan in Scripture
So, what kind of a Satan do the Scriptures tell us about? The devil is shown as having will, ability, and much supernatural power, even if the power comes mostly from his skill at lies and deceit. Satan has an identity (a sense of 'I') and a purpose (or perhaps anti-purpose).
Satan is at once an instigator and a reactionary, the great ear-whisperer, the one who starts fights and the one whose reason for being (at least so far as he's concerned) is to frustrate and obstruct God's Kingdom in every way. Satan is the one who decided to have this spiritual warfare; God would rather give love than wage war. The Devil is more than a match for any person standing on his or her own, or for that matter any group of human beings. We're not cunning enough to out-wit Satan on our own because we are out of kilter with the only One who has the power to defeat Satan. But you're not on your own. Christ, by coming into the created world, calls Satan's bluffs and flushes him out from where he lurks. But the key thing to remember is that no matter where the idea to do evil comes from, you are the one who makes the decision of what to do, and you are responsible for your actions and the results thereof. The devil didn't make you do anything.
The Devil is not an anti-god. The Devil is more like a sham god, a face without a person behind it, all apparition and no substance. Satan can tempt, but can never fully be, due to the absence of love. Satan, like the archangel he once was, can't make us do anything. Martin Luther likened Satan to a snarling dog that is chained in place, who can only do you real harm if you're foolish enough to come too close. All Satan can do is use cunning tricks to play off our weaknesses and circumstances, to lead us to choose to do things which suck the life, hope, and energy out of ourselves and others -- especially others who did nothing to harm us. And each time we do, we act like Satan, and we lose a bit of the person behind our own face.
Satan is said to have servants, too. These 'demons' or 'bad angels' do the day-to-day whisperings, the temptations within each moment of daily life. Give them a centimeter and they will try to take a kilometer.
One can only start 'spiritual warfare' from the point of view of 'spiritual welfare'. In both senses of the word 'welfare'.
- 'Welfare' in terms of one's spiritual good. Satan looks for weakness, and exploits places in our life where we allow ourselves to be a sham. The art of turning oneself over to God and partaking in God's friendship is at the heart of all the Christian forms of spiritual discipline. When one does that, there's much less room for Satan's torments. We also can fight Satan by praying for the 'spiritual welfare' of others (a form of 'intercessory prayer', which itself flows from love).
- 'Welfare' also in the sense of the US social services program. For we all are spiritually-impoverished vagabonds with no way to support ourselves. Only God can win the spiritual struggles. If we depend on our own resources, we get tangled in the web and eaten by the Spider. There is no place for personal pride in spiritual warfare. We share in God's victory -- the empty tomb -- but only as far as we share in God's loss -- the cross. The cross is a moment of being emptied into self-surrender. The cross is where 'spiritual warfare' starts. The cross is the model of how to fight 'spiritual warfare'.
Satan and Spiritual Life
"The devil sees nothing more abominable than a truly humble Christian, for [that Christian] is just the opposite of [the devil's] own image."
-------- Hans Nielsen Hauge
The spiritual gifts, most especially discernment and wisdom, are there in part to thwart Satan's efforts to put people in bondage. Satan's into this bondage stuff -- he's really one hyper-kinky dude. Satan can use whips, chains, domination and submission, but usually doesn't. More often, Satan uses twisted ideas, the lure of sex, victory and wealth and power, manipulations, fear, vengeance, self-images of shame and blame, half-truths, and the burning anger of being wronged. Satan uses the show, drained of substance; the excitement, drained of reasons to celebrate. Satan deals marked cards from stacked decks, hands us loaded dice, and then urges us to gamble. Such things are Satan's idea of spiritual discipline, or more accurately, dis-spiritual un-discipline. And just as spiritual disciplines help to open us up more to the Holy Spirit, indulging in an evil way of life opens us up to an inner anarchy which (like all anarchies) eventually turns in on itself to crave authoritarian rule from the one who most wants that kind of absolute power.
You could choose to do something else, and that idea would not usually be from the Devil. But that idea would still have to be chosen *against* when there is a more Christlike response to be chosen *for*. Living as a Christian is not a neutral thing; it presses on to a higher calling. Thus spiritual warfare could be something like choosing not to abort that child, or choosing not to throw that punch or draw that knife, or choosing to stop trying to be a hip hop star so you can have time to work with troubled teens, or choosing not to work overtime because your family needs your presence more than your money. Even things you're allowed to do, things you are morally justified in doing, things that would make your life a lot easier, things that create opportunities -- even those things are to be turned away, if there is a more Godly choice to make. The fight is fought in you and among the parts of society around you, in every moment. Every decision can be an act of spiritual warfare.
The Devil never really 'possesses' (owns) anyone or any thing. The world is in revolt, but it is still the Creator's world, and the Devil can't change that. The Greek New Testament term for 'possession' is daimonizomai, which can be seen several ways. One way is to see it as demonic influence, where one is so twisted up by heeding the devil that one becomes 'demonized' - made like the Devil. The other way is as a demonic energy or impulse that not only stirs up evil in a person, but enables that person to do the Devil's work with an ability or power beyond what they would otherwise have -- a demonic dynamism. Bondage is created either way. It takes the bigger dynamism of Christ to free someone from that bondage, and it takes 'Christ-ization' to keep them free.
What Kind of Truth Sets Us Free?
It's common for people to say "the truth will set you free". But mere factual knowledge, standing on its own, can't do anything to the Devil. The more we know, the more places Satan can grip in order to twist our minds. And even if somehow you were able to know how to stop Satan from twisting your knowledge, Satan could still get at you through your body, with accident or tempting sensations or illness. And even if you were able (as Job was) to defy Satan as he works against your body, Ol' Scratch could still scratch away at you through your relationships. And so on. There are just too many ways to get at us.
There is a truth that sets us free. One truth that gives strength to all the other truths. Jesus, the Christ. And, since the key truth is a person not a thing, our freedom is found not in mere knowledge but in our relationship with that person. In a relationship, you bring all aspects of yourself into play : thoughts, knowledge, feelings, experiences, memories, deeds, tastes, time. If everything about you is involved somehow with Christ, it doesn't matter what angle of approach Satan uses, Christ will already be there. Even the Devil's worst wickedness can be turned into good by God. The Christ who wins the spiritual battles is the same Christ who won the war. What could be more secure than that?
Quotes To Think About
"I am persuaded that the powers of darkness have pulled off an amazing coup. While the American Church is undoubtedly the wealthiest church ever in education, discretionary time, and money, a major segment of that church has been lured into believing it cannot make a difference for world peace or social justice. Ironically, in this deterministic view of the future, not only can't the church make a difference, neither can God. This eschatology of despair unwittingly seems to lock God outside of history, characterizing God as an important absentee landlord who is unable to effect any real change in the present world. All God gets to do is bring down the final curtain at the end of history."
------- Tom Sine, in *Sojourners* magazine, regarding the kinds of end-times theories circulating in the Fundamentalist and Pentecostalist circles.
"The Devil is easy to identify. He appears when you're terribly tired and makes a very reasonable request which you know you shouldn't grant."
------- Fiorello La Guardia, former mayor of New York City
"Those who are their own god will end up consigning themselves to the Hell they built for their enemies."
------- Unknown, on-line.
"When it comes to being possessed, ask not whether you have been a little loony; ask rather whether lying has become your life-style."
------- Lewis Smedes, *A Pretty Good Person*, p.102
Is there something you read here that seems off-kilter, or is there something important that's missing? Email me at this link. I intend to have a new page responding to your comments in detail sometime by the end of 2015. Come back and see what's on it.
If you're studying spiritual warfare as a group, ask these questions among yourselves, and share your answers with the group.
- Do you think that you've ever met Satan? (I'm not talking 'symbolically', or 'it was like Satan' -- I mean the real presence of the Evil One, so strong you can almost touch it.) What was that like?
- If you've ever chosen to come forward publicly to do something in Christ's name: did things start happening which drew your attention away from doing it? What sort of things? Did you do it anyway?
- How would you define spiritual warfare? What does it mean, to you?
- The theme of Jesus' Lordship runs throughout the letters of John and Paul, most notably in Philippians 2:9-11. Try to picture how Jesus' reign would break into your life. What would it be like?
- In what ways can our thoughts or feelings be 'twisted'? In what ways has this happened to you?
- There are times when parts of the Christian church have been 'twisted' into deep evil. Can you think of an example? What happened to bring the church out of it?
- How do you react when you see or hear similes or images (in movies, TV, music, or in books) that represent deep evil and the demonic? Does anything stir in you? Do you ever think about having powers and using them on others? What can or should Christians do about the use of these images, if anything?