A lot is said (in some circles) about “spiritual warfare,” and not all of it is helpful or even correct. It’s not about challenging the foul hordes of hell in a confrontational combat, or thinking that one can cast out demons just because he knows how to say the name of Jesus, nor is it something that requires our constant focus on the presence of the dark powers. Yet it is undeniable that spiritual warfare is an element of Christian life that is ignored only at one’s peril. I’d like to take a brief look at the Scriptures and human experience to see if we can get a good understanding of the essentials.
St Peter takes the warfare to a new level, a kind of gut level that speaks more to our personal struggles. He beseeches us, “as aliens and exiles” (that in itself sets the context—our citizenship is not here; we’re on pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland and so must not get complacent), “to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul” (1Peter 2:11). Our warfare is not entirely on the offensive, routing Legion’s legions, but it seems to be more often than not on the defensive, since Peter says here that it is the sinful passions that are waging war on us. Here’s what he says to do about it: “Gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all you do… Conduct yourself with reverence throughout the time of your exile” (1:13-17).
Finally (for this post, anyway), Paul gives us the classic text: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood [i.e., human beings], but against… the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (read the rest for yourself, Ephesians 6:10-18). He lists as our armor and weaponry: truth, the Gospel of peace, faith, the hope of salvation, the word of God and prayer.
Even though we have all these grace-giving counsels and alerts, we may find that in our own experience we either don’t take them very seriously, thinking that we’re more or less OK and don’t need to get all concerned about warding off demonic attacks, or that the demons are so cunning, vicious, and relentless that the spiritual remedies seem ineffectual. In the former case, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall, or have already unwittingly allowed ourselves to slide into the acceptance of a gradual deception, a noose that gets a little tighter each day until it’s too late to extricate ourselves from its stranglehold. In the latter case, we must simply increase our prayer, our efforts, our recourse to the sacraments and the saints and angels, trusting that God will not let us be hammered into submission before He comes to rescue us.
Before we can effectively fight we have to recognize what is going on, for the “passions that wage war against your soul” are not always the same for everyone, and not always the same at different stages of the same person’s life. For some, there really is a kind of face to face struggle with demonic manifestations, but these are quite rare, so we needn’t dwell on that here. For others, there are the smokescreens that lead to unbelief, indifference or despair (remember the last post—the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right), or the blinding power of money or prestige, and the sour fruit of pride in its many dimensions.
For others it may be the seductive power of lust, which also comes in many forms. This is particularly insidious, because the sexual drive, unlike inclinations to unbelief, pride and avarice, was placed in us by God as something good, part of his divine plan for love between man and woman, and for the propagation of the human race. The devil, however, is ingenious in coming up with ways to pervert it, and his works are becoming more perverse and ubiquitous every day. This inner drive is not something that can be willed away, or prayed and fasted out of existence. Insofar as it is a fundamental biological drive, it is irrational, and here is the point at which spiritual efforts may seem to stall. You can’t reason with it, you can’t quote Scripture to it, you can’t silence it even by taking up your cross and following Jesus (even though that is the only path to resisting its obstinate demands). It is the gut-wrenching power of this dark irrationality that constitutes war waged on the soul (it may be that other passions, for other reasons, exercise a similarly tenacious force in our lives; each has to examine his own experience and conscience). See, the Apostles were not just tossing around clever phrases or peddling platitudes, they were talking seriously about matters that are life or death for the soul. And that is why we have to take spiritual warfare seriously.
St James gives us the two-edged sword of spiritual warfare: "Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you" (4:7-8). Resist the devil and draw near to God. We must do both, and our primary focus must be on God. If you only resist the devil, but do not immediately draw near to God, you are setting yourself up for a major disaster (see Luke 11:24-26).
After nearly completing a draft of this post, I went into my room to pray a while. Almost immediately some sort of bee or fly, in an evidently suicidal rage, began to hurl itself repeatedly at my window, making an annoying tapping sound. I could have ended the annoyance by simply opening the window, but then what greater havoc might the little kamikaze have wrought if I had let it into my room? The situation is not unlike our struggle with temptation. Sure, you can relieve the annoyance of its insistent suggestions by simply opening the window of your soul and giving in to it. But once inside, the damage it does is far worse than mere annoyance or even harassment. It begins to eat away at your spirit and it is much harder to get rid of. Finally tiring of battering himself against a closed window, the bee gave up and I was left to pray in peace. A word to the wise…
We don’t want to focus on the devil or give him too much credit for his influence in our lives (remember that St James says that falls from grace are due to the “lure and enticement of your own desire,” 1:14). But just in case there is some spiritual enemy leading us down a path that is not good for our souls, we ought to pray that it may be unmasked, so that we can get a good look at the beast that lurks behind those suggestions to do what is not God’s will for us. We would hardly race with desire toward a stinking and grotesque drooling monster but, as I also mentioned in the last post, evil can assume pleasing forms in order to seduce us—before zeroing in for the kill.
So put on that armor of God! There may be some things that are not within our power to control, but our will is always ours to exercise freely, and that, once we have sustained ourselves with all possible means of grace, will be our final stronghold. Fierce though the attack may be, we can still say (or scream, or croak): No! “Man does not live by bread [i.e., material things, human satisfactions] alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.” That is how Jesus waged war in his own time of temptation. He will stand by us, even if apparently unhelpful in the fray (as St Anthony the Great once complained after a terrible tussle with demons). But his grace is invisibly with us, his reward is in his hand, and his mercy is upon those who struggle for his sake and the sake of the Gospel. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).