It doesn’t take long for a Christian to realize that accepting Christ enlists them in a struggle. We learn very quickly that God has an enemy, Satan. He can’t really do anything about God’s plans since what God had purposed he will bring about (Ephesians 1:11). But there is the case for him to frustrate God’s people.
One passage that clearly identifies this is Ephesians 6:11-12:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
As Christians, we must rightfully understand that there are forces at work against us, that there is a spiritual warfare occurring. In fact, I am observing an increased focus in Christian messaging on spiritual warfare. However, I am concerned that spiritual warfare has been amplified in both content and practice to the extent of producing an unwarranted militancy. What has been construed as a wrestle beyond flesh and blood has translated into a war-like posture that makes us take a proactive charge against Satan, and sometimes in a physically hostile way. It peppers our language and produces prescriptions of seizing authority over Satan and his demons. We take certain passages of scripture as charging the Christian to fight the devil.
I contend that what has developed into a war-like motif of taking aggression against demonic activity is a misplaced emphasis on how struggles against us are overcome. There are other passages that get overlooked in this aggressive posture and these passages indicate that we have no cause to fight the devil. Moreover, nowhere in scripture is the Christian charged to fight the devil.
There is no doubt that the New Testament is full of imagery of arsenal and warfare. For example looking at the fuller Ephesians passage, it does seem to suggest that we should take a posture of fighting.
Finally, by strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all of this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayer and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:10-18)
The first thing to note is that while there is a spiritual battle, what we are fighting against are the devil’s schemes. These are strategies and methods sourced in lies. It is a tactic to get us to doubt or give in to temptation, in the same way the serpent tempted Eve. But the second thing to note is that the governing verb in this passage is “stand”. The counteraction against these strategies is not to fight the devil but to stand firm. I also note in 1 Peter 5:8-9 and James 4:7 that our charge is to resist. This is how we fight, by resisting and putting on the whole armor of God. It is not taking a charge against the devil but a resistance that is sourced in who we are and what we have. Every one of those components speaks to something that has already been provided for us. The only offensive weapon cited here is wielding the sword of the Spirit. We proactively counteract strategies with the word of God – believing it and living it.
Another passage that I believe contributes to hyper-militancy is 2 Corinthians 10:3-6
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your disobedience is complete.
Certainly, this passage is chalk-full of war imagery. But I believe the imagery is designed not to encourage an outward hostile militancy on our part, but to demonstrate how radical a shift the Christian worldview is from the pagan society in the 1st century Greco-Roman society. This is particularly relevant in Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry, which is the premise of this passage. It is meant to highlight the seriousness of the spiritual warfare that existed in this environment and should compel the same level of seriousness in contemporary times. But it is not an encouragement to engage in hostile behavior.
Secondly, what is it that is being fought? – arguments that exalt themselves against the knowledge of God. It is a way of thinking that is contradictory to the revelation of God. The weaponry in this case is not to charge against the devil but charge against contradictory philosophies. How is it counteracted? – by taking thoughts captive and making them obedient. I contend this can be as quiet as surrendering to the will of God, aligning our thinking according to his will and ways and taking serious the call of obedience to scripture. This is in line with Romans 12:2 – “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Moreover, I contend that a significant attention towards Satan is misdirected and myopic. Everything I’ve described points to the enemy of a worldly philosophy that is sourced in self-reliance and opposition to God. But there is also the flesh. Many times the outward focus is misplaced because we need to direct the attention inward. There is a serious enemy called “I” and seeks to rebel and have its way at all costs. There is an internal sin struggle that believers face, as outlined Romans 7:14-25. I note that vv 21 and 23 indicate there is a principle of sin at work seeking our downfall. This is why James says “a man sins when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed.” (James 1:13) and why Paul commends to not yield ourselves to sin to be its master (Romans 6:11-14). We can be our own worst enemies.
And this does get to what I think is the misplaced counter-strategy that we have engaged with in spiritual warfare. I get the sense from a more outwardly militant approach to spiritual warfare that we are working side by side with God fighting the enemy. But this negates the victory that Christ already gained over him at the cross. As believers, we have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and translated into the kingdom (Colossians 1:13). We are united to Christ and found in him (Ephesians 1:1-8; Romans 6:3-7). We are not fighting alongside him. Though there is a proactive response required on our part, the battle is the Lord’s.
So our warfare does not have to look militant or hostile. It can be lived out quietly when we surrender to Christ, follow after the Spirit and engage in intense prayer as noted in Ephesians 6:18. It is being kind when we don’t want to or loving that otherwise unlovable and difficult brother or sister. It is seeking the concern of others and the Christian community above ourselves. It is being obedient to scripture when temptation says otherwise. It is allowing ourselves to be conformed to the image of Christ and living that out in meaningful and tangible ways. I don’t know about you, but seems pretty radical to me.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]