Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers understand what spiritual warfare is, strategies to engage biblically in spiritual warfare, and how to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.

maxresdefaultIt was one of the scariest moments of prayer I have ever had. A young woman in our congregation expressed to me that she was being harassed with blasphemous thoughts every time she read the Bible to her son. I was concerned that she might be experiencing demonic oppression and so our pastoral team gathered to pray over her. It was a time of praying for the power of the Spirit of God, and yet I was very much aware of spiritual realities that were beyond my control. It was a somewhat terrifying experience.

Whenever people ask me if spiritual warfare is a real thing I think about that time of prayer. These dramatic demonstrations, however, are far less common for the majority of believers. Spiritual warfare is far more subtle and routine.

A Brief Look at 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 and Ephesians 6:10-18

The Scriptures speak frequently about the routine nature of spiritual warfare in the life of the believer. The whole of the Christian life is referred to as a battle in the New Testament. Perhaps the clearest description of this reality is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He writes:

Ephesians 6:10-13, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”

Notice that Paul says several important things about our spiritual war in this text. He establishes that the devil has schemes, that we wrestle, and that we have God on our side.

First, he establishes that the devil has schemes. The devil is planning and launching a strategy to attack believers. He does this primarily in one of two ways: (1) temptation, and (2) accusation. Satan works first to tempt us with sin. He convinces us that what we want he can provide. In these moments he is hiding from us the holiness of God, telling us like he told Eve “God won’t really care if you disobey.” At other times, however, Satan works to accuse us. He uses this tactic to hide from us the love of God. In these moments he reminds us of our sin, tell us we can’t be forgiven, we can’t change, and he leaves us defeated and discouraged. Both tactics are highly effective and can work in tandem. Both schemes are lies, and we need to be able to spot them when he throws such fiery darts at us.

If we can spot Satan’s schemes then we are better prepared for the wrestling part of our spiritual warfare. That’s what Paul calls it, “wrestling.” We wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil. This is depicted in Scripture often as a mental struggle. That is to say, since what we believe often drives how we live Paul calls us to battle against sinful arguments that would attempt to shield us from the true knowledge of God and His will. So in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 Paul writes:

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,  6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”

Spiritual warfare often looks like fighting tempting thoughts in our mind, sinful deceits that come to us, and convince us to disobey God. In the Corinthian passage, the focus is on the arguments of false teachers, but often in our own lives, we are feeding ourselves false teachings. Satan is offering them up to us like he did with Eve, and we are eating the fruit again and again. Resisting such alluring thoughts, refusing to entertain them, is not easy! That is most assuredly a battle. I recall one young lady I counseled years ago who struggled with compulsive tendencies. She told me honestly in a session once that saying no to the sinful thoughts in her head when they arose was so painful that sometimes it made her sick to her stomach. It is hard to wrestle, to battle temptation in our minds.

Satan plays too on our emotions, our relationships, and our physical nature. We need to recognize the ways in which Satan can use all these common things to deceive us, manipulate us, and tempt us to bite the hook of some false teaching. We need to wrestle against such temptation. The encouragement Paul gives us in this battle is found in his references to the “armor of God.” We do not fight alone, we fight, indeed we can “stand firm” if we put on the “full armor of God.”

What does this look like? Ephesians 6:14-18 outlines the pieces of this armor:

Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,  15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.  16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;  17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,  18praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.”

Truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, Scripture, and prayer, these are the elements of our armor. This is how we defend ourselves against Satan’s attack. These elements are direct responses to Satan’s attacks. Satan tempts us to believe lies, so we need to preach truth to ourselves. He teaches us to substitute our own righteousness for that of Christ’s, but you and I have no righteousness. Meditate on the gospel, fight against self-righteousness. The devil tempts us to disbelieve God, we need to cling to faith. The devil seeks to distract us from evangelism and prayer. We need to be actively involved in these disciplines. Spiritual warfare often means doing the normal activities of the Christian life. Most significantly it means studying the Word of God which is the only offensive weapon we have. We fight against Satan by knowing God’s Word well.

There are other passages that support the reality of spiritual warfare too. Peter warns us that our enemy roams around like a lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Paul describes his thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan, sent to torment him (2 Cor. 12:7). James too warns us to that we should “resist the devil” (James 4:7). Such warnings come because Satan attacks believers.

Some Final Thoughts

Most people think of spiritual warfare in a more elaborate and dramatic fashion. They think of spiritual warfare in terms of identifying, naming, and “binding” territorial spirits. There is simply no Biblical evidence to support such a theology. The often cited Daniel chapter 10 does make a connection between the demons and territories, but there is no Biblical guide to naming, confronting, and “binding” such spirits. The truth is that Satan’s attacks are far more subtle than we often think. He has had such great success working through our own temptations, struggles, and thoughts that he doesn’t need big demonstrations of power in our lives. There are instances, no doubt, of dramatic demonic presence. I know many people who have witnessed first-hand the supernatural evil of which Satan is capable: demon possession and demon oppression. I am still unnerved when I think about that prayer from our previous church. Most of us, however, will encounter far more subtle attacks from our enemy. That’s where the real wrestling happens, and we should be prepared for it by dressing in the armor of God.

Satan loves for us to go to extremes. So if we can either become obsessed with Satan or ignorant of Satan he considers that a victory. Some people know that spiritual warfare is real and they see Satan behind every flat tire, lost set of keys, and bout of the flu. This is not a healthy perspective. When we do this we give the devil too much credit. We must remember who the real sovereign Lord is; Jesus is on His throne, not in His tomb! He is Lord and He sovereignly directs the events and details of our lives. We can trust Him. Remember that it was pride which caused Satan to fall from heaven, he loves the attention. Don’t give him more than he deserves!

On the other hand, we should not be ignorant of Satan’s schemes and devices (2 Cor. 2:11). There are some who are living as though this life is a season of peace. We are at war, and we ought to dress for action and ready ourselves for wrestling. To be ignorant is to surrender. Don’t give Satan more credit than he deserves, but don’t pretend that he isn’t real. He is prowling around like a lion, be on your guard.

Spiritual warfare is a real thing, but it is far less dramatic for most of us than we think. For most of us spiritual warfare will look routine and commonplace. It will look like resisting sinful thoughts, committing to plodding obedience, and studying Scripture. Such an approach to routine attacks will better serve us when we do see the dramatic.