Following some early teenage exposure to such ‘Classics Of Christian Literature’ as Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and (the now discredited) Mike Warnke’s Satan Seller, I became firmly convinced about the reality of spiritual warfare. I imagined this warfare as one might expect of a teenage boy who’d grown up reading mostly marvel comics, fantasy and sci-fi novels. The angels and demons were flying magical beings engaged in an epic cosmic war stretching back thousands of years, with the eternal fate of each human soul hanging in the balance whenever the opposing powers engaged in battle. Behind each human decision was a secret and unseen spiritual struggle for influence: the angels with their mighty wings, shiny armour, double-edged swords; the demons, rather like Tolkien’s orcs, were grotesque distortions of their former angelic selves, malformed and skulking about in the darkness, all talons and scales, yet no less deadly when aroused to battle.
In addition to such local skirmishes, I imagined a hierarchy of the angelic and demonic powers stretching both up and down, as it were, in an inter-dimensional chain of command from foot-soldiers, to sergeants, to captains, to generals, to the Lord of Hosts Himself, the Prince of Heaven on his heavenly throne, and of course in reverse, his not-equal in the demonic realms: Lucifer, once the greatest of all the angels, barking orders from his diabolical war-room in hell. Each layer in this hierarchy having power to exert greater and greater influence over the affairs of the world, from the individual, to families, to neighbourhoods, to whole towns, then cities, then regions, then states/provinces, then whole countries, and so forth, right up to influencing the weather and natural events like earthquakes and volcanoes. Somehow the activity of these spiritual beings did not impinge on human freedom or on the culpability of humans for their own choices and actions, nevertheless they played an important role in creating and shaping desire, in influencing thoughts and behaviour, and engineering circumstances toward either a good or an evil outcome.
As it happens, I still think that some elements of the above description are true, but it’s perhaps less influenced these days by Marvel and Peretti, and more by my reading of Scripture, the writings of C.S. Lewis, and (oddly enough) George Orwell.
In Animal Farm, an allegorical fairy tale about the events leading up to and following the Russian revolution, Orwell describes how easy it is for well-meaning ideals and aspirations to become corrupted by greed and power, and that it is rarely obvious this is happening until much too late. He shows how the ‘state’ can become a force for unimaginable evil and injustice, one small bureaucratic decision at a time. How otherwise good people can become co-opted by this or that -ism, and end up committing atrocities which, perhaps even a few short weeks prior, would have been an unimaginable horror to the perpetrator.
I’m almost certain this wasn’t Orwell’s intention, being an atheist and all that, but his work has helped me to understand how the human propensity toward evil and the presence of demonic powers can interact to influence our actions. The animals on the farm don’t necessarily set out to at the beginning of the story to become corrupted. However, by giving their consent to certain ‘distasteful but necessary’ decisions (such as the exile or execution of a fellow animal), either explicitly or implicitly - by refusing to speak up when such things violate their conscience (or by seeing what happens to those who do) - slowly but surely, one small decision after another, fear, intimidation, greed, violence, the lust for power and wealth, do their inevitably corrupting work. The book begins with the farm animals displacing their human owners in a revolution intended to create a more free and equal society. Unfortunately, these good intentions cannot cover over the means by which the revolution unfolds, and the animals end up creating what is essentially a slave-labour camp run by the pigs: a state of affairs exponentially worse than when the farm was run by humans.
A cautionary tale, Animal Farm reminded me of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. It begins with the mundane and ordinary, the basic desire for food: “turn these stones into bread”, and ends in a full blown offer of world domination: “I can give you all the kingdoms of the world... just bow down and worship me.” We’ve all been in this scenario, haven’t we? Obviously I don’t mean the offer of absolute power, but we’ve all been tempted to achieve a hoped-for outcome by taking an unrighteous short cut.
It’s no big deal, we tell ourselves. It’s just this one small thing. Hardly important in the scheme of things.
Indeed, it appears like it’s no big deal, at least initially. Over time however, it is amazing how far off-course we end up by taking a few small steps in the wrong direction. Rarely does the devil come and tempt us to do something hideously evil right off the bat, instead, we are encouraged away from what is good and best by choosing to write small IOU’s on our holiness for short-terms gains. It always starts out this way. But the debts accumulate. No one intends to get addicted to drugs or porn, or loose control of their anger, or commit adultery, or spend themselves into disastrous levels of debt, or become a workaholic, but it so easily happens. At first it’s barely noticeable: it’s just one less-than-ideal decision, and then another, and following the law of diminishing returns, we become more and more comfortable with the compromises we are making. By either explicit or implicit consent, like the hungry Esau, we can end up being willing to sell our birthright in the heat of a short term need. This is the nexus of spiritual warfare.
I do believe in the reality of the angelic and demonic powers; I do believe that there is a mysterious layer of spiritual activity going on around us that we neither see nor easily understand. The Bible takes these realities for granted, although it’s not really given a great deal of detailed explanation, which is probably the case because we don’t actually need to know too much about it. Or such knowledge might be very dangerous for us. It’s never made entirely clear, for example, how demonic activity interacts with the various lusts of our sinful desires - the ‘flesh‘ - in a moment of temptation. Is it the proverbial ‘demon on the shoulder‘ whispering diabolical suggestions in our ears, manipulating our thoughts? We don’t know. What Scripture is clear about is this: temptation is real, spiritual warfare is real, human behaviour is never excused from moral responsibility despite it, and this is because most importantly, despite our sinful nature we do have power to resist. For example, in 1 Peter 5:8 we are told:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of test. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have struggled a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
This is but one example of dozens in the New Testament that assumes the devil is a present reality, whose desire is to destroy anyone ‘whom he may devour.’ This means that presumably there are those whom he may not devour. Indeed, we are among them because we have power in Christ to overcome. We do this by humbling ourselves before God, standing our ground and refusing to give in. There are no special secrets to it. It begins by exercising our freedom in Christ to resist, and ends in God giving us strength to carry on.
And contrary to the way I’ve heard this portrayed as simply ‘religious rule keeping’, we don’t do this simply to be morally good, but because as image bearers of God it is what makes us fully human. As the 2nd century Bishop Irenaeus once said: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Pursuing holiness and seeking goodness is about living into Shalom, living into the life God intended for us in creation, which is the path to our truest joy and deepest satisfaction. The New Testament writers understood that spiritual warfare is an essential component of this, and it begins by being “alert and sober minded.” What do they mean by this?
I think this quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters may help explain it. For those unfamiliar with this work, it is a book composed of a series of letters written from an older and more experienced demon called Screwtape to his young nephew Wormwood, who is an apprentice in the temptation business. It is an insightful and often very profound work that explores the interaction of demonic influence on human psychology, human will, and human desire. In this exchange, Screwtape is advising young Wormwood on how to distract his human subject away from a dangerous train of thought, that is, a train of thought that was progressing towards belief in God. Since this is written from the backwards perspective of a demon, the ‘Enemy’ in this passage is, of course, God, and the ‘Father’ is the Devil:
“Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line for when I said ‘Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning’, the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added ‘ Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,’ he was already half way to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of ‘real life’ (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all ‘that sort of thing’ just couldn’t be true. He knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about ‘that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic’. He is now safe in our Father’s house.”
What I find most insightful here is how simple it was for Screwtape to distract his human away from what was most important, by a few rumbles of the stomach and a good dose of ‘real life’. This is why Peter calls us to be alert, to be aware, because rarely, if ever, is temptation immediately apparent as such. The devil, Scripture tells us, appears to us as an “angel of light”; he is a liar because he deceives. This is why we must pray for the constant guidance and conviction of the Holy Spirit, who has been given to lead us into all truth.
This is what Lent is about: putting aside our hubris and coming awake to the presence and conviction of the Spirit; praying to become more aware and alert to the many ways we have been deceived and lead astray from our true calling, whether by our own sinful nature or by the deceptions of the evil one. Taking time to confess and repent, as we’ve been doing together on Sundays around the communion table, “of the evil we have done, and the good we have left undone.” We have been asking God to forgive us, and renew us in the Spirit that we might “perfectly love him”, and “worthily magnify his holy name.” To confess and repent and receive forgiveness is so essential to our spiritual health. It brings us before God in humility, it reorients us toward Shalom, toward love and good deeds, toward Jesus our Saviour and Lord, and toward the freedom he purchased for us on the cross. This is what Peter means by “standing our ground”; regardless of what might be going on around us or in us, we resolve to keep our hearts firmly fixed on Jesus.
To practice Lent is to engage in spiritual warfare.
Indeed, the whole purpose of Lent may be best summarised by James 4:6-10 -
‘God opposes the proud
but shows favour to the humble.’
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
May God bless you as you continue in your Lenten fast. I leave you with this beautiful Lent prayer by theologian Walter Brueggemann:
We pray as often as we meet,
that we might “perfectly love you.”
Indeed, we have been commanded from the beginning,
to love you with all our hearts and
all our souls and
all our minds and
all our strength.
We have pledged to love,
pledged in our prayers and in our baptism,
in our confirmation and with our best resolve.
But we confess . . .
we love you imperfectly;
we love you with a divided heart,
with a thousand other loves
that are more compelling,
with reservation and qualification,
and passion withheld and
We do not now come to pretend before you,
but to confess that we do not,
as we are,
love you perfectly;
we do not keep your commands;
we do not order our lives by your purpose;
we do not tilt toward you as our deepest affection.
But we would . . .
we would love you more perfectly,
by the taste of bread become your flesh,
by the swallow of wine become your blood,
by the praise of our lips and beyond our usual reasoning,
by the commandments that are not burden but joy to us,
by embracing your passion for neighbors,
by your ways of justice and peace and mercy,
by honoring the world you have made
and all creatures great and small,
by self-care that knows you as our creator.
Lead us past our shabby compromises
and our cheap devotion;
lead us into singleness of vision
and purity of heart,
that we may will one thing,
and answer back in love to your great love to us.
Free us from idolatries
and our habits of recalcitrance
tender our hearts,
gentle our lips,
open our hands,
that we may turn toward you fully
toward your world unguardedly.
Let us bask in your freedom
to be fully yours, and
so trusting fully our own.
We pray through the Lord Jesus who loved you
singularly, perfectly, fully—to the end.