As Christian authors of speculative fiction writing about spiritual warfare, about facing the Devil in combat, we may chose to include the Devil in the story. Or we may write a character inspired by Satan, but not under that name. Or perhaps we’d chose not to directly write about spiritual war at all, focusing on other themes. But overall we need to realize that when we are discussing spiritual warfare (if we do so), we are talking about fighting the works of the Devil–actions inspired and directed by Satan.
Maybe ironically, our most important tools in this continual spiritual battle derive from us focusing on obeying God (and of course Jesus) through the power of the Holy Spirit, not on us performing special prayers or actions to keep the Devil at bay (though praying against Satan is a real thing and can be useful). Remember, as identified in the last two posts in this series, the Devil’s primary goal is to corrupt by both getting God’s people to violate what they know is true (by committing sin) and to believe things that are not true (by persuasively presenting false doctrine). We combat these main goals by living genuinely righteous lives that honor God and by understanding and defending truth. Not by directly going against Satan–though we need to be aware of the Devil and alert to what he does.
This topic is bigger than one post, so this first part will address what the Bible says about spiritual war and the next post will offer suggestions on how Christian writers can apply an understanding of spiritual warfare to our works of fiction. Or in other words, how our artistic works can have an important role in the spiritual war that rages around us at all times, though largely invisible to our eyes (like cyberwarfare).
The tightrope walker’s irony as related to spiritual war:
The “tightrope walker’s irony” is a phrase I may be inventing–I don’t recall hearing it elsewhere. But what I mean is the tightrope walker’s most important job is to stay on the rope he or she walks across. There are a number of things tightrope walkers do to perform this act. They often bend the knees a little and they frequently carry a pole held horizontally to help them balance. They maintain awareness of the rope at all times, but what they don’t do is actually look at the rope, at least not near their feet. Ironically, looking down at the rope hurts their ability to stay on it. Their gaze remains fixed in parallel to the rope, or at most, looking at the rope in the distance. They do not focus down on the part of the rope their feet touch.
This irony explains why the Devil is mentioned many times in Scripture yet is not the primary focus of any part of Scripture. Our war with the Devil is real–yet we win mainly by focusing on God rather than Satan. In the spiritual war we fight, we mainly vanquish evil by being good, not by trying to destroy evil. Though in fact, we need to be aware of evil and confront it directly at times–especially in refusing to accommodate sin and standing against destructively false ideas of who God is and of God’s purposes and plans.
The Armor of God
The most important passage of the Bible that addresses spiritual war is one most Christians are very familiar with. The armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18 tells us specifically how to face “the wiles of the Devil” or “strategies of the Devil” or “schemes,” depending on translation (verse 11). Verses 11 and 12 make it very clear our primary enemies are not human, they are spiritual powers, reinforcing the importance of Satan in this discussion. Yet verse 10 summarizes that our response to spiritual war is to focus on God, to stand in his might, which is why being aware of the enemy is necessary, but being obsessed by him is not.
Note verse 14 starts listing what the armor is–and it isn’t some kind of magical glowing weaponry our spiritual selves adopt to protect us against invisible weapons headed our way–though that imagery is powerful and useful in stories to a degree. The armor are a set of traits needed for spiritual war, a set of qualities that directly challenge what Satan is trying to accomplish in spiritual warfare. The items are not listed in the order one first acquires them on becoming a Christian or else the “helmet of salvation” would be listed sooner. The items are listed in order of their usefulness in spiritual warfare.
Truth is the first item listed in the armor–because as I explained last week, Satan is primarily in the business of a type of war that parallels “Information Operations,” negatively or even dismissively called “propaganda.” Like in case of the serpent speaking with Eve, not all that Satan says is entirely false. But falsehood is an important element in his program to get Christians to deny God in practice by living in sin or to believe untruth. So truth, as in knowing truth, practicing truth, and speaking truth, is a top priority for Christians to succeed in spiritual warfare.
Righteousness comes second on the list. Note that since I think the “armor of God” is an extended metaphor rather than an invisible spiritual reality (as in invisible magical glowing armor), I don’t think that righteousness being equated to a breastplate is nearly as important as the role of righteousness itself. Since one of the main goals of Satan is to tempt Christians to sin, living a life in which a person submits to God and through the power of the Holy Spirit expresses the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) i.e. living a righteous life that avoids sin, prevents the Devil from obtaining one of his primary objectives in spiritual warfare. It also means that if you are living in habitual sin, you are in effect serving the Devil and fulfilling his will. Righteousness matters!
Preparation (of the gospel of peace). This attribute is slightly controversial because it’s a phrase and which element is more important? The preparation (or “readiness”)? The gospel? Or the peace? Different translations and commentaries put emphasis on different elements, but I’d say after reading this in Greek and studying a bit that the most important part is to get ready or prepare–but the preparation isn’t generalized. It’s a specific kind of preparation, one that opens the door for the “gospel of peace.” Again, not everyone agrees on this passage but I believe this means a person has to practice, learn, and study as well as build good relations with others in order to move forward (note this is compared to footwear) to share the gospel (which gives peace but also is enabled by peaceable relations).
The “peace” part I think ties into the end of 2 Timothy 2 (verses 24-26) in which the Bible says the follower of God should not quarrel but be gentle to all, not allowing falsehood to pass by with no comment, but to confront it “in humility correcting those in opposition,” with the hope that “they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil” since they have been “taken captive by him to do his will” via their false ideas. (By the way, I would not claim to have mastered gentleness as this passage describes it–but I do recognize it as important and it’s something I’m working to achieve.) I think the “peace” part of “the preparation of the gospel of peace” likewise relates to having peaceful relationships (as much as is possible), which I think relates to presenting the gospel not in pride, but “in humility.”
So the third attribute stands on its own but also shapes how we are to use truth and righteousness. With preparation–and with a goal of sharing the gospel that both brings peace and which is assisted by peaceable relations.
Faith, which is likened to a shield is specifically said to “quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (Ephesians 6:16b NKJV). This indicates that doubt is one of Satan’s primary methods of attack, because “doubt” is probably the correct antonym of “faith” in this passage. But I think the power of doubt has wound up being overemphasized by some people who look at this passage. Yes, doubt is a tool Satan uses. Recall how the serpent raised the question “Did God say?” in Genesis 3:1–but doubt wasn’t the real point and this passage on the armor of God isn’t just about doubt. Doubt was the door opener to suggesting disobeying God brings benefits (knowing good and evil) and God’s motives are corrupt (he is trying to withhold unfairly). Getting believers to doubt God is one of the Devil’s weapons but by no means the only one. And we deal with doubts not just with faith I would say, but also with truth and preparation and perhaps also even with righteousness. But faith is the primary way to face doubt, whereas doubt is a tool to getting believers to believe false things and adopt sinful lives.
Salvation is almost mentioned as an afterthought in Ephesians 6, which seems odd because believers would think salvation is primary. Maybe faith comes before salvation (or the two simultaneously) but clearly a person is not righteous, does not know very much truth, and isn’t very prepared to share the gospel of peace before first finding salvation. Likewise in an analogy of armor, warriors in the real world who have no other protection at all will either first acquire a shield or a helmet and then worry about a breastplate later. But this passage is not a treatise on how to live a successful Christian life or how to prepare for physical combat. It’s not about how to please God or how to grow as a Christian. While the armor of God is metaphorical, the spiritual warfare the armor is needed for isn’t metaphorical. Yes, first, you need to know the Lord before you can do anything else, but for those to whom this passage was first written, Christians in Ephesus, the things they most needed to fight the Devil were truth and righteousness, because that’s where the Devil mostly attacks. Yes, also preparation, faith, and most basically salvation have to be in there, too. But salvation is a requirement to be in spiritual warfare at all, rather than a specific attribute to cultivate, unlike truth, righteousness, preparation, and faith.
Word of God. I’ve heard many commentators mention that while the rest of the armor is defensive, the “sword of the spirit,” a.k.a. “the word of God” is the only offensive weapon. The problem I have with this interpretation is the next thing listed is prayer, which is also a weapon of spiritual war, one I would say has value in both offense and defense. But the metaphor dropped away by the time prayer is brought up. I guess if the metaphor had continued, prayer could have been compared to arrows, or Roman javelins–pila, flying to support our friends under attack. But I would say the flow of thought of the passage instead had moved to things that are basic and fundamental and which support what is needed for spiritual war. While the word of God can be a weapon against Satan in a way, it’s main purpose is to feed into the truth and righteousness and even the faith that we need to stand against the schemes of Satan. And when we prepare the Gospel, it’s our source of preparation, what we prepare from. So the word of God is basic, foundational to the other attributes used in spiritual war, in the same way salvation is, so with salvation winds up being listed near the last. Because this passage, again, is not about the Christian life in general, it’s about spiritual war and gives what we need to fight the enemy.
Prayer is the last thing listed, though as I already mentioned, the metaphor of armor came to an end before prayer is found in the text of Ephesians 6. But the passage makes it plain that prayer helps all believers (including ourselves) face the temptations to sin and the untruths that Satan tries to bring into the lives of our fellow Christian believers.
Notice a number of major Christian attributes are not mentioned at all in Ephesians 6. Again, this passage isn’t all about the Christian life, but instead about how to fight spiritual warfare. But love is indirectly in the passage in that the reason why the gospel is one of peace is because it’s a gospel of love. And the preparation of the gospel in terms of building good relations is fueled by love. But loving others does not include giving up on telling the truth and living righteously–though love ought to permeate how truth and righteousness function for us.
Bringing Every Thought Captive
II Corinthians 10:3-6 is a passage often misunderstood. It’s about spiritual war, but it’s in the middle of Paul correcting some misbehavior on the part of infamously naughty Corinthian church. Let me quote it (NKJV):
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, 5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, 6 and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.
Without diving too deep into the context and passage here, the “when your obedience is fulfilled” part reveals what I already said is true. Paul was dealing with some Corinthian disobedience/misbehavior and was specifically handling the issue of them questioning his authority, and in the midst of that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he says in effect the corrections he’s giving them are actually an element of spiritual warfare. He isn’t just correcting them for carnal purposes, but spiritual ones. The “casting down arguments” doesn’t only refer to something you do within your own mind as many commentators take this passage, but mainly refers to confronting untruth. Just as Paul was in the midst of doing with this letter to Corinth, because as long as they believed and practiced untruth they were in effect exalting themselves “against the knowledge of God,” something Paul knew he needed to correct. (Even though they were Christians! Even though Paul loved them!)
This passage shows that part of fighting spiritual warfare is pointing out untruth. Advancing truth, speaking truth, confronting falsehood are what is meant by “casting down arguments” and “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” This passage isn’t just about internal-in-your-own-mind stuff, though I’d say you need to have your own mind straight before addressing others. This passage doesn’t say to be mean, angry, or unloving (other parts of the Bible make it clear that confrontation should be “in humility”–as I already quoted–and with love), but it does say that confronting falsehood is part of spiritual war. Which matches up with what I said last week about spiritual war being like Information Operations. We need to confront false messages and ensure the true message of God gets out.
Submit to God in Vigilance
James 4:7b famously says, “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.” To pick up the context of that fragment, let’s look at the rest of verse 7 and verse 8 (NKJV):
7 Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.
Our spiritual life consists primarily in connecting to God through knowing truth and living righteously through our relationship with God, empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit. That’s why James 4 first talks about submitting to God before talking about the Devil and continues talking about the relationship to God after mentioning Satan, saying in very clear terms that living righteously is not optional–in context that’s because it’s part of the spiritual war. But we don’t live that way to defeat Satan per se–we ought to live that way because we love God and desire to draw near to him. But, living for God generally speaking, including obeying his will and understanding his truth, is the primary way to win the spiritual war.
Yet if all that’s true, why does I Peter 5:8 tell us to be vigilant about the Devil, or to rephrase that, to be alert, to take the threat seriously, to recognize the spiritual war is real? Why does that matter if all we need to do to be on the winning side of the spiritual war is to obey God? Why do we need to think about Satan at all?
Well, we don’t have to focus on Satan, actually. We don’t. But we should be aware that Satan is working in the world. Being aware of the Devil should affect how we pray for others and ourselves–we should pray God protects us and others from temptation and evil (as Jesus taught, see Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4). Because we know that’s part of the war. We also should realize the Devil has influence in this world–so we should be alert to false messages, false teaching, and sin, even among people we know are Christians, because we know Satan is active in the spiritual war and we know his goals include getting Christians to unwittingly do his wishes. That doesn’t mean we live in fear or panic–not at all, because we know God is much greater than Satan and as long as we remain close to God, were are safe from what Satan can do to us.
But we should be alert, vigilant, and aware of the fact that our faith lies in God, not our fellow human beings. We need to pray for our friends and Christian leaders and in gentleness point out if they go astray. Not out of fear of Satan, but because we understand how spiritual warfare works and what our role is in fighting that war.
How Christian artists and authors can make specific contributions to the spiritual war I’ll look at this upcoming week. But for now, what are your reactions to this article? Does it make sense to you that spiritual warfare is both vitally important and also something we don’t need to focus on (instead we focus on God)? Have you heard other thoughts or interpretations about the armor of God or other passages I’ve mentioned? Any other input? If so, please mention them in the comments below.