Suffering and the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Suffering and the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

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For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (­Ephesians 6:12)

About six centuries before Paul wrote these words, the biblical hero Daniel had an extraordinary encounter with an angel while praying one day. It’s a story that teaches us much about the relationship between unanswered prayer and spiritual warfare. “Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God,” the angel told Daniel, “your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-­one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me” (Dan. 10:12–13). This encounter provides a fascinating insight into the battle that goes on when we pray and also into the time lapse that may require our perseverance in prayer.

We see this same battle repeatedly at work in the life of Jesus, whose public ministry began with an intense forty-­day season of spiritual warfare in the wilderness and was punctuated by strange encounters with screaming demons. He told stories about heaven and hell and even saw Satan falling from heaven like lightning. When we read the text objectively, the Jesus of the Gospels begins to look like the kind of apocalyptic mystic who would not fit at all well in the lecture halls of most seminaries, let alone the polished pulpit of an average Sunday morning sermon.

Materialists and Magicians

Of course, for all his mysticism, Jesus was not spooky. In fact, we know that He was immensely popular (see Matt. 14:13), could be witty (see Matt. 19:24), and was often very practical (see Matt. 21:2). A life modeled on Christ will therefore combine a sober recognition of the demonic realm with an earthy dose of good humor and common sense. The story is told of a famous preacher who woke in the night to see a terrifying demonic manifestation at the end of his bed. “Oh,” he said, “it’s only you!” and went back to sleep. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” observed C. S. Lewis. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters [London: Fount, 1986], 9)

Martin Luther once poked fun at the extremism of many of his contemporaries, saying that they resembled drunken peasants who fall off a donkey and then remount only to slide off the other side. When it comes to spiritual warfare, the key is to stay balanced and avoid swinging wildly between extremes. On one side of the donkey (so to speak), there are many today who take Satan and demons far too seriously, spending more of their time thinking, talking, and praying about complicated spiritual infrastructures and intercessory technologies than they do in simply talking to the Lord Jesus Himself and absorbing His Word. The New Testament scholar N. T. Wright helpfully reminds us that “because of what Jesus did on the cross, the powers and authorities are a beaten, defeated lot, so that [no one] who belongs to Jesus need be overawed by them again.” (N. T. Wright, The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introductory Commentary [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986], 114.) On the other side of the donkey, there are those who have given up believing in anything so primitive or uncomfortable as demons and spiritual warfare. But this is neither intellectually necessary nor consistent with the biblical worldview.

The Call to Stand

The passage of Scripture quoted more often than any other in relation to spiritual warfare is Ephesians 6:11–18, and yet it is almost entirely about spiritual resistance rather than attack. In these eight verses, the apostle Paul tells the Ephesians no fewer than four times simply to stand their ground!

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes . . . so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then.
—­vv. 11–14, (emphasis added)

Paul’s emphasis here is on courageous resistance. There is no license in the text for that common kind of macho militancy which continually (and unwisely) picks fights with the devil in prayer. Both the apostles Peter and Jude warn against rebuking the demonic realm in prayer. Jude teaches that “even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil . . . did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ ” (Jude 1:9). If the archangel Michael did not dare to rebuke the devil, but instead prayed that the Lord would do it, how much more should we beware arrogance and even discourtesy in spiritual warfare. In his book Needless Casualties of War, John Paul Jackson cautions us thus: “Courtesy is the hallmark of God’s Kingdom. Discourtesy is the trademark of Satan’s. When contending with the devil, Jesus spoke firmly but with the utmost respect. He did not revile when answering Satan’s temptations. Nor did Jesus speak rudely, disrespectfully, or call Satan demeaning names. Rather, Jesus simply quoted Scripture to rebuke the devil.”

There is a place for aggression against the enemy, using the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17), but that is the only piece of military hardware Paul lists with which we can mount an attack. No spears. No flaming arrows. No battering rams. Just the Word of God (this was also Christ’s approach against Satan in the wilderness). A balanced posture in spiritual warfare will predominantly consist of standing firm against Satan and, when we must attack, simply wielding the Word of God.

On one occasion, Jesus informs Peter that Satan has requested to “sift” him like wheat. “I have prayed for you, Simon,” He says, “that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31–32). When Satan is sifting your life—­tempting, attacking, and attempting to undermine your faith—­sometimes instead of delivering you immediately from evil, Jesus will intercede for you in the midst of your trials. Indeed, the mere fact that you are reading this now and still standing in spite of so many trials may well be an answer to Christ’s prayers “that your faith may not fail.”

The Bible explains this strange state of affairs—God’s plans sometimes being thwarted—in terms of ongoing spiritual warfare. It is entirely possible, therefore, that some of our prayers currently remain unanswered because of direct satanic resistance. Our lives may also be attracting specific spiritual attacks because of the stand we are taking for Jesus, and if this is the case, there may be some encouragement in understanding that it is not God who is letting us down. “When God’s people are called upon to pass through severe sufferings and tribulation,” says the theologian George Eldon Ladd, “they should remember that God has not abandoned them, but that their sufferings are due to the fact that they no longer belong to This Age and therefore are the object of its hostility.” (George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959], 39.)

As objects of hostility, our call is to stand firm, never doubting the reality of the battle raging against our lives, nor the victory that is ours to come.

This is an excerpt from Pete Greig’s latest book, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayers available now from our store.

What do you do when God is silent? Writing out of the pain of his wife’s fight for life but also the wonder of watching the prayer movement they founded touch many lives, Pete Greig wrestles with the dark side of prayer and emerges with a hard-won message of hope, comfort, and profound biblical insight for all who suffer in silence.

Perfect for:

  • Small groups or Sunday school classes
  • Anyone with honest questions about prayer
  • Any time of the year, but especially Lent

Get it from our store here.


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