The Unseen World
One of the most thought-provoking classics of Christian fiction is C. S. Lewis's, The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape is a senior devil who sends advice on the art of temptation to a junior devil named Wormwood. One of Screwtape's observations is a good introduction to our lesson. He says, "Your business is to fix [your victim's] attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it 'real life' and don't let him ask what he means by 'real'. . . . They [human beings] find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes." Here then is why any discussion of warfare between the believer and his demonic enemies strikes many people as remote, unreal, or even fanciful. We think that the real world is what we see, whereas what we see is only a small slice of reality.
We all know what it means to be tempted, and we all know that one source of temptation is malevolent beings whose object is to tear us down morally and spiritually. But sometimes we fall into wrong thinking about spiritual warfare. Let us consider three common misconceptions.
1. We must all contend with Satan.
No, most of us will never meet Satan. The devil does not have the divine attribute of omnipresence. His existence at a given time is bound to a specific location. Right now it is likely that he is either in heaven before the Throne, where God allows him to bring accusations against the saints (Rev. 12:10), or on earth at the headquarters of his command over principalities and powers. Much of his time is no doubt spent in reviewing and superintending his large program to extend his control over mankind and to frustrate the work of the gospel. You as an individual Christian may never come to his notice. All your encounters with powers of darkness may be limited to his underlings. We know from Paul that our opponent is not one or a few evil spirits, but a full army under a hierarchy of commanders (Eph. 6:12). We have no clear idea how Satan’s forces are disposed on the battlefield, but perhaps some of his host have been assigned to trouble your particular church or your particular family. Paul reveals that one demon had no other job but to trouble Paul (2 Cor. 12:7).
But although it is unlikely you will meet Satan, it is certainly not impossible. He is not always aloof from the lives of real people. Rather, he takes such an active role in spiritual warfare that Scripture compares him to a lion roaming about "seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8). It says also that he showed Jesus "all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time" (Luke 4:5). This astounding feat suggests that despite the confinement of his existence to the present moment, time moves more slowly for him than for us. Therefore, in a brief time from our perspective, he can travel far and have a wide impact.
2. Satan can do whatever he wants to us.
No, around every believer is a shield of protection afforded by good angels, commonly known as guardian angels (Ps. 34:7; 91:10-12). The defensive wall is sometimes called the hedge of protection. Satan can breach the hedge only by obtaining God’s permission. The story of Job illustrates the procedure Satan must go through before he can wield his weapons against a saint (Job 1:6-12). The reason Peter fell into the sin of denying Christ is that Satan had previously gained permission to sift him like wheat (Luke 22:31-2). Satan had gone before the Throne and convinced the Father that Peter’s temptation was necessary.
The devil’s case for temptation generally takes the form of an accusation against the saint, alleging that he is unworthy of the favor that the Father has bestowed upon him. The temptation or trial he wishes to manufacture in the saint’s life will, he argues, prove that the Father cannot depend on that person’s love and loyalty. It will prove, moreover, as Satan has always insisted before God and the angels, that God has a double standard. Lucifer and his angelic followers were wonderful creatures with an unblemished record, yet God judged them severely for a minor offense and never offered forgiveness, whereas he wants to forgive and exalt man, a despicably stupid creature of mortal flesh and blood whose heart has always been a cesspool of wickedness. Satan's opinion of mankind is reflected in the words that an evil spirit, probably Satan himself, spoke to Job’s friend Eliphaz (Job 4:12-21).
God grants permission for temptation to go forward only if He believes that it will accomplish something good (Rom. 8:28). We can take great comfort in this truth.
He allowed Satan to test Job because He knew that Job would stand the test. Job refused to curse God and die. Thus, he showed that by God’s grace, man can become a noble creature worthy of eternal glory. If any angels were skeptical of man’s potential, Job allayed their doubts and vindicated God in their eyes. In short, his steadfastness against temptation brought glory to God. That result was all things working together for good.
Satan’s accusation against Peter proved correct, however. He was able to maneuver Peter into denying Christ. But then Peter was immediately very sorry. God allowed the temptation because it served a good purpose. Peter was a rather cocky young man who needed to be humbled by a major setback to his self-esteem.
Because God is a loving Father, He never allows temptation to exceed certain bounds (1 Cor. 10:13). He never allows it to be irresistible. If we respond correctly with faith and firm resolve, we will find that as we draw upon our reserves of moral strength, they will be enough to fend it off.
God will even help us by giving us a way to escape (again, 1 Cor. 10:13). Our best defense, therefore, when we face temptation is simply to look around for an exit. It will always be there. It will never be necessary to linger in the dangerous environment of temptation. Sometimes the escape will be to look away, as Jesus did when they brought to Him the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-6). Sometimes the escape will be to walk away, as when Jesus was rejected by one Samaritan village. Instead of bringing down judgment, as James and John tempted Him to do, He simply moved on to another village (Luke 9:54-6). Sometimes the escape will be to change one's train of thought, as Jesus did when the devil tried to drive His mind toward preoccupation with how hungry He was after forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Jesus pulled His mind back to its former preoccupation, which was taking satisfaction in the Word of God (Matt. 4:3-4). For people today, living in a world bathed in digital media, frequently the best escape will be to turn it off.
Although the devil has the right to approach the Throne and propose temptation in our lives, we should not think that we are shut out of the process. We too have a voice before the Throne. I am not referring to Christ, who is indeed our advocate (1 John 2:1). I mean rather that we have an opportunity to speak for ourselves. It is our privilege to reach the Throne by means of prayer, and one prayer that God has consented to hear is to be spared from temptation. The petition, "Lead us not into temptation" (Matt. 6:13) is so critical to our spiritual welfare that Jesus included it in the short prayer intended as a model for all others. It is critical because it may persuade the Father to exempt us from some potentially dangerous trial or temptation conceived by the devil. Every day we should not forget to pray, "Lead us not into temptation." Yet except when we were quoting the Lord’s Prayer, how many of us have raised that petition even once?
Along with that petition we might state some good arguments. If we know we have a weakness that the devil has used as an avenue of damaging raids on our moral character, we should tell the Father that we regret submitting to this weakness in the past, and in the future we firmly resolve never to let it control our lives again. The clincher is to say then that if we are tested, we will depend on God’s grace for victory. The honest self-appraisal shows repentance. The dependence on God shows faith. When the Father sees our hearts strong with real repentance and faith, He may decide to forbid Satan access to our lives.
3. All temptation comes from Satan.
It is true that God Himself is never the author of temptation (Jas. 1:13). But besides Satan, there are two other sources of temptation, which we will consider in coming lessons. They are the world and the flesh.
The Seven Principles of Spiritual Warfare
The temptation of Christ holds many practical lessons for us.
1. Do not underestimate your enemy.
The stratagems that Satan crafted against Jesus show that he is exceedingly subtle and clever. As a master psychologist, he knows you better than you know yourself. His henchmen have probably assembled a dossier cataloging all your worst errors in the past, giving a brutally frank assessment of your present strengths and weaknesses, and describing promising ways to tempt you in the future. The devil has a plan for your life—that is, he has worked out a plan of attack that he expects will overthrow you. He may use a variety of tactics.
- He may simply offer you fleshly pleasure that God forbids. But his campaign against you, as in Jesus' temptations, may not be limited to crude enticement of your lusts.
- Through sly questions, he may sow doubt in what the Bible says.
- When a preacher hits your pet sins, the devil may say to you, "That's extreme. You needn't change. You're OK. God understands. He's not as demanding or holy as these preachers make Him out to be."
- The devil may take a completely different tack, seeking to convince you that sin is God's will. He may quote Scripture. He may make sin sound very spiritual. Some of the worst mistakes I have seen Christians make have been with spiritual excuses. When they step down the ruinous path, they may look more pious than ever before. But self-justifying spirituality never lasts very long.
To prod you in the disastrous direction he wants you to take, he will whisper encouragement. The devil is a master of mind games. He is continually working on your thoughts to convince you of lies. To support these lies, he is great at manipulating circumstances to create false impressions. He is great at feeding you gossip. He is great at fanning your fears. He knows that every failure in the Christian life can be traced to wrong thinking. Protect yourself by focusing your mind on good things (Phil. 4:8) and filling your mind with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
2. Ignore whatever the devil says.
Nothing that Satan told Jesus was exactly true. Therefore, it is best to pay no heed to his suggestions and arguments.
You should not listen to him even for the purpose of discerning what is false. He might tell you the truth if he knows that you, considering the source, will reject it. Remember that when Paul went to Philippi, a demon-possessed girl followed him and his companions and cried, "These men are the servants of the most high God" (Acts 16:17). Such a recommendation, from a woman known to be wicked, was no recommendation at all. The devil was probably seeking to discredit Paul. Likewise, many of the demons that Jesus cast out called Him the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24) or the Son of God (Mark 3:11). They were probably laying groundwork for the Pharisees' charge that Jesus was in league with the devil.
Likewise, you should not assume that the devil always gives bad guidance. When you are headed in the wrong direction, he may vigorously oppose you if he knows that you, recognizing the troublemaker, will solidify your determination to go forward. When you are headed in the right direction, he may dramatically assist you if he knows that you, seeing the real face behind the mask of friendly encouragement, will doubt your course and pull back.
I know someone who went to a Chinese restaurant at the time he was considering whether to take a new job. After the meal, when he and his wife opened the fortune cookies, they both found the same message, "You will soon have a promotion." They knew that God was not using fortune cookies to guide them. They felt rather that the source of the messages was obviously the devil. What was he was trying to do? He knew that they would recognize deviltry, so he encouraged them to do the exact opposite of what he really wanted. He wanted them to step back from the job, which they correctly believed was God's will.
It is very possible that the messages were mere coincidence, but not likely, since they arrived at the very moment of decision. Satan and his demons do have a limited power to affect material events. Their ability to manipulate the fall of dice, the dealing of cards, and other processes assumed to be random helps them lure people into a gambling addiction. Likewise, their ability to perform levitation and similar cheap tricks helps them ensnare people in sorcery and the occult. It is therefore unwise for Christians to seek God’s will by means of casting lots or any similar process. Nor should they attach any significance to signs and omens, such as a black cat walking across the path or a peal of thunder. All such phenomena fall within the realm of Satanic power. As we have said before, the only reliable way to know God's will is by consulting His Word and His Spirit. Pay no attention to the devil.
3. Know yourself.
As he did in his battle with Jesus, the devil will attack what he sees as your weaknesses, and he will try to turn your strengths to his advantage. Therefore, to thwart him, you must know yourself, heeding the ancient Greek philosophers who argued that the first requirement of wisdom is to "know thyself."
But pride blinds you to your own faults. Since you need the grace of God to surmount pride, the road to self-knowledge is the road of grace. The entrance to this road is hidden except to those who are willing to confess known sins. You must search your heart with the intent of persisting in self-examination until you know the whole ugly truth about yourself. Then the Holy Spirit will show you your reflection in the only accurate mirror, which is the Word of God (James 1:23-5). You will see both your vileness by nature and your potential by God's grace. Then you will truly know yourself.
If you cannot immediately list your five worst weaknesses, or if you think that you lack five—and certainly if you think that you lack any—you need to engage in more introspection. Years ago a reader of my Web site wrote to complain about my teaching that all men are sinners. He said that he was perfect. I replied by asking whether his wife agreed.
4. Resist Satan with all vigor and might.
"Resist the devil, and he will flee from you" (Jas. 4:7). He will not waste time on a losing battle against a determined foe. Hence, when all three temptations of Jesus failed, he left (Luke 4:13). Following Jesus' example, you must stand firm against Satan and yield no ground. Then you will soon put him to flight.
You must understand that the devil will use a successful tactic over and over again, so long as it works. If he has found a fiery dart that always brings you to your knees, do not accept chronic defeat. Dig in and fight. Prove to him that you are wise to his tricks, and that from now on they will fail. The battle may be long and hard, but eventually, if you do not yield, he will leave you alone.
When Satan breaks off engagement with you, his parting shot may be to claim that because you perhaps struggled or faltered in the fight, victory belongs to him. He will say that he won. You should respond, "Did I fall into the grievous sin you wanted me to commit? Did I deny Christ? Has my faith been weakened?" If the answers are, no, then you are entitled to claim victory.
5. Wield Scripture in your defense.
Three times Jesus parried Satan's blow by quoting Scripture. The sword of the Spirit is our most effective weapon also (Eph. 6:17). If you are tempted to sin, quote a Scriptural prohibition. If you are tempted to doubt God's intentions, quote one of His promises. If you are tempted to fall into despair or gloom, quote Romans 8:28.
When I was a young teenager, I attended a public junior high school. In the standards that my home and my church had adopted for Christian conduct, they agreed that dancing in a modern sense is inappropriate. But in my school, the principal, who was a disciple of John Dewey and an enthusiast for progressive education, decided that dances during school hours were necessary for the social development of his students. I remember going to him and telling him that I did not believe in dancing. Perhaps others did as well, and soon we heard that he would provide a study hall for those with religious objections. Out of a school of maybe 300, perhaps ten or fifteen sat down with their books instead of joining the crowd in the gym. The supervising teacher greatly resented his assignment. I remember him coming up to me, for he considered me the ringleader, and saying to me very seductively, "Before rejecting something, shouldn’t you at least try it out? You’d see that it’s not so bad." I replied instinctively, "Why should I pick up something on fire to see if I will get burned?" I was not aware of quoting Scripture, but Scripture had been so deeply implanted in my heart that automatically in my own defense I resorted to the thought and almost to the actual words of Proverbs 6:27-28.
It is evident that defending yourself from temptation will be much easier if you have invested time in learning Scripture by heart (Ps. 119:9, 11). To meet the devil without preparing yourself through Scripture memorization is as foolhardy as a soldier going into battle without first sharpening his sword.
6. Seek divine refreshment after the battle.
When the devil departed from Jesus, angels came and ministered to Him (Matt. 4:11). Likewise, if we stand bravely against our enemy, God will reward us afterward by tending to our wounds and restoring our strength.
7. Expect the devil to return.
After the devil finished tempting Jesus, he departed from him, but only "for a season" (Luke 4:13). Even after his humiliating failure to make any dent in Jesus' perfection, he did not give up. He bided his time, waiting for an opportune moment to attack again. He returned later in an effort to keep Jesus from going to the cross (Matt. 16:23). He returned once more when Jesus hung on the cross, and then he tempted Jesus to come down (Matt. 27:39-43).
So also every believer who has won a battle against Satan can be sure that he has not seen the last of his enemy. Satan will someday return with another plan for temptation. It is therefore important that a believer remain on his guard even after a victory. If he slips into pride of success, he will make himself an easy target, for "pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18).
Victory in any war requires an effective intelligence service to gain critical information about the enemy. Secret agents sent to spy out Satan’s realm would report that his strength rests on two factors.
1. Satan is a master of deceit.
Jesus identified him as the father of lies (John 8:44). Indeed, his skill as a liar is the secret to his unshakable grip over fallen mankind. From the beginning, man has been ready to believe whatever Satan says.
Why has he been so successful as a deceiver? Because he is not only very inventive of plausible lies, but he is also master at blinding people to the evidence that would discredit them. He not only promotes the theory of evolution in public schools and colleges; he also makes sure that any dissident teacher or professor will lose his job. In Communist countries, he not only vigorously promotes the philosophy of atheism; he also suppresses the publication and circulation of Bibles.
2. Satan is a sophisticated strategist.
Like any effective general, Satan employs a two-pronged strategy.
Attrition. He seeks to weaken our side by draining away our forces on the fringes. That is, he preys on the weakest brethren to diminish our numbers and our morale. Because Satan is constantly working to produce this kind of attrition, the Bible labels him a predator. He is compared to a lion (1 Pet. 5:8), and men under his control are compared to wolves (Matt. 10:16).
The policy of any predator is to target the easiest catch. It naturally wants the biggest yield for the least effort. When attacking a herd, a pride of lions ignores the leader and chases the stragglers—those who are too young or too old or too enfeebled by wounds or disease to keep up with the rest. The weakest provide a feast at the cost of little work.
The same for spiritual predators. Jesus taught that their prey of choice is anyone who has just heard the gospel (Matt. 13:18-19). Plucking the seed out of that person’s heart is generally a simple matter. Usually a little distraction, causing the person to turn his gaze away from spiritual things to some pleasure or some personal crisis, will succeed in extinguishing any interest in being saved. Another tactic for stealing seed is to whisper words belittling the gospel-giver. The demons will arrange for someone else to come along and scoff at the Christian, labeling him a fanatic or hate-monger or cultist.
Anyone who has recently made a decision for Christ is probably the second priority of demons. They generate persecution or trouble that will discourage the new believer, making him wonder whether God is real or whether he can afford the cost of being a Christian. The onslaught succeeds in driving away many new converts. That is why it is important for the whole church to support new converts with prayer and words of encouragement.
A key tactic in Satan’s battle plan against established members of the church is to pick out the most vulnerable and work to destroy them. Since vulnerability is measured by moral weakness, the chief weapon is always temptation. After singling out a target for attack, Satan’s forces will consult his record of past indiscretions and tailor for him an opportunity to sin that he will find hard to resist. Any of us is a potential target if we do not keep ourselves strong. Have you noticed that when you yield to one temptation, you suddenly find yourself bombarded with other temptations of the same kind? The devils are seeking to follow up their success with more successes that will leave you addicted to sin. You must therefore resolve not to give in the first time.
Always meet temptation by giving it its true name. Call it temptation so that you will be less inclined to excuse yourself if you yield. Then, having properly labeled it as a threat, consider that the Holy Spirit is in you and Christ is near you. Love them enough not to disappoint them by sinning shamelessly in their presence. Make yourself strong by beseeching their help and recalling God’s Word as your wise counsel. Do not be one of the weak ones who make easy prey.
Hitting the center. Yet Satan’s strategy has a second prong. He targets the strong as well as the weak. Indeed, he reserves his heaviest weapons for concentrated attack on points of special strength within the church, for if he can overcome these, he can rout the remaining forces and win the battle. He plots and executes major assaults against pastors and other key leaders, in the hope that by overcoming them, he can overthrow whole ministries. So, it is safe to say that the opposition you receive from Satan’s side depends largely on how much you are doing for Christ. The more effective you are, the more you will feel pressure from the foe.
We derive three applications.
- A church must never elevate someone to leadership who has not proved himself a person of spiritual strength and discernment (1 Tim. 3:6).
- We must pray diligently and unceasingly for our leaders.
- If you are a leader, you must never let down your guard and coast along, content to do God’s work in the power of the flesh, for the flesh will sooner or later betray you into the hands of the enemy.