Understanding Our Spiritual Battles
In a well-known passage (Eph. 6:10-20), Paul urges the congregation in Ephesus to "be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might" before instructing them to put on "the whole armor of God." The point of the comparison to armor is often lost in an effort to develop the comparison too far. The point of comparing salvation to a helmet or the gospel to a foot covering was not to examine why salvation was like a helmet or how the gospel protects our walk. Paul's point is that in order to be "strong in the Lord," we must prepare. This preparation is necessary because we are not fighting against "flesh and blood," i.e., people, in real conflict. Rather, our battle is against "the devil against spiritual wickedness in high places." Oddly enough, the word "spiritual" is here and elsewhere very frequently the point of departure from Christian thought and activity because it is often thought of in terms of Greek philosophical rather than Spiritual modes of thought.
Greek thinking, common in the ancient world, familiar to the early church, and consciously revived in the Enlightenment, was dualistic. Reality was divided between the form or idea on the one hand and the material world on the other. Form, idea, or spirit was seen as a higher way, somewhat far removed from the mortal realm of the physical. Greek gods were men who had challenged or outwitted the gods and had achieved divinity by rising above their mortality. The Greek mind thus appreciated certain aspects of the gospel, such as the divinity of the Jew from Nazareth who could perform miracles. But when Paul preached to the philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens, the Greek audience began to mock when he spoke of the resurrection from the dead. A Greek could understand a dead or ascended divine, but the idea of divinity first being incarnate in human flesh and then, once relieved of his body, returning to it was an absurd series of regressions. Greek gods had transcended the physical; Greek thinking sought the divine by rising above the physical world.
Greek dualism has been a recurring problem in the church. That which is mystical, immaterial, or ethereal is said to be good and spiritual. The material world, the physical, is equated with sin and evil. This thinking caused a longstanding debate over the nature of Christ's incarnation. Those in the early church with this Greek view of spirituality did not want to accept the humanity of Jesus Christ. This problem was not resolved until the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 that embraced His full divinity and humanity. Greek thought regarding spirituality also led to asceticism and even self-inflicted injury by hermits and monastic orders, all in the name of purer spirituality.
The great error of this non-Christian, Hellenic perspective was that it made man's problem metaphysical rather than moral. Man's problem, however, is not that he is a man or that he is in a physical body. These are the constraints of creaturehood established by God before the real moral problem of sin arose. Man's problem is his sin. Because his problem is not his physical creaturehood, man's spirituality cannot be viewed as an escape to a higher plane.
The True Definition of "Spiritual"
The word spiritual has to do with God's Holy Spirit. Spiritual is that which necessitates the power of God's Spirit, not because we are physical beings, but because we are sinners in need of grace. We must understand "spiritual" as referring to God's sanctifying work in us, not as a religious goal or a higher state of being. So when Paul says to "be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might," we see what spirituality is all about. The higher in our spirituality is not a place we seek to attain, but the source from which our strength comes. That power does not come from a higher level of understanding, a special feeling, or some manifestation of emotional ecstasy. Our spiritual power comes from God's Spirit that indwells us.
Paul compares our spiritual preparation (i.e., our preparation in the power of God's sanctifying Spirit) to a soldier's preparation for battle. Please do not picture righteousness protecting your chest or see yourself swinging God's Word like a sword. The purpose of the pictorial metaphor of a soldier is not to picture a soldier; it is to see in the picture the nature of the spiritual battle we face. Paul's point is that just as a soldier would be foolish to go into battle unprepared, the Christian would be remiss not to prepare himself ahead of time. If we do not prepare ourselves for spiritual battles, we will, by definition, be unprepared and more likely to fail. To such failure, we often respond by wondering why God did not help us or we blame our failure on circumstances beyond our control.
I have always been amazed at how Hollywood avoids the idea of moral choice when it portrays adultery. Flirting and compromised situations abound. Then, after the predictable happens, the guilty party inevitably pleads to the spouse, "I didn't mean to, it just happened!" Just once I would like to hear the victimized spouse respond, "You mean it was an accident? Did you say 'Oops!'?" If we deny morality then sin becomes just part of a series of meaningless acts which periodically sweeps us away.
If we approach life in moral terms, then we know we must make moral decisions well ahead of a moral crisis. This is why God helps us by giving us commandments to live by. God is saying, "Here are your moral choices and here are your moral decisions. They are all laid out in 'dos' and 'don'ts.' Learn them and live by them."
If we haven't made the great moral decisions of our life before we have a moral crisis, we have waited far to long. In fact, if we haven't made those moral decisions we have made the wrong decisions, because we've decided to wait until tempted to weigh our options. That is to live on the premise that sin is a viable option available to us.
Fighting the Good Fight
In order to be strong for spiritual battle, Paul is saying, "Prepare now!" The armor in Paul's metaphor is all that God gives us to fight what is, after all, His fight. Because it is God's fight, our battle is not primarily one of opposition to evil men (though this is at times necessary), nor is it one of confronting Satan himself. Neither Satan nor evil men are the focus of our duty. We are called from rebellion against God to faithfulness in righteousness. Our resistance to Satan is thus primarily in the context of being faithful to God. Our resistance to the lures or taunts of evil men must also take the form of faithfulness. These are our primary spiritual battles. They begin in our own lives so that we can become faithful witnesses of God's righteousness.
Greek thinking wants us to see our battle as one of rising to a mystical mountaintop experience, a higher "spiritual" plane. But man's battle is in his heart and his work is in the mundane, straight, and narrow path of faithfulness.
Paul had spiritual battles. Paul was engaged in a difficult ministry to scattered groups that needed more help than Paul could personally give. He had little money and faced critics within the church, subversive ideologies attempting to infiltrate the faith, official persecution, and, on several occasions, abuse just short of death. In addition, much of his work was remote while he was in prison on trumped-up charges. In the end he was beheaded. Paul's spiritual battles were those he fought in the context of his ministry. Paul said, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7). Paul's ministry, his appointed work, was the context of his spiritual battles, his battles fought in the power of God's Spirit.
Many believe that Satan is the ruler of the world, and that therefore our thinking must be other-worldly. Paul does refer to principalities, powers, and rulers in regard to Satan (Eph. 6:12). But in the ancient world, there were many lesser princes and kings. Herod was one such king who had near absolute rule over his realm but could be replaced at the whim of the emperor. Further back, in the Old Testament era, a king could rule as little as one walled city and its surrounding farmland. Satan is such a lesser prince. The Scriptures say that, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof: the world, and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). Satan reigns over sin and death, not over God's creation and certainly not over God's people. Our Lord rules heaven and earth. He reigns Whose right it is. Paul warns us that Satan is more than flesh and blood, not to frighten us, but to enforce the point of his metaphor prepare for battle.
The nature of our spiritual battles can be seen in the nature of the weapons God gives us as suitable for the struggle. They are not the means of achieving a mystical epiphany. They are basic elements of the Christian faith and are available to all believers, because spiritual battles will be fought by all who are in Christ. These pieces of spiritual armor are truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, the Word, and prayer. They sound so mundane, so ordinary. They are, however, the means of our faithfulness to God in the power of His Spirit.
The next "higher plane" is glory, and our reward there will be based on our faithfulness to God here and now in the power of His Spirit, with the rudiments of our religion available to all. We must look for our spiritual battles and maturity within, where the source of our spiritual strength, God's Comforter, indwells us, and in our mundane, everyday duty. In this context we use God's truth, righteousness, gospel, faith, salvation, and prayer in His Service, in faithfulness. Thus, when our very ordinary responsibilities are over we can say, with Paul, "I have fought a good fight."
Topics: Theology, Church, The