Sweat dripped into his eyes. He felt his breathing quicken as the enemy forces crested the ridge to the south, moving inexorably toward him. The sword in his hand felt ponderous. He gripped it so tightly his knuckles went numb, as he willed himself to focus on the thrill of battle over the heaviness of fear. Could he wield his weapon, when the time came? Would it be enough? Would his training be enough?
I was a child of the 80s. Those readers of a certain age and a certain religious affiliation during that time period might remember the trend that is now sometimes mockingly referred to as “satanic panic.” I grew up reading books about how the popular toy franchises — full of innocence and rainbows on the outside — were secretly gateways into the demonic world. I devoured books about spiritual warfare, many of them insisting that, as Christians, we were under regular and obvious attack. My nightstand was littered with comic books published by the same folks who produced Chick Tracts (known for being heavy on the “turn or burn” approach).
They were thrilling! They were full of exorcisms and excitement! Fourteen-year-old me was riveted. I read Screwtape Letters so many times that I still have parts of it memorized. Magazine articles galore. Books about “binding the Strong Man.” What kinds of sensational things would I encounter, as a fully-grown adult warrior for Christ? Half intrigued and half terrified, I couldn’t wait to get started!
The years passed. I grew up. Somehow, this battle is not what I expected. If I had been the one to purchase those books, rather than sneak-reading my parents’ copies, I might have been tempted to ask for my money back. Where is the thrill? Why isn’t anybody coming at me as I walk down the street, denying Christ openly and frothing at the mouth? Why isn’t there smoke and fire, like there was in those illustrations? And, in over thirty years of being a believer, I have yet to see anybody’s eyes glow red.
Why isn’t it exciting, like I had thought it would be?
Make no mistake. We have an enemy, and we are under attack. For most of us, the attacks are so subtle that they creep in without us even realizing it. After all, why should the enemy come rushing in with guns blazing when he is able to keep us chained and muffled so that we can’t even join the battle to begin with?
It is simple, elegant, and effective. An attack plan that is perfectly tailored to the target. For some of us, the attacks are indeed more obvious. Drug use, pornography addiction, alcoholism, the traditional “seven deadly sins” … these are weapons that the enemy uses. But, for some of us, the enemy doesn’t even have to pull out such big guns.
Why use a bazooka when a well-placed dart will do the trick?
This is how attacks often look for me. I am unable to recognize them for what they are, usually, at the time. This is part of their brilliance, because this lack of recognition keeps me from seeing the need to pick up my sword and fight back. They eat away at the edges of my effectiveness for Christ, and most of the time I don’t even realize it.
Discouragement. “Nothing that you do really matters. That thing that you worked so hard for? Pointless. Look at you. You’re wasting your life. You had so much potential, and now you are useless. You thought [insert calling here] was going to make a difference? It is nothing but frivolous busywork. You don’t matter. It all comes to nothing.”
Anxiety. “Everyone is going to leave you, and you will die alone. Nobody loves you. You are going to lose everything, and you will end up as nothing but a burden for those you love, if you even have anybody left. There is nothing out there but danger and illness, so you shouldn’t even try and go out there. You will get sick. You will be ridiculed. You will fail. It will be painful, and you can’t handle it. Everything will go wrong.”
Comparison. “Everyone else has a better life than you. Your house and car are falling apart, and you never go on vacations like your co-workers. Look at them! They are so much more attractive than you. Their lives are how things are supposed to be, and yours is worthless. They are more talented. They have so many friends, and they are loved so much by their families. You are inferior. You are old/fat/ugly/poor. You are less-than. Worthless.”
Busyness. “Look at that to-do list! Doesn’t it make you feel smothered? You have something going on every minute of every day. There is no time for you to pray, read the Bible, or focus on God, so don’t bother. You have to keep going. If you don’t, you will lose. Your children will blame you for not giving them opportunities. You have to pay the mortgage and bills. It is all on you, so you had better keep moving every second. Time is money. And don’t you want to serve at church? You are failing if you don’t. Do more. If you are not busy, you have no value.”
Comfort zones. “You are not good at talking to people. Your personality is all wrong for that kind of thing. Aren’t you so much more comfortable in your quiet, safe nest? The bed is warm and soft. There’s that show you’ve been wanting to watch. You are happiest alone, so why don’t you just shut out the world, and be cozy? Or, if you must interact with others, you should keep quiet. Telling them about Jesus might make them uncomfortable. Online is safer. Online, there is no risk of getting too involved in other people’s lives. Online, if someone is uncomfortable, especially you, you can click away. Only do the things that feel pleasant. Don’t you deserve to feel safe and secure?”
Distraction. “Glowing screens. Flickering pictures. Tantalizing. All the information in the entire world is right at your fingertips. Have you ever seen this one? Here is something you have been wanting to watch/read about! This might be amusing. Here, this is bound to make you feel something. Somebody you’ve never met has said something that makes you angry, so you have to respond! Just play a few more levels of this time devouring game. I wonder what [person from the past] is up to these days? You should go and check, and then spend another hour chasing rabbit trails. Time is limitless, after all …”
What are we do to? Let’s look at the advice Peter gave to the Christians scattered throughout the Roman provinces in Asia Minor, in the first century A.D.:
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:8-9
Pay attention! (“Be sober-minded …”). Many attacks are insidious. They are woven stealthily into the fabric of our lives and personalities. We cannot fight an enemy of whom we are unaware. What are the things that are holding me back the most? What are the habits that are dragging at my feet, pulling me into ineffectiveness as a Christian? Sometimes it helps to write them down.
Resist. (“Resist him, firm in your faith …”). Once we can identify where we are being attacked, we need a battle plan. We need to be willing to do what it takes to be victorious, pulling no punches. Jesus may have been speaking hyperbolically in Matthew 18:9 when he told his followers to gouge out their own eyes if they caused them to sin, but there can be no doubt that we are to take attacks seriously. I do not want to be a sitting duck for the enemy, so I must fight, using the weapons provided to me. Prayer is one of them. Another is the knowledge of the Word of God, which is shaper than any two-edged sword. There is power in speaking it, memorizing it, and absorbing it. Jesus has already won the victory for us. We just have to claim it. Take action.
Go to God for restoration. (“God … will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you”). Battle can be messy. But we are not left alone. The Holy Spirit is our Comforter, and he will never leave us nor forsake us. We need to bathe the healing process in prayer, knowing that we are heard.
Give God the glory. (“To him be the dominion forever and ever …”). This is the part that I often neglect. Having gotten past any given battle, my default mode is to move on, without looking back. Reflection can strengthen us for the next round of the fight. God is faithful, he has gotten us through it, and he deserves praise! Our thanksgiving can also be an encouragement to others who are fighting battles of their own.
The soldier on the field of combat glanced from side to side, his fingers flexing on his well-loved sword. This battle did not look anything like he had imagined it would, but he was ready for it, nonetheless. His sword was true, his arm was strong, and his general’s words were wise. He would emerge victorious!