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Prayer and Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual warfare. Such a great phrase. We relegate talks about it. We leave it for our Pentecostal friends. We watch movies full of the demonic, ghosts, seances, the occult, and superstitious people. We think of Dante’s Inferno–hell with blazing fire and a devil with red horns and a pitchfork.

These images may scare us–I can’t stand going to haunted houses.
They may incite our curiosity–I wonder if someone could tell me my future? I really do want to communicate with my dead relative. Is that possible?
Or they may seem irrelevant–I thought that stuff was medieval, a thing of the past. We have science that can explain these kinds of things.

In all of our various responses, the one thing we tend to neglect is, you guessed it, prayer. Because praying about it means we have the audacity to believe there is such a thing as evil beyond what I can see. It means we have the courage to believe that we may have given in to that evil and even played a part in its scheme. It means we have the hope to believe that God’s kingdom is truly breaking in–light into the darkness, hope into hopelessness, love into fear, peace into oppression.

Christians have traditionally thought about spiritual warfare in three spheres—war against the world, against the flesh and against the devil. When you hear others speak about spiritual warfare, you will hear them emphasize one of these three over the other two. Let’s look briefly at each one in Scripture and then talk about the role of prayer as we fight the good fight of faith.

The world. This is a term used mainly by John in his gospel and letters. It does not mean the same thing each time we read it. In other words, the world is not an evil place inherently. It is a metaphor. John describes the world as a place of darkness (John 1:5). Christ has come into the world as light (12:46). Jesus says repeatedly that this world is currently under the power of the devil (12:31; 14:30; 16:11) but that he now stands condemned and is being cast out. Therefore, it is not the Christian’s job to pray to be freed from this evil world and go to a better place. Rather, our prayers are shaped knowing that we remain in the world (17:11).

The flesh. It is not the same thing as our physical bodies. It is also translated as the sinful nature, and refers to our bent toward sin. Left to our own devices, we would choose to sin along with the world and the devil. The Spirit is opposed to the flesh. When we pray concerning our own flesh, we pray that God would sanctify us, that He would deliver us from bondage to secret and habitual sins. We believe that God can empower us to live above sin, that we would be slaves instead to righteousness and to one another in love (see Romans 6 and Galatians 5).

The devil. In the New Testament, he is called Satan 34 times and devil 36 times. He is also called the tempter (Matt. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:5), Beelzebul (Matt. 12:24), the enemy (Matt. 13:39), Belial (2 Cor. 6:15), the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4; Jn. 12:31), the power of darkness (Lk. 22:53), the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2), adversary (1 Pet. 5:8), deceiver (Rev. 12:9), dragon (Rev. 12:3), the ancient serpent (Rev. 20:2), the father of lies and murderer (Jn. 8:44), the accuser (Rev. 12:10), Apollyon (Rev. 9:11) and the evil one (1 Jn. 2:13 and Matt. 6:11) (from International Standard Bible Encyclopedia “Satan”).

Scripture does not answer all our questions about Satan. When it mentions him, it does so in relationship to God’s purposes for us. The emphasis is pastoral; Paul and others wrote in order for us to understand how he works to thwart us in following God.

We know that Satan is not God’s opposite, an equal foe, as if good versus evil were a fair fight. He is a creature and depends on God for his very existence. The only reason he is still at work is because God has allowed it, not because he is more powerful than God.

Spiritual warfare is usually portrayed as the Christian going on the defensive, reacting against the sinful nature in him/herself, what he/she sees in the world, and the devil. But what if we think about it as something that arises because God is carrying out his mission in the world through us? We engage in prayers of spiritual warfare because we are piercing the darkness with God’s light and love.

Ordo Salutis: Transforming the Body

It’s time to get back to the ordo salutis, or way of salvation. It has been a month since the last post on this.

I’ll be honest, the idea of trying to change my physical body is counter-intuitive. Isn’t spiritual formation something that happens in the unseen, hidden places of the heart and mind? How can changing my body do any good?

Dallas Willard says,

“For good or for evil, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life–a strange combination of words to most people. One can immediately see all around us that the human body is a (perhaps in some cases even the) primary barrier to conformity to Christ. But this certainly was not God’s intent for the body. It is not in the nature of the body as such. (The body is not inherently evil.) Nor is it even caused by the body. But still it is a fact that the body usually hinders people in doing what they know to be good and right” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 159).

We must remember that our bodies are not in and of themselves evil. We are never told in Scripture to escape them. They are part of God’s good, physical creation. Jesus did not come to us as a spirit, but was the Son of God incarnate, in the flesh. And this is part of the contemporary confusion. There are two Greek words in the New Testament that get used to say “body” and “flesh,” and they mean different things, generally speaking. Body is “soma” in Greek and simply refers to our physical bodies. Flesh is “sarx” in Greek and may refer to one’s physical body, as in John 1:14 where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It may also refer to our sinful nature, or the tendency to act in sin rather than act in accordance with God’s will.

Flesh (sarx) in the NT

While “flesh” in Paul’s letters is not strictly a word that refers to our sinful nature, here are places where it does (see also Romans 7:5; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:17; Galatians 3:3; 6:7-8; Ephesians 2:3).

  • Romans 8:5-13: 5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind controlled by the sinful nature is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace. 7The sinful mind is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. 12Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
  • Galatians 5:13-26: 13You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”

To be “in the flesh” as in Romans 8 refers to someone who is not indwelt by the Spirit, who cannot fulfill the Law of God, and who therefore cannot please God. Flesh in these passages is not physical flesh, as in 1 Corinthians 6:19, where the body of flesh is the temple of the Holy Spirit and is the means of glorifying God (6:20).

Ben Witherington III writes, “The tension in the Christian life is not between old person and new person (for the old person has been crucified and is dead and buried), but rather between Spirit and flesh” (Grace in Galatia, p. 377). He advocates translating sarx as “sinful inclination.” “In other words, I think Paul is talking about the prompting within human beings for their sin (their inclination to do that which they ought not to do), not the resulting effect (a corrupt nature)” (pp. 377-378).

Paul views the death of the flesh as something that has already happened in the death of Christ. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh and its passions (Gal. 5:24). The flesh–the human powers of living that are bent to sin–is based in the physical body. Those whose minds are set on the flesh will do what they want to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Romans 8). But those who are in Christ will not let the desires of the flesh reign in their bodies but will live by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Notice how in Romans 8 the sinful nature, the flesh, is something we can “live according to.” It can be the thing that drives us, that we obey, that we live by. Its opposite it the Spirit (v. 9). We are “in the Spirit”. Even though our bodies are subject to death because we at one time had lived according to our fleshly desires, our bodies will be brought to new life by the Spirit. The Spirit will give life to our bodies. The question is, will this life happen now or only after we die? Paul’s view is that this will happen at the final resurrection after we die. Thus, our bodies will not be completely renewed in this life, and yet they must undergo spiritual formation just like the rest of us so they are no longer slaves to the fleshly desires we have.

The flesh is not the same thing as the body. While we must deal with our flesh’s desires, we do not treat our bodies in the same way.

One of the ways we use our bodies for good or evil is in our body language. For example:

  • We give stern looks to people who cross us.
  • We cross our arms in anger, to distance ourselves from another.
  • We give people “the finger.”
  • We dress our bodies provocatively to attract attention.
  • We hide our bodies in shame by dressing in large clothing or sunglasses.
  • Our facial expressions show sarcasm, envy, jealousy, etc.
  • Our eyes, mouths, etc.

You can see into a person’s heart by the way they walk into a room or look at you. The issue is that not only do our minds begin to develop patterns of thinking, but also our bodies interact with those patterns of thinking and feeling by how they set. Our bodies reinforce, then, our spiritual formation for good or ill.

Training Our Bodies in Anticipation of the Resurrection

Our bodies will one day be resurrected bodies. Heaven is not a place for disembodied souls. The body will be redeemed fully at the general resurrection. Because we anticipate its redemption, we must train it today.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 says: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 

We cooperate with God’s grace given to us by choosing to no longer offer parts of our bodies to sin. Romans 6:12-13 says, Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.” Whereas we once found it quite easy for our bodies to engage in sinful activity–it doesn’t take anything supernatural for us to take part in fornication, greed, covetousness–we now submit our bodies to Christ and His Spirit.

Dallas Willard says we can do four things for the spiritual formation of the body:

  1. Release our body to God. This is what Paul means when he says, “present our body as a living sacrifice to God” (Romans 12:1). Specifically pray about each part of your body and ask God to take charge of it and to begin giving life to each part.
  2. No longer idolize your body. Stop worrying about what will happen to it with age and sickness, stop spending so much money on making it more beautiful, etc. Take good care of it with diet and exercise, but do not make it an idol.
  3. Do not misuse your body. He says this means not using it as a source of sensual gratification outside of the sexual relationship in marriage and not using it to dominate others. This means not using it in brute force to intimidate, or using it in sexual ways to manipulate or seduce. It also means not overworking it.
  4. The body is to be properly honored and cared for. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-15a, “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” This is part of Paul’s argument for them not to engage in sex with prostitutes. For us, while this may not be a temptation, we are called to treat our bodies like they are members of Christ (Renovation of the Heart, pp. 173-174).

Like everything else God is trying to do in us, the transformation of our bodies anticipates the day when our good bodies are resurrected and perfected. We train them now not in despair because they will disappear one day, but because God will use the very physical material of our current bodies to create our new ones, just as He did with Jesus.

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