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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.

For the Sake of the World

Spiritual formation is never for our own sake. It is always for the sake of someone else–especially the other person who does not yet know Christ. We may attend Bible studies and classes but if what we learn does not result in mission alongside God, then we are not truly like Christ. 

I can’t prove this, but I’ve seen it. The person who is new in Christ, fresh in church attendance, with little knowledge of Scripture, is the person likeliest to grasp this concept. They may have questions about how to relate to a non-Christian spouse or friends, but their first thought is never, “I’ve got to get away from all those people in order to focus on my relationship with Jesus.” They are trying to figure out how their new life in Christ gels with what they’re used to. It is this attitude that we all ought to embrace: How does our life with Christ gel with the people, places, and cultural norms that are indifferent to or opposed to Christ?

Dr. Jim Lo at IWU once stated something like, “Worship fuels mission.” Others have said that the greatest gift we can give the world is our intimacy with God (David Robertson of KBM is one). This is what we’re getting at here.

In the New Testament, “world” (Gk. kosmos) is used in three ways.
1. It is the material creation of God, the locus of God’s redemptive activity. God is actively involved in this physical world. Christians are not deists who think God has removed Himself from His created order.
2. It is the place we live in. Simple enough.
3. It stands for humanity living in sin, antagonistic or apathetic toward God. John’s writings in the NT often speak this way.

This threefold usage of the word makes sense and ought to impact how we view our spiritual formation.

1. We are being formed for the sake of the world, God’s material creation. Creation care matters. The things we do to provide clean water for people, for example, are an outcropping of our spiritual formation.

2. We are being formed for the sake of the world, the place we live in. Maybe not so simple. Could it be that this place, cursed though it was at the Fall, is anticipating its own redemption. This is part of Paul’s point in Romans 8–the groaning of the creation that waits for its liberation from bondage to decay is intricately tied to our hope, the redemption of our bodies. When God brings the final resurrection to pass, He will also recreate and renew this world. We grow in spiritual formation, therefore, so that we might play our roles as stewards of creation one day.

3. We are being formed for the sake of the world, those who are living in sin. This “world” desperately needs to see Christ’s body in action. Those who take seriously Christ’s call to radical discipleship, to love God and love neighbor with all they are. Relationships with these kind of men and women are what make the biggest difference in the world around us. Not church programs, not the four spiritual laws, not my blog–but relationships with those who are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.

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