‘War’ is a dirty word these days. In the current cultural mood, Christians are supposed to abhor violence, and we find those Old Testament passages that talk about war and fighting more than a little embarrassing. Military metaphors are frowned upon – even though the Bible is littered with them. Nobody dare sing hymns like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ in a church service any more.
And yet warfare is a major Biblical theme, and for very good reason. “Fight the good fight of the faith” (I Timothy 6:12), says Paul to Timothy. Anyone who becomes a Christian will sooner or later find that the Christian life is not all ‘plain sailing’, because we are up against an enemy: the devil, and his allies. They cannot conquer us, because we belong to Christ and He is stronger than they are; but they are powerful and they can make life very difficult for us. We therefore need to know how to deal with them.
The first lesson to learn is that we cannot opt out of the struggle. “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). Don’t expect the Christian life to be an easy one. As soon as we commit ourselves to Jesus, as soon as we cross over from the kingdom of darkness to His Kingdom of light, we shall find ourselves under attack from the forces of evil. This is a conflict in which there can be no neutrality; whoever is at peace with the world (or the flesh, or the devil) is at enmity with God (James 4:4). “Whoever is not with Me is against Me,” says Jesus (Matthew 12:30).
The second lesson is that the enemy is within as well as without. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is always weak. And so we are continually having to face up to our flaws – both individually, and as churches. Persecution from the outside is tough enough to cope with; but false teaching and persistent sin are actually more serious threats, because they bring the Gospel into disrepute.
The third lesson is that most of our spiritual ‘fighting’ takes place in our ordinary everyday lives. The occult and the demonic have always exerted a strong fascination (and make good material for Christian books), but there is much more to spiritual warfare than exorcism! We may never encounter a case of demon possession, but false teachers are everywhere, and our own sinful desires are always with us. And those with the ‘mundane’ duties play as important a role as those who gain glory on on the front line (I Samuel 30:24).
The fourth lesson is that we cannot expect to survive without relying upon God. Material resources are ineffective in a spiritual battle. We can’t resist Satan in our own strength, only by trusting in the power of God (II Thessalonians 3:3). For this reason, the weapons we fight with must not be the weapons of the world (II Corinthians 10:4). Prayer (and also fasting, at times) are essential (Luke 22:40; Mark 9:28,29).
Why should we bother? In the spiritual war, pacifism is not an option. If we do not fight against the devil and his allies, we shall be slaves of sin, just as much as if we had never become Christians. We shall fail to glorify God, and we shall not be able to bear the full fruit of the Spirit. We shall be ashamed when Jesus returns, instead of rejoicing.
Why should we bother? Because a glorious reward awaits “the one who is victorious” (Revelation 2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21). We honour those who have gone before us, some of whom have laid down their lives in the battle – both those within the pages of our Bibles (Hebrews 11) and the more recent saints and martyrs. We can take encouragement from their example!