If we can say anything about 2024 as we enter the new year, it will be (as all years are) a year of joys, and a year of challenges. Given that it will also be an election year, it is likely to be one with its fair share of conflict. As Christians, we’re called to conflict, but conflict of a specific kind. As we begin this new year, it might be helpful to review our theme for the year: “Battle Tested.” In 2 Corinthians 10: 3-5, Paul encourages followers of Jesus to this world and its challenges through a unique lens, not as those around us would see it: “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
The reason we chose this theme in our 50th year is that our school has stood the test of time, but has done so while constantly engaged in spiritual warfare against our enemy, the devil. As Christians, it is wise and healthy for us to be reminded of that battle, and to prepare our kids for lifelong engagement in it. Spiritual warfare plays out in the life of our kids and families every day, and in our hallways, so this theme is a timely one. We probably all see evidence of spiritual warfare around us, and Scripture makes it clear that we are engaged in a cosmic war.
As a faculty and staff, we have been reading John Mark Comer’s “No More Lies” this year. Comer’s book is very helpful in understanding the schemes of the enemy, and how to resist him.
The first thing to remember in our battle is that our enemy is a liar. As Jesus said, he’s the father of lies- they are his native tongue. In John 8, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees, and tells us about the devil: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
Comer reminds us that for millennia the Church has taught that the enemies of our soul are a kind of unholy trinity, mirroring the real thing: the devil, the flesh, and the world. He notes that the devil has a core strategy- to use deceptive ideas (lies) that play to disordered desires (appealing to our sin natures, our flesh) that then become normalized in our broken, fallen culture (the world). This system comprised of the devil, the flesh, and the world has been the devil’s tactic since our fall in the Garden. The devil hasn’t had to change his approach, because it is tried and true, and very effective.
The apostle Paul reminds us in Eph. 6:12 that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but… against the spiritual forces of evil.” Likewise, he says, our “weapons are not the weapons of the world, but have divine power to demolish strongholds.” 2 Cor. 10:4.
If we’re going to avoid falling prey to the devil, and prevail over him in this battle in which we’re engaged, we have to understand the ways we are commonly seduced by his false narratives, and we have to ensure we are fighting the right enemies using the right weapons to achieve the right objectives. If not, we’re just playing into his hands.
In Russell Moore’s most recent book, “Losing Our Religion”, he observes that members of Generation Z are leaving the church in precipitous numbers, and that the reason is not as much because they don’t believe that what the Church says about Jesus is true. Instead, he notes, they don’t believe that the Church actually believes it. In other words, they see a lack of integrity– our words are not matching our actions in our generation, turning them off and away. Part of that lack of integrity is caught up in letting the devil trick us into chasing the wrong objectives against the wrong enemy using the wrong weapons. Before we know it, we don’t look much like the Church to the very people we’re trying to attract (which, of course, is the devil’s whole point. It’s exactly what he wants). So, who does Scripture say is not our enemy? What are not our weapons, and what is not our battlefield, or objective?
When Paul says our enemies are not flesh and blood, he is telling us not to vilify those the world vilifies. And, who does the world vilify in our culture? Who are its enemies? Those of other political parties? Races or ethnic groups? Other “tribes,” that aren’t mine? Anybody who constitutes “the Other?” My next-door neighbor (not mine- I actually like that guy. I’m talking about yours)? Who else?
If Scripture is true, then, to treat these people and groups as enemies, to call them evil rather than to see them as captives or those being manipulated by our true enemy and worthy of our compassion, or to think of annihilation or defeat, versus salvation and truth, as the solution for them, are all lies. We play into the devil’s schemes when we adopt these mindsets.
And, that’s the common narrative today, isn’t it? When we look on our television and social media, the goal is to “own” these people. They are described as “evil.” Words like “annihilate” are used. Words equating them to animals, dehumanizing words. These are not God words or concepts or ideas, and yet we see them played out in our culture. We have to resist the enemy’s words, and resist his schemes.
As followers of Jesus, we need to let words like these be triggers for our Holy Spirit-led discernment that something is wrong, that we are being lied to, told to treat someone who is not our enemy as if they are. As Moore says, “The gospel appeals to the mind, the affections, the imagination, and the conscience, not the limbic system (“fight or flight”). The gospel does not seek to depersonalize people into a faceless crowd of channeled anger.” Our goal with those who oppose or disagree with us is salvation of their souls-to make them a part of our family, by God’s grace and in his timing- and let the Holy Spirit change hearts and minds.
Similarly, Paul tells us that “our weapons are not the weapons of this world.” They’re not weapons used to do battle against earthly foes, but against spiritual ones: they “have divine power to demolish (spiritual) strongholds.”
The weapons of this world that are not our weapons include personal attacks, weaponized social media, canceling people, excluding them from one’s tribe, physical violence, and other damaging tactics. “Taking back the culture,” or “Taking back control of the government,” using any of these means, are not Christian weapons, not Jesus language.
Faith, love, prayer, hope, perseverance, the fruit of the spirit is “speaking Jesus.” These are the weapons of our warfare. Second Corinthians 10 says these weapons are good for tearing down Satan’s strongholds and devices- they do great damage to his domain. Romans 12 tells us that “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” What happens when we actually pray for our “enemies,” and when we do what are essentially loving acts toward them? Generally, they stop becoming our enemies, whether outwardly or in our hearts. Paul encourages us to make those who would ordinarily be our enemies not our enemies. This is the way of Jesus.
But using these Jesus weapons is time-consuming, isn’t it? To win someone over, to break down strongholds through prayer and love, is to play the long game. It can take years, and we don’t always seem to quickly get the win. We may not actually even see it. It sometimes seems like it’s just quicker and easier to use some of the weapons of the world- to manipulate, to gain power over others, to exert my will over them and control them- you know, the way of the devil. But this is the way to destruction.
Plus, we’re the eternal children of the living God. We have nothing but time. The long game is no problem for us.
The final area we want to get right when engaging in spiritual warfare is aiming for the right objective- what’s our purpose in this battle in which we’re engaged? Two passages of Scripture shed light on both our true goal, and the counterfeit. In Matthew 4, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be readied for ministry by being tempted by the devil. The devil tempts him three times, and the third temptation involves Satan somehow taking Jesus to a place where he can supernaturally show him all the kingdoms of the earth. The devil tells him, “These are all mine, and I’ll give them to you if you worship me.” (Satan actually has dominion at this point, after the fall).
This was an opportunity for Jesus to save the world, in a manner of speaking, meaning to become a good and just ruler over the world. But to do so, he had to take a shortcut- a worldly route to power instead of a heavenly one. The catch was that this route meant no salvation of the world, and no price paid for sin. It meant people still living in captivity to sin, but instead having a righteous ruler of a worldly kingdom.
How does Jesus respond? He casts Satan out, saying he will worship God only, and serve God only. He is on God’s agenda: rather than Satan’s shortcut to earthly power, God’s complete restoration of all humankind, at a hard cost.
The second passage is Matthew 16. Jesus and his disciples are at Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus asks who they say he is. Peter speaks up for the group, and replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus confirms that he is the Messiah, and almost immediately thereafter, and totally befuddling to the disciples, Jesus starts sharing with them what will happen to him.
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord![e] This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
When Jesus begins prophesying his future, it messes with the disciples’ minds, with their preconceived notions of what Jesus being Messiah means. Of course, he’s going to lead a rebellion against the Romans, to throw off the chains of oppression, to lead Israel to freedom. He’s going to provide security, safety, and a new age of prosperity in an earthly monarchy. This talk about dying at the hands of the Pharisees and Romans doesn’t make any sense to them. It blows their categories, undermining all their plans and ideas about what salvation looks like. So, they rebuke him: “Stop talking about this death nonsense, Jesus. Let’s get on with making the kingdom happen.”
What was Jesus’ response? “Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to me!” He wasn’t calling Peter “Satan,” but saying that Peter and all the disciples were being used by Satan to once again tempt him to short-circuit God’s plan in exchange for Satan’s. Satan is happy to have a just, secure rule here on earth as long as it means everyone remains in captivity to him. And, once again, Jesus resists that temptation. Jesus’ kingdom isn’t primarily about earthly power or authority or security or prosperity or freedom. His kingdom is already here, and it thrives and flourishes even (especially?) where these things don’t exist. His kingdom is the objective.
It seems as though the Church, especially in our country, misses this objective these days, as the disciples did and as Christians have often done throughout the ages. Motivated by fear and the press of the world around us (Satan’s distractions) we believe the goal is safety, security, and earthly power, and in the process of chasing these things we make alliances, compromises, and employ strategies that are the schemes of our enemy, not our Lord.
This is not a criticism of any particular political candidate, or any particular political party or special interest group. But there is beauty in understanding our objective as the Church is the hearts and souls of human beings, the salvation of the world, and pointing forward to the kingdom of God, and not the restoration of our country or any other earthly kingdom. This perspective frees us up to see all candidates and parties and interest groups as deeply flawed human institutions, perhaps doing some good things, but unable to provide ultimate solutions, because they were never intended or created to do so. They are certainly not worthy vehicles of our hope and faith, and it’s dangerous and deceptive when we think or act as though we think they are.
The children of Truth will always defeat the father of lies when we look up from the sandlot football game that’s going on around us and realize we’re in the NFL: different game, different opponent, different rules. Let’s pick our battles wisely.