Spiritual warfare — for some a phrase that elicits excitement, for others a reason to sneak out of the room. For those who cringe at the thought, hold on — I will try to offer a new perspective. For those who love the topic, this will be a little bit different.
To have a need for spiritual warfare, one needs to believe that we do not just live in a physical world, but a spiritual one as well. Since the Bible is full of descriptions of supernatural events, angels, demons, sorcerers, prophets and regular people suddenly able to perform miracles, one can conclude that it’s more than just a story. What can we learn about this from the New Testament?
How Jesus was conceived by Mary is certainly a supernatural event and pretty important for Christian faith I would say. His birth and protection as a little child includes many appearances of angels (Matt. 10:20; Luk. 1:26–38; Luk. 2:9–13; Matt. 2:13). Later, we see how Jesus deals with demons (Matt. 8:28) and in addition, He gives that power to His disciples (Luk. 9:1–6). Later, Paul and Barnabas have to deal with a sorcerer who was not happy about the idea that the deputy of his area turned to Christ (Acts 13:4–12). The book of Acts is of course full of examples in which Christians experienced and performed miracles. The book is extremely uplifting!
Experiencing the supernatural for ourselves encourages us to pray for things that seem complicated — even impossible. The first time a prayer is miraculously answered in a powerful way, we can’t help but feel excited about supernatural intervention. One wants to have more such experiences! Additionally, one can also have dreams, visions, the feeling of getting touched while nobody is in the room and much more. At the same time, there are of course negative things — bad dreams, people acting out of order or prayers not directly answered. One could come to the conclusion that these might be the results of a spiritual attack.
So what is the typical idea of spiritual warfare?
The Common Approach
Spiritual warfare blends the idea of the existence of the supernatural with the goal to defend and advance God’s kingdom. The wish to fight for God and His kingdom excited people from early on, sometimes leading to extreme manifestations like the Crusades. Fortunately, far from being against “flesh and blood,” today spiritual warfare has more of a focus on the power of faith and prayer. Often, it is the idea that Christians have to contend in prayer for things. In some cases, it is presented that the believer is under attack by demons, or the devil.
Even though I am convinced that the supernatural exists, I see severe weaknesses in the typical approach to spiritual warfare.
It exhibits a lack of discernment.
I believe this lack originates from a very black-and-white idea on how things are and why they happen. A common assumption is that everything bad that happens is caused by the devil. Because of this, even the natural consequences of actions are often labeled “attacks”.
For example, if I don’t drink enough water during the day, I will eventually get a bad headache. In this case, the headache is neither a demon nor caused by one, but the biological result of dehydration due to my poor choice. While it is true that some headaches are linked to demonic activity, they can also come from stress or too much sun. To understand the cause of a headache therefore, one needs to practice discernment and accept that there are more possible causes than an evil spirit. This is just one of many examples in which discernment is important in finding the true root of the symptom, and treating it accordingly.
It can be unbalanced.
In charismatic circles, the focus is often too much on the spiritual. Though it is agreed that humans have a spirit, a soul and a body, some are convinced that only the spirit is “good”, and body and soul are more or less highly susceptible to corruption we have to battle against and eventually get rid of. This thought comes from ancient Greek philosophy. Plato presented the idea of a place we could only vaguely see and not enter, because our body and soul would hinder us. Augustine, one of the early church fathers, mixed this idea with the Gospel. The result? Many want to be as “spiritual” as possible by focusing solely on the spirit. Today, this view is spread broadly throughout Christianity.
In fact, some try to be so spiritual that they feel they must wait for Gods direction in making even the simplest decisions. Now, trying to follow God closely is noble, and I know that if God prompts us to pick a certain shirt to wear it’s a good idea to do so. On the other hand, we don’t need to ask God every day which socks we should wear. Though I don’t have children myself, I assume that a parent doesn’t want to choose the clothes for their children all the way into the teenage years (even if they might not always agree with their choices!).
As children of God, we can grow and become mature — while still trusting Him, of course. The key to growth is not acting “grown-up” or as an extra-holy Christian, but rather understanding how much God loves us and respond to this love inside of a relationship with Him. The more we grow in relationship with God, the more natural it should become to do things in the spirit intuitively.
The Anti-Spiritual Approach
There is a perspective that completely rejects the concept of spiritual warfare as presented above. This perspective is that demons do not exist, which, of course, would make “warfare in the spirit” rather silly. I recently heard a comment that looking for evil spirits is unnecessary because, as children of God we “have the promise.” In part this is true, for we are heirs of God’s kingdom and it is important that we know that. But, knowing something doesn’t necessarily put that knowledge into action. If someone tries to beat you up, and you know your opponent has no right to do that, or that you could easily defend yourself, this will not protect you. Only actual self-defence (knowledge in action) will help.
While this approach neglects the influence of the spiritual or even ignores the existence of this realm, it focuses on identity. Their take is based on scripture: We are co-heirs with Christ (Gal. 4:7). With Christ we are seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). In the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians, Paul explains that Jesus rose from death and was seated at the right hand of God the Father. That He received all of the authority (Eph. 1). If we are seated there together with Jesus, that means we have got the same authority. We are not alone there — God is with us in this place and would teach us, if we let Him.
We need to know this. Otherwise, we are too easily lost in a victim mentality. I say this because not knowing our authority could lead to the idea that we cannot do things and that we need to wait and suffer until someone appears with a solution. This could even lead to the wish that one might like to die sooner rather than later, lest all sorts of bad things and “attacks” happen to us. I know that some experiences are painful and sad. But if we know our authority, even in very unpleasant and painful things we can focus on the solution and healing God wants to bring to and through us.
Knowing our authority gives us the option to act and create solutions together with God.
But to get really effective, we would have to engage also in the spirit. For this approach, though, “spiritual warfare” is a red flag. And I totally get their reasons!
One of the problems mentioned by the voices countering the typical approach to spiritual warfare is fear. It is believed that the conventional way only serves to make the enemy stronger, as people could become afraid of all the imagined bad things that could come against them.
I personally agree that fear is a big problem in spiritual warfare. I would even say that it can cause bad things to happen so that no spirit needs to get involved! At the same time, I have seen good and bad spirits operating and sometimes we do need to act — but with the right foundation. Though people made mistakes in spiritual warfare, I don’t think it’s a solution to completely banish that topic. Instead we could think about how it would be done healthy and effectively.
Sidenote: I wrote another article that addresses the supernatural to those who doubt it, that you could read here. Since doubting the influence of the spiritual is a hot topic, I consider writing another article on this view that does it more justice. But let me do a bit more research, first.
Merging the Good of Both
We have two stereotypical views on spiritual warfare. One for, one against. One of them focuses more on the supernatural, the other emphasizes identity. I would suggest merging both perspectives, because the supernatural is real and understanding our authority as children of God and co-heirs with Christ is essential to moving safely in the spirit. This would also combine two very important aspects of Christianity: sonship and transcendence. We do need to know who we are, and we do need to know God and the spiritual realm.
In Matthew 6:10, Jesus asks us to pray in this fashion:
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
This idea may or may not be new to you, but our call as disciples is to bring heaven down to earth. And Jesus has prepared everything so that we are able to do so. I base this on Jesus’ proclamation,
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.” (John 14:12).
Jesus preached about the kingdom of God (Luk. 8:1 and many other verses) and that He did what He saw the Father doing (John 5:19). This implies that the healings, how Jesus dealt with people, how He loved on them is all part of heaven, and that these activities are now on our to-do list.
However, we can only act on this if we know what heavenly solutions look like, and what God desires to happen in that specific moment.
If we don’t know heaven in terms of what is normal for God in the spiritual realm, or, as Jesus called it, the kingdom, we won’t know what it is we are to actually set up on earth. At the same time, if we know heaven but have no clue who we are in Christ, we won’t know that we have the legal right and the position to bring heaven to earth.
So if we know heaven and also our identity, we can stay relaxed in “battles” that try to stop the kingdom. For we know the goal and are equipped to find a strategy to reach it.
Spiritual warfare, that accepts the supernatural and understands the identity and power of us as children of God, releases the atmosphere, the miracles and culture of heaven on earth — and all this in a way that casts out fear by powerful love.
So to answer our initial question:
Yes, we do need to fight in the spirit — it just looks different than we may have thought.
I write this with the best intentions, knowing it’s just a fraction of what could be said or done. That’s why I want to invite you to test this as per 1Th. 5:21. Throw out the bad, of course, but in throwing out, don’t chuck the baby with the bathwater! Keep the good. Next, I will explore how we can safely engage in spiritual warfare by combining these two perspectives on spiritual warfare. Stay tuned.
N E X T → How to Fight in the Spirit (in progress)
The Reality of the Spiritual ← P R E V I O U S