The Conqueror And The Stronghold
It is awfully hard to play a game if you don’t know the rules. I remember a time when I was growing up when I learned this firsthand: somebody introduced me to the game of Mao. If you are unfamiliar, Mao is a card game that became famous – or infamous, rather – for rejecting the notion of a fully standardized ruleset and keeping only a few consistent rules: It is played with a standard deck of cards, its main goal is for each player to empty their hand as fast as possible, and no player can talk while playing the game without incurring a penalty (with a few exceptions). All other rules are kept secret, even foregoing written form, and nobody is allowed to explain these rules to a new player. To be successful, the game requires trial and error and far more patience than I was willing to give it. I’ve only played once, so if you would like to learn how to play, I’m afraid I can’t help you.
Unfortunately, the game of Mao provides a fairly clear picture of how an important topic in our walks with Christ tends to get treated. Previous experience and random shots in the dark tend to rule the day. Nobody talks about it because it seems murky and makes us fearful. Word of mouth may have provided us some tidbits about it, but we’re not sure how much of it we can actually trust. This thing I am referencing is spiritual warfare, but thankfully, unlike the game of Mao, there is no prohibition for talking about it. God’s Word has plenty to say about the rules.
Declaration Of War
One of the most important things we need to understand about spiritual warfare is the true role we play in it. Though it doesn’t use the same war-like language as other passages of Scripture, the first mention of spiritual warfare occurs in Genesis 3:1: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” Here enters the enemy, and we watch him tempt the crown of God’s creation with a shockingly tantalizing proposition. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’” (Genesis 3:4-5) The serpent tempts Eve by trying to convince her that God, a holy and divine and all-powerful being lifted up above creation as only its Creator can be, is nothing so special that she, a created being, could be prevented from becoming like Him. Such a statement from the mouth of the serpent could only mean war.
We should note the very basics of the conflict recorded here: One side opposes the other and does so by vying for contested ground. Since we as human beings are not inanimate objects, sometimes it can be hard for us to realize that, just as controlling territory is one of the main considerations for a war effort in our world, controlling hearts and souls is one of the primary concerns of the spiritual war in the heavens. We are the contested ground. Satan, attempting to wrest God’s creation away from Him, strives on one side of that ground, and God, sovereign and supreme, reigns on the other. Let us not go away with an understanding that we can somehow remove our portion of that contested ground from the conflict. God cares for all humanity, and that means that everyone is fair play.
Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures
With the lines clearly drawn, how can we expect the battle to be waged? When we think of spiritual warfare, we often think of cultural takes on the matter such as having a devil on our shoulder that constantly debates us or losing control of ourselves due to a demonic possession like in the movie The Exorcist. We are tempted to think that if something is real, it must somehow have a physical presence or effect.
In 2 Corinthians 10, the Apostle Paul directly addressed a group of naysayers on this issue. They accused him of weakness due to his physical appearance and even attempted to dissuade people of the truth of the Gospel by concluding that a man who had suffered like Paul had suffered could not be from God. God couldn’t be at work in such a weak vessel, they scoffed. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, contended something much different, however. “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.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4) The power of the kingdom of God is not in the flesh of a man nor is the contest decided by his strength. This should tell us two things.
First, it should show us that God’s enemies prefer working in something other than the flesh. The contested ground is the heart, after all, and the heart is controlled by the beliefs that it holds, not by physical force. If somehow the enemies of God can exercise leverage on the beliefs of the heart, they have a much better chance of making headway in their effort. In this respect, the choice strategy of the oppressive powers of darkness is to attempt to deceive us and convince us of schemes of their own devising, not the truth of God. (Ephesians 6:11) It is hard to see things in the dark, so if they can somehow turn out the lights, it will be impossible for us to see anything.
Quite often we come to believe things that are not true – we can see now that the phenomenon is not a coincidence. How often have we been tempted to think more highly of ourselves than we should? How often have we been convinced that something about our identity needs to be true in order to be “okay”? We are tempted with the lie that we can stand on our own and that we do not need God – that we can be our own god. Even if we’re not convinced of our self-sufficiency, we are not immune. It is far too easy to be convinced that a friendship, a marriage, a job, a house, a car, a set of clothes, a piece of cake, a drink, some porn, a lie – I could go on – can fulfill us in ways that we’ve come to believe God can’t or won’t. When these lies let us down, we might even find ourselves walking down a road of despair. We freely adopt new lies: that we’ll always be alone, that we’re completely devoid of worth, or that we’ll never meet the standards that we feel have been set (to name a few). These beliefs trap us and hold us captive in a death grip. This is why they are called strongholds, places of such fortification that to get in or out without the say of the one in control is impossible.
This leads us to the second realization we should take from Paul’s statement: God offers an abundantly capable power to respond to the efforts of His enemies. Paul mentions here a “divine power”, thus a power that can belong only to God. While we are wholly unworthy to even look upon such a power, God offered His Son Jesus Christ to blot out our records of rebellion against Him and bestow upon us new life by that divine power. John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him [Christ], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” and to the children the inheritance of the Father goes. Only in this way can the divine power of God be offered to us in the fight, but once it is offered, the tide turns.
Paul in his letter goes on to say, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). With the darkness dispelled, we can see clearly to live in the freedom of God, and the same power that freed us through Christ continues its work by dismantling the fabric of Satan’s schemes. Strongholds, or deeply held beliefs, crumble into the phony arguments and prideful opinions that built their battlements, and such bricks vanish into dust under the mighty hand of God. The thoughts that kept vigil over the darkness are forced under the authority of our conquering God – note that prisoners of war in biblical times quite largely faced either execution for their loyalty to the losing side or slavery under the new ruling authority. Thoughts must serve King Jesus – in reverence, fruitfulness, and faithfulness – or they must perish.
The power of God is to free us from the grip of sin and death that Satan used to control our hearts and to illuminate the truth of Christ that sets us free in our new lives. We can see it practically in how the Holy Spirit brings us new realizations of truth when studying the Bible, in how a brother or sister in Christ shows up at a time of dire need to help us bear our load, and in how, beyond any sense that can be made of it in our flesh, we find peace and hope growing in our hearts regardless of circumstance. (Philippians 4:7)
The Best Rule There Is
Christ is the victor in the spiritual war. Though we find ourselves embroiled in the battle every day, Christ reigns supreme over the conflict. Wars in our world are ultimately settled by force, but spiritual battles are ultimately settled by authority. Christ has that authority, and if we are found in Him, we need not fear. Let us remember that, while God and Satan are opposites in many ways, they are by no means equals. Consider the story of Job: Twice in the first two chapters of the book, Satan approaches God and requests to afflict Job with hardship in order to expose what he has deemed an underlying disloyalty to the Lord in Job’s heart. Both times, God permits Satan to afflict Job, but He establishes clear boundaries on how far Satan can go. He restricts him first from afflicting Job himself and then from killing Job even though he is allowed to ravage his health. Satan has never truly had power or authority beyond God’s, and regardless of our situation, we can rest in the fact that this is true.
The Field Manual
As Christians, we must learn to navigate this wartime life. There’s not a perfect roadmap, but some good steps are:
- Put on the full armor of God. (Ephesians 6:13-17)
- Be patient as strongholds don’t always fall in a day.
- Understand that attacks will be constant because of a tenacious enemy but not unbearable because of a God who is with us always.
- Be thankful for all things as it is the best way to bring things under the authority of Christ.
- Pursue truth so no part of reality will be replaced with a lie.
Above all, remember to take to heart the words of our Savior, the one who truly holds the power, on the nature of this fight: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:19-20) Indeed, may God be glorified.
Suggestions For Further Study:
The Bondage Breaker by Neil T. Anderson (available by book or RightNow Media study)