What Spiritual Warfare Is (and What It Definitely Isn’t)
There is a reason why Paul writes about putting on “the whole armor of God” in Ephesians 6:10-18.
Armor, as an image, primes the believing imagination to see the Christian life in a certain way. A soldier who puts on armor is making a statement about the world into which they step. The moments in front of them are not perfectly safe. There is real danger in their future—danger that is not just threatening in a general way, but which offers a particular, specific threat to them personally.
There is likewise this element of danger in the Christian life about which Paul cautions the Ephesian church. It is a danger that is not just from within ourselves, but that also has a particular, specific external source: a spiritual entity we call Satan (“the accuser”), or the devil. We know this because in verses 11-12 Paul says that the reason for putting on the full armor of God is so that “you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Sadly, the whole question of spiritual warfare has, for many years now, been complicated by its hijacking at the hands of fringe Christian movements that blow up the idea into lurid, sensational caricature. The story that has always stuck in my mind is of one Christian group that attempted to summit Mount Everest in order to battle and banish a spirit known as “the Queen of Heaven,” who was allegedly suppressing gospel work in Turkey. One trusts the reader to recognize that this is bonkersness at a black belt level.
This is too bad. It is too bad because spiritual warfare is not not a thing. Scripture tells us that there are real, actual spiritual forces arrayed against the triune God and his every goal, among which are your continued faithfulness and allegiance to Jesus.
Knowing that spiritual warfare is not the lunacy that it is so often masqueraded as is useful, of course. It helps us say, “No, nice try,” to foolishness that otherwise survives exclusively on our credulity and naiveté.
As to what it is, let me hazard this as a short definition: Spiritual warfare is the leveraging of everything that God promises against everything that opposes God’s purposes.
God is a God of purposes and promises. Purposes to redeem the world and promises to judge wickedness. Purposes to grow his children into maturity and promises to unfailingly steward that process. Purposes to save us and glorify his name, and promises about our lives and about his holy character.
Satan and his spiritual forces oppose all of that. They oppose all of God’s purposes for salvation and redemption, as well as his every promise for accomplishing it.
In Christians they will attempt to sever our connection with God, prey on our natural inclination to sin, and deceive us into believing untruths that might hinder our discipleship or cause us to lose our effectiveness for God’s kingdom.
Given that dramatic and mildly scary context, Scripture has two valuable promises for us, one ultimate and the other immediate. The first is that while these forces are admittedly powerful (Satan is described as a “roaring lion,” looking to devour people), they are ultimately subservient to our almighty and omnipotent God.
“I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29).
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The other promise is that we have immediate assistance available to us. This is the purpose of the “armor of God” that Paul mentions. While we are ultimately destined for the safety of heaven, in the here and now we are assailed by “the fiery darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16). When that happens, we have the promise that, in our this-second, right-now need, if we don the full armor of God—the full array of his promises for us, which are truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, God’s Word, prayer—we can stand firm against any attack.
If this is not you—which is to say, if you are a Christian brother or sister who constantly seems to be getting cut, bloodied, or wounded by the jabs and thrusts of the enemy and cannot understand why—I have difficult and exciting news to share: there is armor available to you. Learning to put it on will likely be hard work, but the best of your spiritual life is in your future.
You are not meant for weakness. You are meant for strength (James 4:7)—a strength that comes not from you, but to you, from Christ (“be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” [Ephesians 6:10]).
That’s why there is no armor of “self-help section at Barnes & Noble.” There is no breastplate of mindfulness or shield of “staying in the moment,” no helmet of centering breathing or sword of “self-esteem mantra.”
The armor is God’s, and it’s yours for the wearing. Don’t protect yourself with tissue paper—not when steel is needed, and when steel is at hand.
For more on spiritual warfare, check out these InterVarsity Press resources: