09 January 2007

Thoughts on Spiritual Warfare (synchroblog)

The term "spiritual warfare" expresses something fundamental about the Christian worldview: that there is a heavenly battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan.

Such views were not uncommon in the world in which Christianity first appeared. Zoroastrianism was based on the idea of such a battle. Gnosticism has a similar idea, only it was based primarily on a dualistic conception of matter and spirit -- spirit was good and matter was evil. Later Manichaeism also promoted such views. But Christianity differed from these in that it rejected the idea that evil was an equal and opposite force to good. Christianity taught that God was good, and his creation was good. While good can exist without evil, evil cannot exist without good, just as good money can exist without counterfeit money, but counterfeit money cannot exist without a system of good money. Evil cannot create anything. It can only twist and pervert the good things that God has created.

While Western theology later saw an important distinction between natural and supernatural, Orthodox theology maintained that the primary distinction is between created and uncreated. The significant thing about angels, demons and the devil is not that they are "supernatural", and therefore different from us, but that they are created, and therefore, like us, are dependent on God. The devil has indeed rebelled against God, but remains a creature, and therefore distinct from and certainly not equal to the Creator.

The devil has sought to draw the whole earth into his rebellion, and so St John tells us that "the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One" (I Jn 5:19). The world is therefore enemy-occupied territory. But in Jesus Christ God himself has entered the enemy-occupied territory, and begun to reclaim it from the usurper, Satan.

In describing this process, Christian theology has often used military imagery and terminology. One could say that by his death and resurrection Christ has created a liberated zone within the enemy-occupied territory that is the world. When we become Christians, therefore, we enter the liberated zone of the Kingdom of God.

The Orthodox baptism service is preceded by no fewer than four exorcisms. By being born into the world we are citizens by birth of the Kingdom of Satan, possessed by Satan. But possession is not the same as ownership, and so the exorcisms are to liberate us from the power of the devil. Only then are we free to renounce him, facing the West, the direction of darkness, unshod. Then turning, literally "converting" to face the East, the direction of light, of the "Orient from on High", we unite ourselves to Christ, and acknowledge him as our King and our God. Then we are baptised, and transferred from the authority of darkness to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (Lk 22:53; Col 1:13-14). Baptism is therefore analogous in some ways to an earthly naturalisation ceremony, when we renounce our alliegiance to one country and pledge it to another. The difference, however, is that most states in the world distinguish between citizens by birth and citizens by naturalisation, but by baptism we are born again by water and Spirit, and so become citizens of the kingdom of God by birth.

In our baptism, Christ snatches us out of the clutches of the devil, out of Hell itself. But thought we have been taken out of Hell, Hell has not been entirely taken out of us. We are made citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, but much of our thought and behaviour has been shaped by our sojourn in the kingdom of Satan. We therefore need to put off the old man and put on the new, we need to walk worthy of the calling by which we have been called, as St Paul puts it. We need to become godly. And it is at this point that our ascetic struggle, our spiritual warfare, becomes most fierce, because the devil will try by all means to recapture those who have escaped from his prison.

In almost every one of St Paul's epistles, he begins by saying what God has done for us by saving us from the power of the devil and bringing us into his kingdom, and then about halfway through there is a "therefore", and he then describes the kind of behaviour that belonged to our old life that we must put off, and the godly ways that we must put on. God has done all these things for us, therefore we need to change our lives and live like this. It is important to see what the therefore is there for.

As I see it, there are three aspects of spiritual warfare, or three main ways in which we may become engaged in spiritual warfare:

The ascetic struggle against the passions

The ascetic struggle (Greek ascesis, Russian podvig) is compared by St Paul to the training of an athlete to win a race. It is also analogous to military discipline and training. Discipline and discipleship are related words. The podvizhnik is a spiritual athlete who is becoming fit. As we put off the passions and embrace dispassion (apatheia) we draw closer to Godf, and become more godly.

Deliverance from demonic oppression

When we read the New Testament we see that our Lord Jesus Christ devoted a considerable part of his earthly ministry to casting out unclean spirits from people who were oppressed by them, or were demonised (eg Mk 1:22-24; Mk 1:35-37). This is also part of the ministry of the followers of Jesus (eg Lk 10:17-20).

Deliverance from political and economic oppression in the world

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." So said Lord Acton, the 19th-century British Liberal and Catholic historian.

There are three Greek words in the New Testament that are sometimes translated into English as power. Dynamis, exousia (authority) and kratos (force). Political, economic and religious power are abstract forces, but they nonetheless have concrete effects on people's lives. St Paul tells us (in Romans 13:1-7) that rulers and authorities are instituted by God for our good, and yet also says (in Eph 6:10-12) that we are engaged in a struggle against them, and that they are "the world powers" (kosmokratores) of the darkness in which we find ourselves.

How these three aspects of spiritual warfare are linked

Each of these three aspects of spiritual warfare deserves an essay on its own, and cannot be dealt with fully here. What follows is a few thoughts that have occurred to me as I have read other blog entries on the topic recently.

The ascetic struggle is primary. It is part of the training and dicipline we need in order to engage in other aspects of the struggle.

This sometimes causes problems for Protestants, for whom the language of the ascetic struggle sometimes sounds like Pelagianism -- the idea that we are not saved by God's grace, but by own own efforts to live a good life. The spiritual basis of Pelagianism is summed up in the aphorism "God helps those who help themselves." But this is very far indeed from the spirit of Christian asceticism.

The difference can be seen in the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt, which in Christian typology is regarded as a foreshadowing of baptism. The people of Israel left Egypt unwillingly. Not only was Pharaoh reluctant to let them go, but they themselves expressed misgivings, and found it hard to choose between the security of slavery and the uncertainties of freedom. The crunch came at the Red Sea. With the sea in front of them and Pharaoh's army behind them, the choice seemed to be between recapture and drowning. Then God opened the way through the sea. That was pure grace. It was not dependent in any way on the efforts of the people of Israel. It was only on the far side of the Red Sea that the people went to Mount Sinai and God gave Moses the ten commandments, and God said, in effect, "You are no longer Pharaoh's slaves but you are my people, and if you are my people you are to live like this." Obeying the ten commandments would not get them across the Red Sea. But having been brought through the sea by grace, and abandoned Pharaoh's kingdom for God's kingdom. they were asked to adopt a way of life that befitted the citizens of God's kingdom. Most of them failed to do so and their corpses littered the desert (I Cor 10:1-4).

Christian asceticism is not undertaken to placate an angry God who wants nothing better than to punish us if we disobey; it is undertaken in gratitude to a loving God who has delivered us from the authority of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 1:13).

And so, to extend the military metaphor a bit, just as the soldiers of the armies of this world will fare badly against the enemy if they are untrained, don't know one end of a rifle from the other, go straight from being a couch potato into a 100 kilometre route march with a 40 kg pack, and don't even know what the enemy looks like, so in spiritual warfare we need to be trained and equipped. But our warfare is spiritual. We are not equipped with Molotov cocktails and AK 47s. The equipment listed in Ephesians 6:13-17 makes this quite clear. And it is the ascetic struggle (podvig) that supplies us with these weapons and teaches us how to use them.

Bishop Hierotheos of Nafpaktos says that "occupation with social problems presupposes that a man has been cured, otherwise, instead of solving problems, he creates still more".

The primary aspect of spiitual warfare, therefore, is the struggle against the passions leading to theosis (divinisation, godliness). As St Peter says, "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature" (II Pet 1:3-4).

And also, "As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct" (I Pet 1:14-15).

And "I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul" (I Pet 2:11).

The aim of this aspect of the struggle therefore is dispassion (apatheia), not so much that passions are suppressed, as that they are transfigured by communion with God. A passion is something undergone passively, something that we suffer. So passions like anger, lust, hatred, jealousy, envy, malice etc. take control of us, and we become slaves of our desires and passions. Spiritual growth means that instead of being controlled by our passions, we control them.

When we consider things like political, economic and religious power, as I hope I have shown above, we need to purify ourselves by the ascetic struggle in order to be able to handle them, otherwise, as Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos points out, we shall simply end up as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

These powers are related to human institutiosns, and what our Lord Jesus Christ said of the Sabbath applies to them, mutatis mutandis. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Like the passions, therefore, the new man in Christ will control them, not be controlled by them.

This can be seen in the early Christian response to the Roman religion of emperor worship. In the emperor cult, the power of the state became sacrosanct. Note that the power is not evil in itself. Lord Acton's dictum os often misquoted as "all power corrupts", but that its not what he said. Power tends to corrupt. It is only when power becomes absolute, when it is worshipped and idolised, as in the emperor cult, that it corrupts absolutely.

This applies not merely to political power, but to economic power. It is when economic power is idolised and made absolute that it becomes evil. This can be seen in two apparently conflicting ideologies: Free Market Capitalism and Marxism Leninism. At first glance they seem quite different. When one examines them more closely, however, they turn out to be two denominations of the same religion. The difference is that for the Free Marketeers the name of the deity is "the free rein of the market forces" and for the other "the dialectical forces of history" but both are agreed that man must be dominated by economic forces.

The same can be seen with religious power, and the power struggles in many religious organisations and groups are sufficient evidence of this.

Many people may think that this is remote from them. "I am not a politician, a businessman or economist or trade union leader, I am not a bishop or other church leader", one may think. But most of us have some authority (exousia) at some point in our lives, the authority of parent over child, teacher over pupil, older sibling over younger sibling. Abuse of power can be seen as much in domestic violence as in detention without trial, and it too comes from failure to control the passions, but being controlled by them. So domestic violence too is spiritual warfare.

Recognising that such battles are spiritual warfare also protects us, to some extent, from self-righteousness. A wicked ruler may oppress people, but we can recognise that the enemy is not the oppressor, but oppression itself. Otherwise it is all too easy to seek to overthrow a tyrant and put ourselves in his place.

This notion, however, is sometimes difficult for atheists and secularists to grasp (see, for example, The Atheologian: Acton: power and corruption). It seems like a cop out, to offer the excuse "the devil made me do it", and so wriggle out of personal responsibility. But the podvizhnik will recognise that "I let the devil make me do it, I invited the devil to make me do it."

But who, or what, is the devil? The devil, or satan, is primarily the accuser. "Satan" is not really a name, but a noun, and it means accuser, and specifically someone who brings accusations in a court of law. In the Old Testament this is what Satan does -- he accuses Job (Job ch 2) and the High Priest Joshua (Zech 3:1-5) before God. The Christian Church interpretes these typologically as referring to the accusation of Christ our high priest, and Satan is tossed out of court for making false accusations -- "The accuser of our brethren is thrown down" (Rev 12:10) and "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1).

The most satanic activity of all, therefore, is the making of accusations.

There are some Christians who are very concerned about Satanists, and believe that "spiritual warfare" is concerned with battles against Satanists and other pracititioners of "the occult". But that is really quite far from the truth. Satan is not particularly concerned about Satanists. They have voluntarily entered his prison and have promised that they will not try to escape. Satan is much more concerned about those who have escaped, and that means Satan is far, far more active in churches than he is in Satanist circles. And if he can get people accusing each other and everyone elee, he will be very satisfied indeed.

That's probably more than enough, so I'll end with three quotations, or summaries, from a couple of books.
The Orthodox moral world emerges as an arena in which good struggles against evil, the kingdom of heaven against the kingdom of earth. In life, humans are enjoined to embrace Christ, who assists their attainment of Christian virtues: modesty, humility, patience and love. At the same time, lack of discernment and incontinence impede the realization of these virtues and thereby conduce to sin; sin in turn places one closer to the Devil... Since the resurrection of Christ the results of this struggle have not been in doubt. So long as people affirm their faith in Christ, especially at moments of demonic assault, there is no need to fear the influence of the Devil. He exists only as an oxymoron, a powerless force (Stewart 1991:146).
Asceticism - prayer, fasting and the like, are required of all Christians, but monastics seek to live a life of prayer in order to become prayer. They renounce pleasures, not because they are evil in themselves, but to demonstrate the Christian perfection is attainable in this world. It is the development of a merciful heart and compassion for all. "And what is a merciful heart? The burning of the heart on account of all creation, on account of people and birds and animals and demons, and for every created being." There is no escapism here, no denunciation of the world or hatred of society or of sinners, but only compassion, patience and love. Prayer is an essential component of this spiritual struggle (Oleksa 1992:73-75).
"The main doctrinal point is simple: NO DUALISM. Satan is not to be regarded as a power equal to God. He is God's creation and operates subject to divine will." Other points:
  1. Satan is immaterial; thus there is no excessive concern with his form or geographical associations;
  2. as he has no real power, there is no reason to appeal to him. All rites, sorcery, black magic, astrology and the like that appeal to demons or the devil are fruitless;
  3. Satan's field of operations is narrow, and the harm he can provoke is limited;
  4. Satan is strictly and intrinsically evil. The Church does not accept the existence of intermediate or ambiguous fairy-like creatures such as neraides, gorgones and kallikantzaroi;
  5. Satan is singular. He is the leader of demons who are fallen angels of the same order as himself. There is no real concern for the names of demons (Stewart 1991:148).


  • Oleksa, Michael. 1992. Orthodox Alaska: a theology of mission. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press.
  • Stewart, Charles. 1991. Demons and the devil: moral imagination in modern Greek culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Links to other blogs synchroblogging on Spiritual Warfare

  1. Phil Wyman - Witches, and Spiritual Warfare
  2. John Smulo - Portraits of Spiritual Warfare
  3. Mike Crockett - Sufism: How the Inner Jihad relates to Christian Spiritual Warfare
  4. Steve Hayes - Thoughts on Spiritual Warfare
  5. Marieke Schwartz - Grace in War
  6. Cindy Harvey - Spiritual Warfare. (?)
  7. Jenelle D'Allesandro - The Militancy of Worship
  8. Mike Bursell - Spiritual Warfare: a liberal looking inwards
  9. David Fisher - Spiritual Warfare: Does it have to be loud and wacky?
  10. Brian Heasley - Something from Ibiza via Ireland
  11. Webb Kline - Webb Kline
  12. Sally Coleman - Sally Coleman
  13. Mike Murrow - Mike Murrow


cindy said...

Excellent article. You have a profound understanding of our faith, and one which articulates well the shades of practice.

I particularly resonated with the thoughts on social justice as I tend to become entangled with 'systems' of oppression...and I then begin to see those who don't promote justice as the 'enemies'. Dangerous ground indeed!

David said...

Very well thought out.
I've come to agree more with the Orthodox version of sin and grace than the Protestant version (although there are many).
Thanks for your insight. Good stuff!

Sally said...

Excellent Steve thank you for this well thought out and indepth article.- so much more than a standard blog post like mine!

Steve Hayes said...


Back in the 1980s young people here in South Africa referred to "The System" as the enemy. And, like other systems of oppression, this one was holistic. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course there were people who supported it, maintained it, and planned it and helped it grow. But attacking them would not necessarily destroy The System, because the stuggle is not just against flesh and blood.

One of my other postings this month is a review of a book called Trapped in apartheid, dealing with how certain Christian denominations became trapped in the system, I belive the author missed quite a lot, including the nature of the System.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post indeed! I'm really interested in this topic because I feel that there is an undue emphasis about Satan and his demons among Christians of different denominations today... even missions work are seen as engaging Satan in a battle to regain God's lost territory. I have to print this post and read it on paper. Just don't have much time to spend in front of the computer.

I would want to read the other posts. Are they as good as this? Naah... I guess I have to see them for myself. Thanks


Jenelle said...

Steve wrote:
Each of these three aspects of spiritual warfare deserves an essay on its own, and cannot be dealt with fully here.

Steve, I would encourage you to develop this with further essays. You are able to access historical underpinnings that many of us cannot. It brings out a richness to your argument that is very heavy.

Have you contributed to any journals or publications?

Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for your kind words, Jenelle (and others).

You can see a link to my published articles on my personal links page if you are interested.


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