Practical Warfare

It seems to me that men and women who resolve within themselves to live a more God-honoring lifestyle are nearly always assaulted with a previously-unknown amount of “negative self-talk.” These folks typically report that prior to their decision to stop drinking – or pursue sexual purity, put their marriages back together, or some other significant step that corresponds to a desire to trust God with their lives in deeper ways – they can’t recall ever having had such a steady stream of negative thoughts and emotions entering their inner monologue. It’s almost as if their decision to pursue Christ was immediately met with a tremendous amount of inner resistance.

Well of course it was.

Our souls have an enemy (John 8:43-47; 1 Peter 5:8). That enemy seeks nothing other than our destruction (John 10:10). This enemy is perfectly content to leave us “at peace” as long as we are ingesting a steady diet of pornography, drinking ourselves to death, back-stabbing our neighbors, cheating on our tax returns and/or flirting with adultery. The enemy of our souls is perfectly happy to leave us be as long as we’re doing a good job of choosing the road to eternal self-destruction. It’s only when we veer off the wide road (Matthew 7:13-14) that the enemy perks up, takes notice, and begins to do whatever he can to disquiet our hearts, make us feel uncertain of our decision to pursue godliness and convince us – if he can – to return to the deathward behaviors that we previously found comforting or exciting.

I know a lot of “enlightened” individuals who scoff at the idea of Satan, demons and spiritual warfare. In years gone by, I would have been one of those individuals, but no longer. Jesus clearly believed in the reality of Satan and demons (Matthew 4:1-11; 8:16; 8:28-33; 12:25-28; Mark 1:23-27; 5:7-13; 8:31-33; Luke 4:31-37; 4:41; 13:15-17; 22:3), and I am certainly not going to think of myself as smarter or somehow more educated and sophisticated than Jesus! Much of His earthly ministry concerned itself with the great unseen cosmic battle involved in reclaiming and redeeming a creation that had been largely given over to the evil one. For us to pretend that we can do battle with the world, the flesh and the devil all on our own – or that we need not concern ourselves with the struggle at all – is to issue a strong denial of Who Jesus is as well as the mission He was on.

As far as I can tell, the model for doing battle with the evil one should probably be Jesus Himself. In His trial by temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), Jesus did nothing other than quote Old Testament writings as His response to every single one of the temptations presented to Him by Satan. We can be tempted to dismiss the battle strategies of Jesus by telling ourselves, “Well, after all, He was the Son of God,” but that presupposes that His temptations were not “real” somehow, that the temptations in the desert were some sort of “show piece” put on for our benefit. This notion seems unlikely, to say the least. We can similarly dismiss the responses of Jesus by saying something similar to, “Well, yeah, but of course He had Scripture memorized,” but this denies that Jesus had to be taught and instructed like everyone else and, as Luke has said, had to “grow in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:51-52).

To put it bluntly, the temptations of Jesus were real enough, and Jesus’ God-honoring response to these very real temptations grew out of a lifelong devotion to the Word of God (what we now call the Old Testament). Because He had the Word of God hidden in his heart, Jesus was able to rightly respond every time He was offered a temptation to “take a painless shortcut” around God the Father’s plan of redemption for all humanity.

It should go without saying that we are not Jesus, nor are we likely to stand up to the powerful temptations that He was presented with. At the same time, we can be reassured that God will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). But we will certainly be tempted.

Most often, the temptation begins in our inner life of thought. Once we allow seemingly-harmless thoughts to go unchallenged in our minds, it is a short trip to “losing the argument” and finding ourselves engaging in ungodly behavior because we were caught unarmed and unaware.

This past week, I have had occasion to talk to a handful of people who all found themselves battling – and very often losing out to – an evil inner thought life that assailed them as they tried to work, get some much-needed sleep, or just enjoy a meal. Interestingly, all of these folks had one thing in common in that they earnestly sought to set aside various forms of sinful behavior and live more faithfully to Jesus. And yet, despite their stated desire to honor God, they somehow felt helpless to fight back.

One of the most common, highly-effective and pernicious lies we tell ourselves is that we need to “get our act together” in order to begin memorizing Scripture and better equip ourselves to fight back against evil thoughts and unwanted desires. It’s sort of like thinking that we must “earn some merit badges” before we attempt to defend ourselves against the patterns of thought, speech and behavior that have thus far only reaped a harvest of pain and turmoil in our lives. And yet, until you can gain ground against those thought patterns that keep you where you are, you will never “get your act together.” It’s oxymoronic logic, intentionally designed to keep you exactly where you are – in despair over ever being able to make progress.

I’m solidly against waiting until I have my act together. I will never have my act together.

So instead of castigating myself because I am so obviously not a Spiritual All-Star, I have taken what wisdom I can from the desert-warfare techniques of Jesus and tried as best as I can to apply it to my own life. Six years ago I had never read the Bible through even once. While I now know the Bible better, I very often cannot quote chapter and verse citations from memory. I still need help.

Enter the lowly index card. Armed with one of these and a pen, I can be more intentional about monitoring my inner thought life and writing down the various lies that enter into my consciousness throughout the course of my days and weeks. If I am pursuing deeper faithfulness with Jesus, and yet I keep getting the “message” that I can’t possibly be a Christian – “Just look at all the things you still do!” – then I do my best to capture The Lie in writing. After that, I turn to the Bible for the facts, and try as best I can (often with the help of more mature Christians) to answer back with the Word of God, or at least my very best understanding of His Word. So a typical index card might look something like this:

The Lie:
“Someone like you can’t possibly be a Christian!” 

The Truth:

  • God is in the business of redeeming broken, sinful people for Himself.
  • Paul was a murderer of Christians prior to his conversion.
  • No one, absolutely no one, is outside the saving grace of God.

2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
Psalm 51:17
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Romans 8:1
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Depending on the strength and persistence of the battle being fought, you might want to carry an index card like this around in your pocket for several weeks. Every time the disparaging thought presents itself to your mind for consideration, just reach into your pocket or purse and retrieve the index card. Read for yourself the lie that you are being asked to consider, then read God’s great answer to the liar. Now, decide whom you wish to believe, right then and there.

If your experience is anything like mine, what you will find is that the one who seeks to destroy your soul and cast doubt on your desire to be more like Christ very much does not want you to be reading Scripture every time he presents you with a temptation to despair.

Over time – sometimes days, sometimes weeks – the specific lie that you are battling against will dissipate or vanish entirely. The longest period that I have ever had to carry very-specifically-selected verses in my back pocket was about six months. More often, the lie tends to lose its power over me in weeks, not months.

True, the enemy of your soul will not give up so easily, and “New and Improved” lies will be offered up to you as you grow in your walk with Christ and actually begin to memorize bits and pieces of Scripture. (Imagine that!) You’ll likely battle against a certain type of lie during one season of your life, and a different type of lie further on down the road. Rather than allow myself to be discouraged that the life of a Christian seems to be a never-ending battle against lies and deception, I quietly remind myself that an entire package of index cards is still a fairly inexpensive investment compared to the serenity that God’s Word offers and night after night of deep, restful sleep.

2 Corinthians 10:5 (ESV)
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.

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