Several years ago I was invited to a pastors' prayer meeting. Seated in the room were Christian leaders from several congregations in Waukesha. Before a time of prayer, the ministers shared some of their struggles and concerns. One pastor, from a mainline church in town, slumped in his chair, shook his head in confusion, wondering how he should answer the questions being raised by his parishioners. Stories from Bosnia were filling the papers and newscasts at that time, stories of atrocities, of barbarisms which understandably shook him to the core. His question to those gathered there that morning was, "What do I tell my people? Why is this happening? What explanation is there for such horror?" I, being the newest and youngest member of this group, said nothing, but soon the silence was too much. So I finally spoke: "What about the inherited sin from Adam? What about Satan?"
My response was met with blank stares. I committed the fatal error of attributing evil in the world to a universal disease called sin and to the reality of a person called the Devil. It was soon apparent that a great gulf existed in the group of pastors gathered that morning, a gulf due to the differing views of our condition before God and the personification of evil called Satan.
That gulf exists in a culture which has dismissed the idea of Satan as a pre-modern notion and adopted a view which sees humanity in purely materialistic terms. Because of the changes which have occurred over the past 200 years in western culture, the passage we will view this morning may seem strangely irrelevant. We live in a culture which, having dismissed as real only what we can touch, continually searches for answers which can never be found. The great statesman of another generation, U Thant, former Secretary General of the United Nations, expressed this bewilderment:
"What element is lacking so that with all our skill and all our knowledge we still find ourselves in the dark valley of discord and enmity? What is it that inhibits us from going forward together to enjoy the fruits of human endeavor and to reap the harvest of human experience? Why is it that, for all our professed ideals, our hopes, and our skills, peace on earth is still a distant objective seen only dimly through the storms and turmoils of our present difficulties?"
So reform is sought through legislation or education.
Laws seek to control the external, to prohibit evil by edict. But legislation cannot change the human heart. Education goes inward where legislation can not touch, but since the mind is twisted by sin, education seems to only creat more clever wickedness. A mind, no matter how nobly taught, which does not have as part of its construct the transcendent nature of evil, does not face the depth of original sin, will over throw a clever patina of knowledge to mask the real difficulties.
In the face of materialism there has arisen the post-modern spirituality which seeks answers outside of conventional science. We stand at a time when tremendous change in the way in which we view our problems and where our culture is willing to look for answers. It is beginning to dawn on our culture that the old mode of interpreting evil will not work. Laws and education will not eradicate the stone cold heart of sin each of us possesses. Flesh and blood does not give enough answers. The rivers are still running with the blood of holocausts, ethnic cleansing, family violence.
Andrew Delbanco, a Columbia University professor, wrote a book a few years ago called The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, in which he described the radical changes in American culture which took place as we exchanged the notion of Satan for science and have lost the ability to deal with evil. His introduction opens with the powerful statement: "A gulf has opened in our culture between the visibility of evil and our intellectual resources available for coping with it."
The evil which has always been there remains, but we got rid of the idea of sin and ourselves as sinners. Out is the idea of original sin and the devil, all the transcendent aspects so that there is something beyond what we can manage or control, but we have no way of dealing with it now. There is, Delbanco says, a flustered response to the evil... neatly summed up in one of the best of the recent horror novels, Thomas Harriss The Silence of the Lambs. In the novel, as in the film, there is an exchange between an imprisoned madman, Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist who bites his victims to death and subsequently cannibalizes them, and a young female FBI agent who seeks his help in pursuing another serial killer. She listens to the horror of his life. She says, "What made you like this? What happened to you?" That is a modern question; it assumes we are only flesh and blood. She is asking, "What sociological, biological events shaped you?"
He looks at her and says "Nothing has happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. Nothing has happened to me, you cant reduce me to a set of influences. You have given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. Youve got everybody in moral dignity pants. Nothing is never anybodys fault. Look at me, Officer Starling, can you stand to say Im evil?"
These words are an epitome of modern horror, the horror that we can not answer the monsters question. These words remind us that indeed "a gulf has opened in our culture between the visibility of evil and our intellectual resources available for coping with it." But Gods word has a paradigm which accounts for evil, for the rivers of blood, for Hannibal Lecter. Ephesians 6 opens the door into a world which for far too many of us has been shut by a culture whose two-dimensional universe neglects to account for Satan. Paul forces us to face head on the reality of our spiritual battle and offers us the intellectual resources to cope with it.
Reality of the Spiritual Battle - verses 12-13
Extent of the battle
There is a transcendent nature to evil. Evil goes beyond what we can see and feel. In verse 12 Paul explains that the heart of our conflict is not with flesh and blood; it is not what is immanent, scientifically analyzable. There is a cosmic nature to evil which we must never forget. In the end our conflict is not with the person with whom we are fighting.
Remember Paul is writing this from inside a prison, chained to a guard. It would have been easy for bitterness to take control and Paul imagine that his problem was the guard, the Roman government, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. But while people may indeed be and act in an evil manner, there is something far more to evil than what we see.
This helps us interpret events in our time. There is an evil which goes beyond what we can control and manipulate. When we adopt the contemporary mindset that evil is just the summation of our actions and not embodied in demonic forces, we too quickly conclude that evil is nothing more than the result of bad parenting or bad brain chemistry. It is only biological, sociological or psychological at its root and those roots are controllable. The consensus of 20th century civilization is that we wrestle only with flesh and blood. There is nothing out there going on, however horrendous, which we could not control if we could fix the family, society, neurology. But Gods Word tells us that there is more than meets the eye.
Complexity of the battle
Evil pervades all of life. The battle we face is not easy to spot. It's subtle. There is good reason that in Genesis 3 the serpent is introduced as more crafty than the other animals. In verse 11 Paul speaks of the devil's schemes. This word also speaks of an arsenal of weapons which may harm us.
The strategies of the devil in verse 11 reminds us that indeed Satan is a tricky devil. The Greek word refers to a variety of methods, reminding us that Satan does not come to us in ways which we easily see and interpret. Evil never comes pure, never openly, obviously coming at you. Evil comes wrapped in the cloak of goodness; it is multi-layered, complex. Evil is complicated and subtle in its approach.
CS Lewis, in his preface to Paradise Lost, comments on what many have said about Miltons portrayal of Satan. Some critics complained that Milton depicted Satan as too noble, too great. That shows the critics had no understanding of real evil. If you took away Satans virtues, his attractiveness, then the true power of evil would be lost. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul reminds his readers that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Martin Luther said: "When you look for the devil, dont forget to look in the pulpit."
The complexity of the battle is seen in how Paul describes the battle itself. In verse 12 he calls it a struggle.
The NIV translation of struggle misses the mixed metaphor here. The word Paul uses is "wrestle," and that pictures the battle we face much more clearly. This is a mixed metaphor because Paul speaks of armor. When you think of fighting with armor, what do you picture? Sword play, bows and arrows. But the word Paul uses is not the military concept of combat, but the arena of wrestling.
When you find out evil is upon you, you will be wrestling; when you wake up to evil its hands are around your throat. Wrestling with armor. Its not a shootout; you cant see it coming. It is not easy to pick off evil. It may well not be what you expect.
The devil never comes to you whispering, "Lets do some really baaad things..." Rather it is in the attraction to good things. In the money you want, the family you want, evil forces are attracted to the good, like moths to the flame. The devil rarely stands behind you motivating you to rape and robbery, to overt evil. Rather he comes to you with good things, as your career becomes your idol, your romance to be all you can ever see.
The sin which is destroying your soul is the evil which your parents lectured you about as a kid, what others have told you about which is a problem, what your spouse complains about the most. But youve been defensive, blamed others, making too big a deal about it. But the evil has its hands about your throat.
The attack of Satan may well come in the form of a 3-year-old's disobedience. Not Daemon style, not with heads spinning and beds shaking, not in the grotesque, but in the subtle disobedience. Then comes the question: how will you respond? Satan will come with a complaining spouse, with an overbearing boss. Those circumstances will test and see if you are going to believe the lie, the lie that you must control, that you must orchestrate life to suite you best.
His approach is complex. There are two equal opposite mistakes people make about the devil, CS Lewis said. "They either disbelieve his existence or they have an unhealthy interest in him. Devils themselves love both errors equally and hail either a materialist or magician with equal delight."
The liberal, materialist approach is too simplistic. They are substituous: change the externals, the family structure, the government and that is all.
The conservative approach is superstitious: I hate my mother; there must be a demon of bitterness which needs to be cast out of me.
The complexity of evil allows us to neither see it only as a physical occurrence nor see this world only as a battle ground for demonic forces.
Two kids were walking home from Sunday School and sharing their reflections on the lesson. They had been studying the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Little Peter said to his friend John, "Do you believe that stuff about the devil? Do you think there really is a devil?" John looked at him and said, "Naah - it's just like Santa Claus - it's your dad."
On the other hand, we do not fall into the trap of the series of novels from a few years back by Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness where humans are but cardboard cutouts to allow the deeper plot of the angelic battle to take place. For some, reality follows the platonic ideal in which the physical is substandard and the spiritual is superior.Strength for the Spiritual Battle - verse 10-11 Command for strength
How do we fight evil which goes beyond the physical? How do we combat the devils schemes? Next week well look more at the armor of God, but the opening command here gives a glimpse as what our role is to be. Paul commands that we be strong in the Lord.
At first this looks like some form of pop-psychology or what a parent might say when the little child complains of monsters under his bed, repeating over and over again a mantra of self-assurance. But this command to be strong in the Lord is not some incantation, or auto-suggestion, repeating good thoughts to yourself. That is not Christianity at all! It is true of the cults, of course; it is the psychological method. You repeat the phrases such as, "Every day, and in every way, I am getting better and better." You persuade yourself, and you think less and less about your health, and you therefore begin to feel better.
The command in verse 10 is in the passive. It may be better understood as "be made powerful." There is the promise of power which lies outside of ourselves. We can be empowered by God's grace. But what does that strength look like? The contrast here is between the power of demonic rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, spiritual forces over against the power which Paul just described in the context.
What is the strength we are commanded to have in the preceding context? Paul just finished discussing the necessity of power through serving. Strength comes not by obedience to moral codes, but in living in submission to others. The Gospel tells us we are weak. Gods response to our weakness is to send His own Son in weakness. The power of Christ, the defeat of Satan, comes not in battle as we would expect, but his binding is through the scourging whip, the crown of thorns, the nails and the rough wood of the Cross. It is there Christ said, "It is finished!" It is there Satan is vanquished.
Having finished commanding husbands to love by sacrifice, fathers to rule by instruction, masters to treat their slaves with the respect they demand of their slaves, that is what it means to be strong in the Lord. This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 12:9 where he boasts in his weakness so that Gods powerful grace might be seen. In 13:4 we see the reason; Christ Himself was crucified in weakness, yet lives by the power of God, so we too must be weak.
Command for trust in Gods provision
The strength to be weak, the power to stand against the devils schemes, to be able to stand when the evil day comes, is available in the armor of God. This armor, the specifics of which we will examine more next week, is nothing more than seeing the Gospel affect each aspect of our life.
Without going into all that is said about each piece of the armor, there are some preliminary issues
The armor is provided for us.
We are told to put it on, literally "take up." The picture is that the protection you and I have from Satans stratagems is ours even now; it is lying at your feet to be used. There is nothing special you have to do to obtain the armor other than make use of it. We need not live in fear of the demonic; we are not to see demons behind every bush. But rather, we are called to make use of the protection God provides for us in Christ. Look at every piece that is mentioned in verses 14ff; they all focus on what is imputed to us because of Christs atonement for us.
The armor is multifaceted
It is full armor. It is tempting to focus on one aspect and ignore the others. Some Christians claim to be strong in prayer, but weak in Bible reading. They have their pet pieces of protection, but God has varied means for our protection. It is to our peril if we do not put on each piece. The means of Gods grace which takes us back to the Gospel is to be our covering. The Gospel, though, is not just bland words we profess to be true, but it is allowing the truth of Gods word to permeate our lives, the righteousness of Christ to be our covering, the steadiness of Gods peace to keep us from falling over. There is not just one thing, one area, we focus on.
The armor is from God; it is not according to our devices
This is a truth which has been overlooked in all ages of the church, to the lamentable injury of the people of God. Instead of relying on the arms which God has provided, Christians have always been disposed to trust to those which they provide for themselves or which have been prescribed by others.
In ages past, Christians thought they could defeat Satanic attack through seclusion from the world or some ascetic or ritual observance. Others adopted vows of poverty and celibacy and monastic observance.
Today, there are equally vapid and, at times, non-Christian, approaches which include naming and binding demons, protective prayers and casting out so-called territorial spirits of every shade and color all the while ignoring focus on the armor God has provided which is focused on the completed work of Christ. Ive known otherwise clear thinking Christians become obsessed with demons inhabiting toys and infiltrating their homes, so they must have an exorcism which has more akin to animistic cultures than it does to the Gospel of Christ.
Just as we sung at the outset of our worship this morning, recognize that if we face life apart from what God has provided for us, we will fail.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right man on our side, the man of Gods own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he.
Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.