What if you could take the mystery out of spiritual warfare? Growing up as a church kid, there were several Bible passages that continually fascinated me. Whenever the story of David and Goliath was told (1 Samuel 17), I would imagine that I was there in the crowd, watching history unfold. I loved imagining that like Peter I might have had enough faith to walk on water when Jesus gave the invitation (Matthew 14:22-33). Right up near the top was Paul’s picture of spiritual warfare and the description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18. The imagery of swords and shields was very compelling for a middle school boy, and the thought of fighting demons seemed like the real life version of all those fairytales I heard growing up where the hero slayed the dragon and saved the princess. For years, that’s where my understanding of spiritual warfare remained: medieval sword fights and imaginary battles with demons.
What if you could take the mystery out of spiritual warfare? When I finished high school and went off to a Christian college I continued to be interested in the topic of spiritual warfare and for the first time was exposed to books outside my narrow field of evangelical teaching. The good news was that there was a whole spectrum of teaching on spiritual warfare out there, especially from the pentecostal and charismatic stripe of Christianity, that claimed to know all sorts of fascinating information about spiritual warfare. The bad news was that too often these books left any semblance of biblical grounding behind and relied on supernatural revelations that changed from book to book. In the end, I was left with little I could trust and less I could understand.
What if you could take the mystery out of spiritual warfare? After college I spent two years overseas in Africa as a missionary through the International Mission Board, the missions agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. There in Africa I saw two distinct demonic manifestations happen with my first month of being there, moments that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Finally, this seemed like what I had always expected spiritual warfare to be like! But as quickly as they appeared, they dissipated. No more demonic manifestations after that, nothing that fit the stereotypical episode of spiritual warfare. Just normal, mundane, everyday life. Could spiritual warfare exist if nothing extraordinary appeared to be happening?
What if you could take the mystery out of spiritual warfare? Once I came back to the United States and began working full-time in local churches as a youth pastor, I began to see the evidence of spiritual warfare all around me. Good Christian marriages were falling apart left and right, entirely preventable divorces were being filed, and kids were left with emotional scars from a broken childhood that would threaten to haunt them for generations. Good kids from good homes were making bad decisions that left life-long consequences. Division and strife riled through churches as the enemy seemingly went unchecked in our midst. Like a dull ache in the back of my head, I knew we were being defeated in spiritual warfare, but I didn’t know how to fight back. Should I purchase a sword and shield? Did I need to go demon hunting or go searching for territorial powers like the books I read in college suggested? Should I wait for an undeniable demonic manifestation and deal with it then? Even after decades following Jesus and reading the Bible, the mystery of spiritual warfare remained simply that: a mystery.
What if you could take the mystery out of spiritual warfare? As the years went by and I became a senior pastor of a local church, I had the opportunity to teach through the armor of God in Ephesians 6 on a number of occasions. In preparation for a message, trying to grasp the armor of God in a way that could help my congregation (and myself) better understand Paul’s teaching on spiritual warfare, I tried a different approach, one I ultimately believe was prompted by the Holy Spirit. Instead of focusing on the pieces of armor, as I had always done and as commentaries always did, I ignored the pieces of armor completely and simply focused on what was attached to the pieces of armor. That small shift changed everything.
When you think of a marriage, if you had to settle on one image or one event that best encapsulates a marriage it would most likely be the wedding day. A wedding is a beautifully scripted ceremony that visually captures and celebrates the love and commitment between a husband and wife. From the flowers and the cake to the wedding dress and corsages, the beauty and elegance of the wedding ceremony celebrates the finest of what a marriage should be. Yet no one would try and make the argument that the only way to properly be married is to dress up every day in your tuxedo or wedding dress and walk down a rose petal strewn church aisle. In fact, if someone made a routine of putting on their wedding dress or tux so they could be married that day, he or she would be missing the whole point. Marriage isn’t the tuxedo or wedding dress, those are merely symbols. It’s the love and commitment represented by the wedding ceremony that’s the key.
When Paul writes to first century Christians to instruct them on the basics of spiritual warfare, he gives them a metaphor to hold onto, a symbol. He describes spiritual warfare in terms that mirrored the physical warfare every reader would have been familiar with. Every first-century believer reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians would have been painfully aware of the power of the Roman soldier. And just as the Roman army conquered the known world of the time, Paul instructed early Christians on how to be just as victorious in the spiritual battles that raged around them. But the pieces of armor have always been a metaphor. It doesn’t make any more sense to think the key to spiritual warfare is putting on pieces of armor than to think that the key to a successful marriage is to wear your wedding dress or wedding tux every single day. The key isn’t the pieces of armor, but what’s attached to the pieces armor. Right there, hiding in plain sight, we discover the steps we need to begin to win the war in the spiritual.