Paul has reminded us frequently that we become followers of Christ only because of God’s grace and not because anything we do. In theological terms we say we are justified through faith alone. When we put our trust in Christ for our salvation the Holy Spirit is given to us and takes up residence in our lives. He begins the process of leading us in a new direction.
We want to be followers of Christ. However, I suspect your experience is like mine, it is a battle. I find myself with hundreds of excuses why I “can’t” do what God has told me to do. My mind often drifts to thoughts that I do not welcome or desire. Even though I believe God is fully in control, there are times when I am very discouraged when I see the lack of progress in my spiritual life. I sometimes wonder if I truly am a new creation in Christ.
I have a feeling that these same feelings surrounded the apostle Paul. In Romans 7 he reflects on his struggle,
I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. (Romans 7:18-21)
I am so glad Paul shared his experience with us because my experience matches his. The question is, why is following Christ so difficult? Paul is going to answer that question in our text today. Over the next several weeks he will also give us tools to help us in the battle we face.
10 A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. 12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12)
We Are In a Supernatural Battle
There are three things to notice right off the bat. First, we are in a supernatural battle. It is something bigger than we can see and greater than we can overcome (in our own strength.).
Second, it is a personal battle. The word for “fighting” (v. 12) is sometimes translated “wrestle”. The picture is of two people swaying back and forth while locked in battle. It is a hand to hand fight. This is not just some vague notion of the Devil and His army doing battle with God and His angels. The idea here is that we personally are involved in a battle with the Devil and his army. It is the difference between watching a boxing match and actually being in the ring as one of the boxers. This is personal.
Third, the fight cannot be won on our own. Paul doesn’t tell us to “buck up”. He tells us to be strong “in the Lord”. Our only hope in this battle (with a much superior enemy) is to draw on the strength of the Lord. It is the difference between fighting a World War by yourself and fighting with the help of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines!
The Nature of the Battle – The Enemy
Paul tells us that we are fighting
against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places
I find this difficult to grasp because I don’t know how to relate to an unseen world. However, throughout the Bible, the reality of a spirit world is seen clearly. In the book of Genesis we see the Serpent in the Garden. Angels show up in Sodom. An Angel appeared to Daniel and talked about a fight with Satan’s forces. Jesus was tempted by the Devil personally. Demons possessed people in New Testament days and were cast out by Jesus.
The Bible seems to describe the Devil as a fallen angel. He rebelled against the authority of God (apparently long before the creation of mankind). Our conclusion is that God must have given the angels a measure of free will. Satan exercised his free will to rebel against God. He took with him a third of the angels of Heaven (who are now demons). Satan’s goal is to turn us from the Lord or at least to make us irrelevant in the battle (by encouraging a lukewarm or half-hearted faith).
Satan is continuing to run send a series of temptations in thoughts into our head (the brief thought that we could “run someone down in the road”). The discouragement, the sense of defeat, or the arrogance and self-righteousness is something Satan throws at us. As sinful people we embrace such thoughts rather than resist them. Satan attacks us at our point of weakness. We are prone to sin. We are painfully quick to return to the notion that we must earn our salvation (which opens us to discouragement).
From the book of Job it appears that Satan has power to cause bad things to happen. He can even afflict us with disease and disease! This does not meant that every disease or bad thing is caused by Satan . . .it just means that he can use these things.
There are three mistakes when it comes to Satan. The first mistake is to take Him lightly. Satan would like nothing better than for us to conclude that he is not real. He encourages us to make caricatures of Him and to believe that there is “no rational reason to believe in a Devil”. There is no target that is quite as easy to defeat as the one who doesn’t see you coming.
The second mistake is to become preoccupied with the Devil. We begin to see him lurking around every corner until we become paralyzed with fear. Satan is a powerful and skilled enemy. However, his power is limited by the Lord. He cannot “make” us sin. He is not all-powerful. He cannot be everywhere (most of us will never be tempted by the Devil himself but by his minions). He does not know everything. Satan is already defeated by Christ . . .he just hasn’t stopped fighting. One of the Psalmists writes,
For who in all of heaven can compare with the LORD;
What mightiest angel is anything like the LORD?
The highest angelic powers stand in awe of God.
He is far more awesome than all who surround his throne. (Psalm 89:6-7)
The third mistake is to use the reality of the Devil to excuse our sinful behavior. Flip Wilson the comedian of a day gone by used to always say, “The Devil made me do it”. Satan will tempt us. He will encourage us to sin. He will fill our minds and thoughts of all manner of evil . . . but he does not make us sin. Sin is a choice that we make! We are responsible. We can’t hide behind the fact that “we are weak” because God has made all His power available to us in the person of the Holy Spirit. If we do not take hold of that power . . . WE are the ones responsible.
The Strategies of the Enemy
Do you remember the movie “Ground Hog Day”? In the movie Bill Murray has to re-live the same day (Groundhog Day) again and again. Eventually Murray used that day to learn about his Producer (Andie MacDowell). Each day Murray fixed the mistakes he made the day before. Apparently he re-lived the day for a long time because he learned how to do many things and got to know all the people of the town. He had time to perfect what he was doing by doing it over and over.
Satan has been tempting people for a very long time. He has perfected his craft of undermining believers. He knows our points of vulnerability and will exploit them at any opportunity. We need to understand the superior skill of our enemy.
Satan has many different approaches,
- He will attack God’s character (as in the Garden of Eden)
- He will mix a little truth with a lot of error.
- He will misquote Scripture so that it says something it never meant to say.
- He will try to persuade us that good can be attained if we do what God has declared to be wrong. In other words he will try to convince us that God doesn’t know what He is talking about.
- He will encourage us to trust our own efforts for attaining salvation.
- He will encourage us to pray to angels or even people who have died rather than truly talk to the Lord of All.
- He will try to get us ensnared by worldliness. In other words we will “love the world” so that this love for the approval, trophies and values of the world squeezes out time for the Lord.
- He will encourage pride so that we feel we can stand in judgment over others or believe that our passions and gifts are more significant or important than others. Lloyd Jones writes,
Pride manifests itself in many different ways. It makes us oversensitive; and when we are over-sensitive we are very easily hurt, and we feel hurt. What havoc has been wrought in the Christian church in this way! Pride, as manipulated by the devil, leads to jealousy, to envy, to a sense of grudge because we are not being appreciated, and someone else is being put before us. In this way the devil can upset a church or a community; and he has often done so. His object always is to spoil God’s great handiwork, and especially the most glorious thing of all, the grace of God in salvation within the church!
- He will endeavor to throw us out of balance. The Christian life is a balance between our mind, emotions, and behavior. It is like a three-legged stool, when in balance, it is very steady. However, if one leg is missing or longer or shorter than another, it is unbalanced and unsafe. The same is true in our spiritual lives. It is important to know what we believe, but if knowledge never translates into behavior, it is out of balance. We must not simply know the truth, we must believe it to the core of our being.
- He will create divisions. Think of all the people who have been harmed in their faith because of a division that took place in a church. Often it was a division over something very minor.
- He will keep our focus on Experience. Experience is important but if “having an experience” is all that we are about, we will be out of balance. Satan loves to have us judge worship, a study session, a quiet time of devotion, or even what is right and wrong by how we “feel” about something. When we become obsessed with our feelings we are out of balance.
- He will get us to trust gimmicks, follow charismatic leaders, and be swayed by Christian peer pressure rather than trust the Lord and His Word. I think Satan encourages the idea of celebrity Pastors. He wants us to focus on people rather than the Lord. He wants us to compete with others to build “our Kingdom”. He will try to get us to think our kingdom and God’s kingdom are one and the same . . . they are not).
- He will create false religions. There are many false religions in the world. They all have people who will tell you how it has “changed their lives” (the over emphasis on experience at the expense of truth.) What characterizes a false religion? There are a few telltale signs,
- It is relatively new
- It centers on a charismatic leader rather than on Christ. It is always wise to ask “Who is the ‘founder’ of this particular religion.
- It appeals to a different authority than the Bible. Sometimes that authority is other texts (the Book of Mormon, the Koran, Science and Health (Christian Science), Dianetics (Scientology) etc.). That authority may also be human reason, contemporary “scholarship”, or even “Science”. The point is, they will always sidestep the full authority of God’s Word.
- It denies essential doctrines. One of the first doctrines to go is any teaching on sin. Sin does not appeal to people so it is eliminated. The unique deity of Christ, the literal resurrection, the death of Christ as a sacrifice for our sin, and Jesus as the only way to be right with God are often cast aside. The absence of any of these truths indicates it is a false religion.
- It will prescribe a way of salvation that involves following a formula rather than trusting Christ. Every other religion gives a prescription . . . only Christianity announces good news.
The point of all of this is to alert you to the need for constant readiness. Satan is resourceful. He knows that different temptations will be effective with different people. If we are not prepared he can shred us.
Winning the Battle
Paul gives us two pieces of advice: First, we are to be strong in the Lord. We are overmatched when it comes to battle with the Devil and his army. We cannot defeat him in our own strength. Our strength must be found in the Lord. The only way to walk in victory is to walk as close to the Lord of life as possible.
Second, Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God. We will talk extensively about this armor in the weeks to come. God has given us the tools that we will need to stand our ground with the Devil. These tools are listed as: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. Finally, our greatest resource is prayer.
In short, we are being told to hold on to the truth about God’s character and His grace and walk in the path that He tells us to walk. Think about a battalion of soldiers who is told they must walk through a minefield to get to their destination. The commanding officer gives them a detailed map on how to avoid the mines and stay alive. The key to success and victory is to trust the commanding officer and follow the map. To do otherwise is to walk right into the trap of the enemy. It is the same thing we are told here.
We should not be surprised that living the Christian life is hard. We should not even be surprised by the thoughts that pop into our head or the discouragement, guilt, and condemnation that often comes upon us . . . Satan is at work. The only way to stand against such temptation is to cover ourselves, hide ourselves, and surround ourselves with the truth of God.
There is a sense in which the fierceness of the battle depends on whether or not we are perceived as a threat to Satan by the way we live and believe. He picks his targets carefully. I don’t know about you, but I find that thought a little unnerving. It means if we are not facing temptation the Devil does not see us as any threat!
I find that I often give in to temptation without a fight. The truth is, the more you resist, the more fierce the temptation will become. No one endured a temptation that was more fierce than Jesus. He resisted until he was victorious. Most of us give in because we are tired or don’t want to fight. We will never gain victory unless we are ready for the battle.
Maybe it will help you to remember that the fact that you are tempted, the fact that the struggle to follow Him seems difficult, is not necessarily a sign of weakness . . . it may be a sign that Satan and his army sees you as a threat. (In other words, something must be going right in your life).
We have witnessed in our country some trying times. In response to the Gulf War in 1991 at the NHL all-star game in Chicago the fans broke into a stunning cheer during the National Anthem that filled every American with a sense of pride. When 9/11 took place Americans rallied behind President Bush as he stood defiantly upon the rubble and said, “I hear you . . . and soon the whole world will hear you.” Several weeks ago right after the Boston bombing during the Boston Marathon at a Boston Bruins hockey game 20,000 people stood together and sang the National Anthem with one voice. It was a moving scene. We have been touched by the acts of heroism in times of crisis. These are amazing moments of people meeting adversity with strength and faith.
That resilience, that sense of fight, that same spirit of determination is how we must meet the times of temptation as disciples of Christ. We must run to the Lord, draw strength from each other, and determine that we will not give in to the terrorists seeking to destroy our faith. We must be prepared and determined to stand against the dark forces and mighty powers in the spiritual world. We are not alone! As we rely on His strength we can and will . . . know victory.
 Lloyd-Jones, D. M. (1976). The Christian Warfare: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10–13 (91–92). Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust.