Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:10-17NIV).
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Thus wrote Paul to the Ephesians. The day of evil is here. It has been here a long time. We have been in a war since the beginning of creation. And, for the most part, we are getting clobbered.
One reason is a lack of awareness about our enemy. How can we expect to succeed if we don’t understand who we face in battle and what the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses are? Another reason is an inability to defend ourselves from his attacks, largely due to ignorance of the means available to us. And the third reason is a reluctance to go on the offensive ourselves, something absolutely essential if we are to win this war. We are going to look at these reasons in this feature (and in an online series that will begin January 2020) so that we ensure that we are victorious in battle!
Know your enemy
Professional tennis players spend hours watching recordings of matches their opponents have played to gauge their strengths and weaknesses in order to develop strategies they can use in their own matches against them. Boxers and many other professional sports people do the same. It is an important part of winning games. Now, if this is the kind of effort that people make to ensure they win an event that is temporal, how much more effort do we need to take towards ensuring we win something that has eternal consequences? Therefore, we need to know the enemy. Who is he? And how did he come to become so powerful? What did Jesus do to vanquish him? Does he still retain power? If yes, why does God permit this?
Scripture doesn’t give us specific answers, but there are enough clues contained in Scripture to allow us to arrive at some logical conclusions. Some of it is admittedly speculation, but a lot of it is not. So, first, who is the enemy?
Many years ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote: How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High.” But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the Pit (Isaiah 14:12‑15).
The Latin Vulgate translates “Day Star” as Lucifer, which means “light bearer” or “light bringer”. It was not originally used in connection with the devil. In fact, this entire passage was about a man: the king of Babylon. However, several early church fathers compared the pride that the king of Babylon displayed with the pride of the devil. They also compared the fall of the king of Babylon to Jesus saying that he watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning (Luke 10:18) although Jesus said these words in the context of the apostles defeating the devil in the battle they had just engaged in.
These comparisons are not unjustified because there is a typological (or allegorical) sense of Scripture used in interpreting it. Consequently, we can make certain inferences, but let us examine two more passages before we set about doing this.
This is what the prophet Ezekiel wrote about another king—the king of Tyre. With an anointed cherub as guardian I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; you walked among the stones of fire. You were blameless in your ways from the day that you were created, until iniquity was found in you. In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and the guardian cherub drove you out from among the stones of fire. Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you” (Ezekiel 28:14-17).
And this, from Revelation: And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him (Revelation 12:7-9).
So what’s the story?
Consider this scenario that fits all the facts at our disposal. God created the entire universe with trillions of galaxies, each with a billion planets and stars. This is fact.
In the vastness of this universe, he had a planet that was close to his heart. It was called Earth. This is also fact.
In heaven, he had an angel who was also close to his heart. We will call him Lucifer, the Day Star. God gave Lucifer charge of this planet, and while the angel was undoubtedly delighted with the privilege, pride crept into his heart as it does into many of us who believe we are “extra-special”. This is speculation, but it is based on what Isaiah quoted Lucifer as saying, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God” (Isaiah 14:13).
So Lucifer mounted a rebellion, convincing a third of the angels to rebel with him. Where do we get this figure from? Scripture says that (the dragon’s) tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth (Revelation 12:4). Since Satan (we will call him “Satan” or “the devil” henceforth) is referred to as the dragon who was thrown down with his angels to the earth (Revelation 12:9), then the conclusion is that the stars refer to fallen angels, which are fully one-third of the heavenly host.
Why didn’t God destroy all of them then and there? That is unknown, but God surely has his reasons. Why did God then create man and woman knowing his enemy was going to try to subvert them? Again, he surely has his reasons, which we will find out about one day (hopefully). But, now everything starts to make sense. The malevolent urge in Satan (meaning “accuser” or “adversary”) to spite God leads to his tempting Adam and Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden. This leads to the Fall, where we become slaves to Satan, ruler of the world.
That he is ruler of the world is also fact, validated several times in Scripture. John said that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Paul said that the ruler of the power of the air (is) the spirit that is now at work (Ephesians 2:2). He also called him the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). And, if that wasn’t enough, Jesus himself called him the ruler of this world (John 14:30).
Also, if Satan didn’t have any authority over the world, he wouldn’t have offered it to Jesus during the latter’s forty-day sojourn in the wilderness. Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours” (Luke 4:5-7). He wouldn’t have been able to give Jesus the world if it wasn’t his to begin with. Let us note that Satan is not the ultimate authority in the world. As he admits here, the authority has been given to him. In his infinite wisdom, God decided to let him have it, and now he was offering it to the very same person who had given it to him.
However, he must have taken Jesus for a fool. If Jesus had bowed down and worshiped him, he might very well have given Jesus the world, but the world would have still belonged to him because Jesus belonged to him. Jesus refused his offer and triumphed over him in the desert. Three years later, with his death and resurrection, he would triumph over the devil for all time, rendering him defenseless. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in (the cross) (Colossians 2:15).
So, here is the million dollar question: If Satan has been disarmed, and Jesus has triumphed over him, then why are we still getting hammered? Why is there so much evil in the world? Why so much suffering? Why so much sickness? Why so much pain? The answer is simple. Because the war is not yet over. Although Satan has been dealt a fatal blow, he has not been annihilated. Again, for reasons that are known only to God, he has decided to let the devil roam free for a while longer until Jesus comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. At that time all things will be brought under subservience to God, with every knee — including those of fallen angels — bowing to him. But, let us be in no doubt that Jesus is king of this earth. Not everybody acknowledges this. Many people show more allegiance to the prince of darkness than to the Prince of Peace, but that is an act of usurpation on the part of Satan who continues to control the minds of unbelievers, making them do his bidding. Unless and until those who know Jesus start to fight, the devil will continue to reign without opposition.
How do we begin? By first acknowledging that he is real.
The Enemy Exists
Satan exists. To deny the existence of Satan is to question the integrity of Jesus and question his entire mission of salvation. Convincing people that he does not exist is one of Satan’s greatest achievements. You won’t fight what you don’t believe exists. “Very few people believe in the devil these days,” stated Fulton Sheen in 1958, “which suits the devil very well. He is always helping to circulate the news of his own death.”
So, let us not pay heed to those who say that Satan is not real and hell is a fairy tale. They speak for Satan, not God. In his apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), Pope Francis urged Christians not to think of the devil as an intangible construct but rather “a personal being who assails us.”
“We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea,” he wrote. “This mistake would leave us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.”
He was echoing the sentiments of previous popes before him. In a general audience titled, “Confronting the Devil’s power,” one of them—Pope Paul VI—stated three truths about Satan. He said that it was a departure from “biblical Church teaching to refuse to acknowledge the Devil’s existence; to regard him as a self-sustaining principle who, unlike other creatures, does not owe his origin to God; or to explain the Devil as a pseudo-reality, a conceptual, fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes.”
And what is the “biblical Church teaching” the pope referenced? In the section on ‘The Fall’, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents, lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil’” (CCC 391).
With that out of the way, let us look at how we do battle.
How Do We Fight?
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul provides a lot of sensible advice. He begins by exhorting us to be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power (Ephesians 6:10).
We can’t fight this battle on our own strength. We have to fight it in the power of the Lord. To be strong IN the Lord, as Paul advises, he has to reign in our lives. Paul had learned how to do this. “I have been crucified with Christ” he said; “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This happens when we follow Jesus’ advice to die to ourselves. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). This is a euphemism for dying to self.
This is an “automatic” process for those who have repented and are baptized in Christ. Unfortunately, many of us who were baptized as infants have never really repented. True repentance is a heartfelt remorse for one’s sinfulness, resulting in a total change of heart and the determination to lead a holy life. This repentance occurs only with an awareness of the consequences of our sinfulness—that we’re headed to hell!—and the realization that Jesus had to die to save us from this. Consequently, a lack of true repentance has resulted in what the church calls a “tied sacrament”. The power to become holy that comes from baptism is available, but is not flowing in our lives. It’s like a hose that is connected to a water tap. Although the tap is turned on, water isn’t flowing out of the hose because it is knotted. Once the knots are removed, water flows smoothly. If we aren’t at the place where we hate sin and detest the creature who causes it—the devil—then a good retreat might help us get there. And we have to, because we can’t fight a war against the devil if we haven’t truly renounced him and all his empty promises.
Then Paul tells us that we need to take our stand against the devil’s schemes” (Ephesians 6:11).
The devil is a schemer. He is a master manipulator and he is constantly plotting and planning the destruction of God’s people. He seems immensely strong, but he has several weaknesses. One of the biggest is the same as that of any proud person. He has an overinflated opinion of himself. He believes he is smart and everybody else is stupid. Additionally, with the typical arrogance of the powerful, he also believes everybody can be bought. But, as Jesus showed so decisively in the desert, he is not very smart. And he can be resisted. And he can be beaten. Peter tells us how to do this: Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him ... (1 Peter 5:8-9a).
I learned a long time ago that the only power the devil has is the power we let him have. He is, as Peter says here, like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, but although he is free to roam, he cannot touch someone who is protected by God. And we are protected. God has placed fences, or hedges, around all of us. We know he did this with Job, because the devil went to God one day saying: Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land (Job 1:10).
Similarly, God places such fences around the righteous for protection and blessing. However, we often get out of the umbrella of this protection and blessing. How do we do this? Imagine a huge estate—let’s call it Arcadia—filled with all sorts of wonderful things. We have everything we need in Arcadia to lead a happy, contented, and peaceful life. Arcadia is bordered on all sides by high walls and impenetrable security. Outside Arcadia, however, lies danger and death, pain and torment. Now, knowing this, which of us would want to leave Arcadia? Nobody, right? But this is exactly what we do! Tempted by the forbidden fruit the devil promises us on the other side we step out, and only when we bite into the fruit that he offers do we discover it is poisoned.
There are times, however, when God permits the hedge to be breached. He did this with Job, permitting Satan to work his will. Why? Because Satan said that Job would curse God if God withdrew his protection. God said he wouldn’t do this because Job loved him enough to never turn against him, no matter what. And Job proved God right.
Similarly, God permits us to be tested. It is easy to praise God and honor him when everything is going well in our lives. However, the true test of love is whether we continue to praise him and honor him when things aren’t quite as rosy. And when God sees that we have proved our faithfulness, he restores us. Here’s the continuation of what Peter said: Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you (1 Peter 5:9-10).
But it isn’t just to test us that God allows this (which is perhaps why we pray: “do not bring us to the test”); it is also to train us to become good soldiers. We sometimes forget that when we received the Sacrament of Confirmation, we enlisted in Christ’s army. One doesn’t become a good soldier by merely attending prayer services or Scripture reading, although these are, of course, part of the course. One becomes a good soldier by training for battle, and this involves actual combat. In combat one gets hurt, sometimes badly, and if one is unprepared for this, the wounds can be terrible, sometimes seemingly fatal. Looking around us, we can see severely wounded soldiers all around us, simply because most were unprepared for the attacks, the ferocity with which they came, and a complete ignorance of how to deal with them. How do these attacks come?
Recognizing the Attacks
Very often the enemy attacks through the people closest to us. An alcoholic husband. A nagging wife. A wayward child. A disgruntled employee. A bitter parishioner. An obnoxious neighbor. A deceiving friend.
Many of us constantly find ourselves belittled, hurt, humiliated, or otherwise angered or injured by the actions of people around us. But the instant we retaliate against them, believing the person offending us is the enemy, the battle is lost, because they are not! The enemy is the devil who manipulates their insecurities, fears and weaknesses (just like he manipulates ours), to make them act the way they do. As Paul rightly states, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
Because we do not recognize this truth, we are all fighting against each other instead of the devil, who howls with laughter that his schemes have worked yet again—and that too, so easily! Our struggle is not against flesh and blood! It is not against people.
In the old days, when a person was considered possessed, he was whipped in the belief that the devil could be beaten out of him. Isn’t that absurd? The man gets black and blue, but the devil (assuming the man was truly possessed) is where he always was, probably enjoying the beating his host is receiving.
Getting angry with a spouse and berating them because they are throwing a fit is as absurd as beating a man with an alleged devil in him, because it is not going to remedy the situation. On the contrary, it will make it worse. What will fix it is identifying the mischief maker, who is the devil (or one of his cohorts), and exercising the authority given to us by Jesus to put him in his place. “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you”, Jesus said (Luke 10:19). He has given all his disciples this authority and we need to assert it. A few weeks, if not days, of doing this, and we will find dramatic improvements in the situations around us.
However, getting to a stage when we can effectively do this is going to take some time because many of us have been so severely wounded, we have become incapacitated. This is especially true of those who lead God’s flock, who have become disillusioned and despondent. Many see setbacks in ministry as a personal indictment from God about them. When church attendance starts to fall and there are critical mumblings in the congregation they begin to lose heart. Some believe God should protect them from persecution and pain, and when it continues for months, even years, without ceasing, they begin to doubt his love for them, or sometimes even his existence. Others lead lonely lives, even though they live in communities, eventually ending up dejected and depressed to the point of seeing death as a viable option. And then, of course, there is the constantly losing battle that many fight against temptation, resulting in a feeling of loathing and self-contempt. So what does one do when one is beaten like this and on the ground? One gets up and goes to war again!
A Personal Testimony
I have been in active ministry for the past seventeen years, and have preached to hundreds of thousands of people around the world during this time. Obstacles are de rigeur for the course, and some challenges have been very great, but for the most part they have served to spur me on, not set me back. However, there have been instances when I have felt discouraged and defeated. On one occasion things got so bad I wanted to quit. I remember going to bed that night telling God I was done. Bruised and broken, I had had enough. I was woken up from a very disturbed sleep with a song ringing in my ears:
Arise, wounded soldier,
It’s time to fight again,
The battle you thought
you’d totally lost
Is just about to begin.
The song kept repeating, until the words sank deep into my heart, and then a soft voice I recognized very well began talking to me gently, reminding me of all the things Jesus had said during the days he had walked upon the earth; the things Peter, Paul, and the other apostles had said; and all the things I had learned over the years. I eventually drifted off to sleep still listening to the soft murmuring of his voice. When I woke up, I felt different, the depression a thing of the past, and filled with a sense of renewed optimism. I knew what I had to do. Arise and fight.
And this is what we always need to do. Whenever we feel beaten, we have to believe that things are going to change because God is stretching out his hand to us, telling us to rise and fight again because he will give us the victory we need. After all, the battle belongs to him (see 2 Chronicles 20:15).
Before Jesus left, he promised his apostles: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. (And) the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:16,26).
The Spirit wants to remind us of something now. He wants to remind us of a prayer that Jesus made for Peter after the Last Supper. “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).
As Satan had asked to sift Job, he was now asking to sift Peter. Jesus knew that Peter, unlike Job, would fail, but he allows it to happen, making a rather strange prayer that Peter’s faith would not fail. Faith in what? Faith in God’s love, that come what may, that love was unchanging. And that is what we need to believe too.
Paul asks: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35,37-39).
That is the faith we need to have as well. The devil constantly condemns us (often through people closest to us), calling us hypocrites. He keeps telling us that we have blown it with God and God doesn’t love us anymore, that he could not possibly love terrible people like us. But these are all lies from the father of lies. Scripture assures us that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
And then Jesus makes another prayer for Peter, saying that when he has turned back, he should strengthen his brothers. This is exactly what Peter did. When he realized that Jesus still loved him, and always would, his own love for Jesus deepened. Jesus wanted him to realize the extent of the love he had, which is why on that fateful day before he restored Peter (see John 21:15-17), he asked his apostle three times: “Peter, do you love me?” Each time that Peter replied, with increasing frustration, that he did Jesus told him to do something. “Feed my lambs,” he said the first time. A second time he said, “Tend my sheep.” And the third time he said, “Feed my sheep”. Or in other words, “strengthen your brothers.”
After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon him and the other apostles, Peter became a real rock in the church, its first pope, becoming a source of strength and support to hundreds of thousands of people around the world. That is what we are required to do.
So: Arise, wounded soldier! It’s time to fight again.