Our primary spiritual battle is not with evil spirits
The term, “spiritual warfare”, can conjure up images of an epic battle in heaven between God’s angels and Satan and his demons (Revelation 12:7). Alternatively, we may see spiritual warfare as attacks on followers of Jesus Christ to hinder God’s work on earth (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18). While these are both true, there is a danger that we come to believe that our primary battle is with the devil or evil spirits. The real spiritual battle is actually the one between our flesh and the Holy Spirit, where we are tempted by Satan to resist and oppose God Himself.
Galatians 5:16-18 ESV But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
While spiritual warfare is very real, the Bible shows that when we submit fully to God and resist the devil, Satan will have to flee from us. If the devil or evil spirits have to flee from us, there is no longer a need to contend with them. Spiritual warfare begins and ends when we submit to God.
James 4:7-10 ESV Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
As followers of Christ, we are called to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God”, and “take every thought captive to obey Christ” and “crucify the flesh with its passions and desires” and “live by the Spirit” so that we can keep in step with God.
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,
Galatians 5:24-25 ESV And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
Romans 8:5 ESV For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
It is when we die to our instinctual fleshly desires and obey God’s Spirit, we will be able to be “resurrected” to new life through God’s guidance.
Romans 6:6-8m12-14 ESV We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
The Bible gives examples of how Satan targets our un-crucified fleshly desires and tempts us to rebel against God’s commandments. If we find that the enemy is coming against us, we would probably want to check to see if there are areas in our lives that we haven’t submitted to God yet.
The flesh with its un-crucified passions and desires
What Satan tempts us to fall into
|To seek earthly justice, revenge, instead of seeking God’s justice | Romans 12:19 ESV Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”||Unforgiveness, hatred, resentment, bitterness | 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 ESV Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
|To elevate oneself and build our self-worth, instead of seeking God’s honour | Matthew 23:11-12 ESV The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.||Desire for power, money, glory | Matthew 4:8-10 ESV Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
|To indulge in the pleasures of this world, instead of seeking God’s will | 1 John 2:16-17 ESV For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
A focus on the temporal things of this world | Matthew 16:23 ESV But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
|To rebel against God, rather than to submit to God | Romans 8:6-8 ESV For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
|To build our own idols and worship them | 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 ESV No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.|
|To trust in our own understanding | Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.||To trust in our own understanding, and build up unbelief in our hearts towards God | 2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
|To indulge in carnal physical pleasure | 1 Corinthians 6:18 ESV Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.||Sexual immorality | 1 Corinthians 7:1-2,5 ESV Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. …
The challenge for all of us is to know how to humble ourselves before God and crucify our flesh. Humanly speaking, this can be very difficult for us to do. We all have blind spots. This is why we need the counsel and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Our struggles with our flesh also help reveal the areas in our thinking, beliefs, and emotions that need to be renewed, healed, and strengthened. The devil will not target our strengths, he will target our weaknesses. His antics will reveal the ungodly desires and sinful attitudes that need to be crucified and made new by God.
God has a reason for keeping evil spirits on earth
Spiritual warfare and demons are real but we need to be careful not to become consumed with them because this can lead to an ungodly fascination or obsession. In doing so, we can end up revering them more than we revere God.
The tendency to blame demons for all the obstacles we face in life is also folly. It distracts us from repenting for the sins that gave them an opportunity to oppress us in the first place. Like king David, we ought to invite God to search our hearts and show us what areas have not be redeemed and renewed by Him. God will lead us “in the way everlasting.”
Psalm 139:23-24 ESV Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
The truth is, we can be tempted to engage in spiritual warfare with Satan and “cast out demons and do many mighty works in Jesus’ name,” and yet be turned away by God at the end because we did not submit to His will and love Him well. We must be careful not to fall into that temptation. Let us first ensure we win the battle over our own flesh and be led by the Holy Spirit. Then our victories will be everlasting.
Matthew 7:21-23 ESV “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
One day, God will throw Satan into the “lake of fire and sulfur” to be “tormented day and night forever and ever.” Satan and other demons also know this and are terrified, as we can see from the account in Matthew 8. God has not cast them into damnation yet because He has a purpose for keeping evil spirits on earth.
Revelation 20:10 ESV and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
Matthew 8:28-29 ESV When Jesus arrived on the other side of the lake, in the region of the Gadarenes, two men who were possessed by demons met him. They came out of the tombs and were so violent that no one could go through that area. They began screaming at him, “Why are you interfering with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before God’s appointed time?”
It is important to keep in mind that God is Lord over Satan and all evil spirits. As seen from Mark 1, Jesus has full command over evil spirits and can destroy them at any time. He just hasn’t done so yet.
Mark 1:23-27 ESV And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Satan and evil spirits may roam freely on the earth but they do not determine what happens on earth nor do they have ultimate power. God does. If Satan is active in this world, it is only because God has a purpose for the devil’s wickedness and destruction on earth, and that is to accomplish God’s will.
Job 2:2 ESV And the LORD said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the LORD and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
Proverbs 16:4 ESV The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.
Isaiah 54:17 ESV Behold, I have created the smith who blows the fire of coals and produces a weapon for its purpose. I have also created the ravager to destroy;
We see that:
- God allowed Satan to test Adam and Eve’s loyalty and reverence for Him | Genesis 3:1-2 ESV Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,
- God sent Satan to test Job’s faithfulness | Job 1:8-12 ESV And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge 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. But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
- God sent a spirit to torment the rebellious and self-seeking king Saul so that Saul would welcome David into the king’s household to play the lyre and calm him down. David was from a humble background and would not normally have any business in the king’s court. David eventually succeeded Saul as king. | 1 Samuel 18:9-10 NLT So from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. The very next day a tormenting spirit from God overwhelmed Saul, and he began to rave in his house like a madman. David was playing the harp, as he did each day. But Saul had a spear in his hand, and he suddenly hurled it at David, intending to pin him to the wall. But David escaped him twice. Saul was then afraid of David, for the Lord was with David and had turned away from Saul.
- God sent a lying spirit to mislead Israel’s exceptionally evil king Ahab (who had killed numerous prophets of God and would not repent) to his demise so that a new ruler could take his place. | 1 Kings 22:19-23 ESV And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”
- God led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan so that Jesus could demonstrate to us how to stand against Satan. Jesus did not call on “angel armies”, He merely refuted Satan with scripture | Matthew 4:1 ESV Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
- God permitted a “messenger of Satan” to harass the apostle Paul, in order to keep him from becoming proud | 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
We won’t know if someone’s love is genuine until it is tested. Similarly, God allows our faith and love for Him to be tested by Satan to see if our faith and devotion to Him is genuine. The outcome, if we persevere and stay faithful, is the “salvation of our souls.”
Matthew 22:37-38 NIV Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.
1 Peter 1:6-9 ESV In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Paul also saw the work of Satan as instrumental to the salvation of those in the church who sin against God.
One example is a man in the Corinthian church who committed incest. Another are the two men who “deliberately violated their consciences.” The apostle said that he had handed them over to Satan so that they would hopefully learn their lesson, die to their sinful nature, and as result, hold on to their salvation.
1 Corinthians 5:5 NLT Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.
1 Timothy 1:19-20 NLT Cling to your faith in Christ, and keep your conscience clear. For some people have deliberately violated their consciences; as a result, their faith has been shipwrecked. Hymenaeus and Alexander are two examples. I threw them out and handed them over to Satan so they might learn not to blaspheme God.
God wants all His children to be strong in the Lord and free from sin, even it means “handing us over to Satan so that our sinful nature is destroyed”. As a good Father, God will discipline us, even if the entire process feels unpleasant, because ultimately, it is good for us. Anyone who trains for a race knows will agree that the training itself is not always fun but the rewards are worth it.
Hebrews 12:4-11 NLT After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. Since we respected our earthly fathers who disciplined us, shouldn’t we submit even more to the discipline of the Father of our spirits, and live forever? For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way.
Stand and resist the devil
Some of God’s commands about spiritual warfare can be found in Ephesians 6:11-18. It also talks about the armour of God that we are all meant to put on. This armour is our protective covering against the “rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Ephesians 6:12 ESV For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
We see that after putting on the armour, we are called to stand against the schemes of the devil. The word “stand” is emphatically repeated four times. It seems our battle is about “standing,” not fighting back, attacking, or hunting down.
Ephesians 6:11,13-14,18 ESV Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore …. keep alert with all perseverance…
The Bible also shows us how we are to stand against Satan and evil spirits:
- First, submit to God | James 4:7 ESV Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
- Cast our anxieties to God, stay sober-minded | 1 Peter 5:7-9 ESV Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
- Be on guard against lies and false teachings |Mark 13:22-23 ESV For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.
- Destroy arguments and lofty opinions, take every thought captive | 2 Corinthians 10:4-6 ESV For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
- Refute accusations from Satan (Revelation 12:10) | Isaiah 54:17 ESV no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD.”
- Avoid lies that sound like the truth | Ephesians 4:13-14 NLT … we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.
- Test the spirits | 1 John 4:1-3 ESV Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
In this way, we will easily not fall into the traps and temptations that Satan sets up against us.
Ask the Holy Spirit for help
There will be times we will face spiritual attacks from Satan.
For instance, Paul’s travel plans were hindered by Satan. Jesus was betrayed by Judas, whom Satan entered and turned against Him.
1 Thessalonians 2:18 ESV because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.
Luke 22:3-4 ESV Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them.
There may even be times we need to cast demons out of people who have worshipped evil spirits and engaged in witchcraft. (More on this topic can be found on this website.)
Matthew 10:7-8 ESV And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.
When we feel like we are in the midst of “spiritual warfare,” however, the first thing to do is to ask the Holy Spirit for His counsel. We cannot see into the unseen and God sees everything. The Holy Spirit knows exactly what is happening and He will give us the wisdom we need to submit to God and resist the devil.
Ephesians 4:27 ESV And give no opportunity to the devil.
James 1:5 ESV If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.
Here are some questions we can ask the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s example of the “messenger of Satan” to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Our sins and iniquity
Peter’s example of Satan getting Ananias and his wife Sapphira to lie to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11)
Jesus’ example of Satan’s attempt to stop Him from fulfilling God’s will on the cross through Peter’s resistance (Matthew 16:21-23)
Hindrances and Discouragements
Paul’s example of being hindered by Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:17-18)
We will find that God will give us the answer if we pray, fast, and wait on Him. He is the good Father who will help counsel, guide, and counsel us as we seek Him with all our hearts.
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