“Well,” my friend said, “It sounds like there might be some spiritual opposition there!”
It wasn’t something I had even considered. I’d had several nights in a row of nightmares, and on several occasions strong feelings of unexplained anxiety or condemnation. I’d looked at my diet, my sleep, my exercise, my personal devotions, and the state of my soul. I was doing everything I could think of doing. But my friend’s suggestion got me thinking.
“It seems like God has really been working through you the last few months,” he thought aloud, “But also seems like in that exact time you’ve started experiencing this stuff. Have you prayed about that at all?”
The thing is that my friend wasn’t one of those guys who saw a demon every time the refrigerator broke or the brakes squeaked. He didn’t even come from a Charismatic background. He was a solid, mature guy, so I took his words seriously. It wasn’t a category I’d even really considered.
But I should have. While hyper-charismatic teachers have high jacked the Holy Spirit, similar circles of teaching have highjacked spiritual conflict to being seen as something for kooky people.
We’ve matured beyond that silly stuff, haven’t we? The problem for us is that Scripture is clear about this and just one example is the book of Mark. Mark’s gospel carries a strong theme of spiritual conflict. In many ways Mark’s gospel is catching new believers up to the story and that includes the theme of spiritual war and the hope of Christ our captain. And these things are just as needed by us today.
Avoid the danger of ignoring the spiritual conflict all around us
As Americans, we think of ourselves often as being sophisticated, scientific, and beyond primitive myths or beliefs. But the gospel of Mark paints a very different picture of the world: Almost immediately at the start of the story we find Satan himself tempting Jesus (Mark 1:13, then from the very beginning of his ministry Jesus encounters “unclean spirits” (Mark 1:25) and demons (1:33, 39).
And lest we think that such spiritual opposition was only present in Jesus’ day we read about Paul encouraging the Ephesian church to “put on the full armor of God” in order to stand against the devil’s attacks (Eph 6). It’s possible that the Son of God himself on the earth brought out unusual demonic opposition, but it’s certain that this spiritual opposition continued to the early church, and that even beyond this it was a category for the church. We should not minimize this, or ignore it.
Recently one of our teens was on a mission trip in a foreign country that had little to no gospel presence. They went out to share the gospel in the marketplace to have several strange encounters of opposition: some team members felt weighed down and even ill, while others encountered people who seemed inexplicably hostile to their efforts. The team leader, who had done much work in foreign countries like this, encouraged the team to remember Ephesians 6:12 and the reality of broader spiritual conflict. They prayed according to the passage and soon God opened opportunities for gospel advancement.
Avoid the danger of making spiritual opposition our sole or greatest focus
But this thread of spiritual conflict is not the only thread of conflict in the gospel. As we follow Jesus we see that sometimes Jesus heals (Mark 5:21-42), sometimes he casts out demons (Mark 5:1-20), sometimes he exercises power over nature (Mark 4:35-41). In Jesus we find that he touches every broken area of life in a fallen world (including spiritual oppression), and has the power to restore every area. Ultimately the narrative takes us to the cross as the decisive moment where Jesus the son of God dies for the sins of his people, opening the way to make all things new. Salvation is bigger and broader and deeper than just spiritual opposition.
I grew up in a charismatic church. In many ways it was a blessing but one of the difficult things was that some Christians tended to see spiritual conflict as the issue behind everything. Once, one of these types of Christians was encouraging a brother that to stop sinning in a particular area he needed to spend time every day praying against the demons influencing him. Another church member interjected that it was probably simpler and the brother just needed to put off sin and put on righteousness (Ephesians 4:22). The struggling Christian wanted to believe the problem was “out there” and was eager to pray against demons, but the Bible called him to address the conflict with sin in his own heart.
Cling to Christ the Victorious savior as our hope in spiritual conflict
In a time of superstition, mysticism, fear, and legitimate spiritual oppression Jesus leaps off the pages of Mark’s gospel. To put it bluntly, there is no dark spiritual power Jesus encounters that he cannot overcome. R.H. Bell also points out that the way Jesus “does battle” in the spiritual realm would have been radically different than anyone in the world: there were no complicated formulas or secret names, instead Jesus simply commands the spirits (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 197-198). Jesus simply gives a word and it is done. He wins every spiritual battle without breaking a sweat.
Here’s why this matters for us today: Even in the face of real spiritual opposition we must remember that there is no power that is a match for Christ. We do not live in suspense of whether the “light” will prevail over the “dark” we live looking forward to the day when we “see the Son of Man coming clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). This gives us confidence for any and every situation.
And this then informs the way we approach the issue. In Mark when Jesus sends out the twelve he “gave them authority over unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7). Their authority was not in themselves, but came from Jesus—and therein lay its power. Jesus had all authority over demons and Satan and delegates some of this authority to his followers. While none of us are the twelve apostles we have the same all-powerful Savior and our hope is in him. For the Christian today, this means that our hope in every moment of spiritual conflict is not in complicated spiritual warfare schemes or formulas but in Jesus. There’s more to spiritual conflict that can and should be said, but at the most basic level we should be going to Jesus in prayer, asking for his help, and resting in his power.
In my situation I could see a few things that might be causing nightmares: I was exercising enough, I had too much caffeine on a few days, I was discouraged about some things. And, the Bible warned, that spiritual conflict was going on as well. But here was the glorious thing I realized: My hope for all these issues was ultimately the same and I could bring my requests to God. I should pray for grace to do what I could do and then pray for Christ’s help with what I could not do.
My body was weak so I prayed for help to watch my exercise and diet. But ultimately my hope is in Christ was the Great Physician and I prayed for his sustaining grace on my body.
My emotions were easily swayed toward discouragement so I prayed for help to direct my soul to the Lord as the Psalmist so often does. But ultimately my hope is that Christ is an anchor for my soul regardless of my shifting feelings and I prayed for peace that passed understanding.
My Christian life was lived on the field of battle so I prayed for grace to take up the armor of God in Ephesians 6. But ultimately my hope is that Christ is the victor over every spiritual power so I prayed for his protection and power.
Within a day or two my nightmares stopped. So was it the diet or my emotions or spiritual warfare? Honestly, I’m not sure. But I am sure that I was neglecting to pray about that last category. And while it hasn’t taken over my prayer life, it has become part of my prayers.
Think of it this way: The Christian life is a war and Christ is our Captain. On the battlefield are many dangers flying toward us: We can fall prey to our own sin, to the opposition of the world on one side or the temptation of the world on the other, we can be led astray by false teaching. All of these Christ warns us about and equips us for. But he also warns us that on the battlefield prowl some very real spiritual enemies vehemently opposed to the cause of Christ. This would be like rushing out of a trench to take ground in World War II while taking into account the danger of enemy tanks and snipers up ahead, while forgetting about the airplanes about to make strafing runs from above. Let’s not ignore dangers that Christ our captain has pointed out.
As Christians we should not allow weird strains of Christianity to put what the Bible says about spiritual conflict out of our thoughts and prayers. We can’t allow the Bible’s teaching to be hijacked. Instead we need to reclaim it, with ample biblical grounding, as a category for thought and prayer.
Note: The following was prompted and shaped by my recent class at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Shout to Professor McNamara for the prompt.