In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
This is probably one of the more memorable passages in the New Testament. Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with it. But if you’ve been paying attention to our journey through Ephesians, it seems, at least at a cursory glance, to be a little out of place. The second part of Ephesians, our walking, has been focused on how we live out the salvation into which we have entered. In other words, it has been quite practical, in particular focussing on what it means to be a body of Christ (as opposed to individuals). The last passage, talking about the Christian household, kind of brings this down to the most basic element (i.e. the household being the most basic element of Christian community).
But today’s passage seems to take us in a different direction (at least it seems to). It takes us into the realm of spiritual warfare which seems a departure from the very earthly realms of where we’ve been the past several weeks. So, let’s consider today’s passage.
Firstly, the main metaphor of the passage which consists of an obviously military motif. I’m sure that there’s a lot to be said about this (I’ve heard various things about the significance of the various pieces and whatnot). I wish that I had more to say about this, but if nothing else, Paul reminds us that we are in a battle. Now this may seem an obvious and unnecessary statement (mine, not Paul’s), but we often forget this.
There are a couple of things to be said about this.
There have been numerous occasions where I’ve heard people use the phrase, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” I’m not actually sure what we mean by this. I suppose it means something like, I believe in something (whether a god, or a higher power, or a higher consciousness) but I’m not stuffy – I don’t believe in organized religion and I don’t believe in someone telling me what to do or believe.
I appreciate the general sentiment behind the statement but I think it fails to recognize that (in some sense) it is a non-sense statement because we are all spiritual beings. There is no distinction between spiritual and non-spiritual human beings (because the latter does not exist). All people are spiritual. More importantly, I think that the statement presumes that “spiritual” is a different kind of existence. It admits of an almost Gnostic presumption that there is a distinction between the physical and the spiritual (or the gnosis). That to be spiritual is to, in some way or at some level, leave behind or transcend the physical.
Maybe that’s not what people mean when they say it but it’s what I hear. As if being spiritual is a particular state of being or awareness. But we are all spiritual. Which is to say that we are all spiritual beings. We are not only physical or only intellectual or however one thinks about or labels such things. And so, everything that we do is a spiritual thing. Praying or meditating or having an ecstatic experience of worship are typically the kinds of things that we would call “Spiritual experiences”, but I would argue that washing your house, building a deck, investing your money, having dinner with your family, are all spiritual experiences. Because we are spiritual beings, all that we do can be and should be understood as spiritual.
Therefore, I submit, spiritual warfare likewise is not usually an extraordinary, ecstatic experience, but what happens on an every day, every-way level. Spiritual warfare is not what we think it is.
For example, over the course of my life, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about being attacked by the devil. And a frequent account that I’ve heard is that of a person, upon waking up, being unable to move. Now keep in mind that this is actually a pretty common medical occurrence. Colloquially, it’s called sleep paralysis. We are all paralysed during sleep (it’s why sleep walking is considered a disorder). Normally, as we wake up, or come out of REM sleep, this passes. Occasionally, the sleep cycle gets disrupted and you come out of REM sleep before the paralysis passes. Often, when people experience this waking paralysis, it’s accompanied by hallucinations or physical sensations.
So being unable to move, that feeling of being oppressed and immobile, in every account, what does the person immediately think of as the first thing they have to do? Naturally, they begin to pray. In every account that I’ve heard of, this is what the person has done.
Now this is not to say that every such reported experience is NOT a spiritual attack. I suppose that it very well could be (and I am certainly not in a position to judge). But if it is a spiritual attack, it seems odd to me that the devil’s strategy would be to employ a tactic the immediate outcome of which is to cause the victim to pray.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters which I think is an excellent account of what spiritual warfare is probably actually like. In it, Screwtape is a senior demon who is mentoring his nephew, Wormwood, in how to conduct spiritual warfare – in how to lead someone astray. The tactics that Screwtape prescribes are not things like nightmares and visions or voices in our head. He doesn’t recommend that his nephew tempt the person with the big sins, the extravagant sins. Rather, the most effective things are passivity, compromise, vanity and pride, comfort, or success.
So perhaps spiritual warfare is not the unusual, extraordinary, mystical experience that we tend to think about, but the every day, subversive things that can infiltrate our minds and our hearts.
I think Lewis can really help us understand what Paul is talking about in this passage, especially as we consider verse 12:
12 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.
Some of us might be more familiar with the phrase, “powers and principalities” which is found in the KJV and the NKJV or the RSV.
12 For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (RSV)
So what do we mean by “Powers and Principalities”?
A useful resource for understanding this is Marva Dawn’s book, The Concept of ‘The Principalities and Powers’ in the Works of Jacques Ellul. In it, she recounts a correspondence with Jacques Ellul who was a French philosopher and theologian. Ellul says to Dawn:
…they certainly exist, but not as entities comparable to human and materializable persons. They exist inasmuch as they are manifestations and not as beings. Thus, one finds the evil phenomena, the fact of Money, of the City, of the State, and of Technique, and these phenomena reveal the existence of an ‘evil spiritual power,’ but not as a sort of powerful angel reigning over the world and using Money or the State…
Now we could probably (and I should probably) spend a lot more time looking at what this means exactly, but we can understand this a little better against the backdrop of what Lewis describes in The Screwtape Letters. Spiritual warfare is not a demon or a devil or a spirit who comes to you to torment you. Rather spiritual warfare is those things in the world that distract you, delay you, or discourage you from paying attention to God.
So what are some of those things? Well let’s think of some of the things that (I believe) have affected the Church in particular:
- When we think of Jesus as a product. When we worship because, and only if, we get something out of it. When we pick communities (churches) based on a grocery list instead of a calling.
- When we turn spirituality into a contest (think 1 Corinthians). When we compare ministries according to results or numbers.
- We’ve discussed this in length so I don’t want to go on about it too much except to say this: the “what about me?” perspective of so much of the world is toxic to not only Christianity but humanity as a whole.
We could go on about this, exploring the various powers and principalities at work in the world and in our culture, but it could easily overwhelm us. But it’s worth noting that there are so many things in this world that distract us from God – materialism, the need to be entertained, capitalism, the need to be loved, etc. etc. These are the things we need to watch out for and guard against – the powers and principalities.
And I also want to point out that I do believe that there are evil persons, Satan and his devils, that are active in this world and in our lives working against God to lead as many of us astray as possible. But if we are only keeping our eyes out for (however we picture) Satan and his demons, we can easily miss what they are actually doing and how they work, where we are vulnerable.
Again, we could spend a lot more time talking about what this looks like and how it manifests in our world but I want to make sure that we don’t lose this last point.
13 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. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Here, we see once again the distinction in English translations. Where the NIV translates verse 18 as a new sentence, the ESV maintains what, I believe, is a better rendering of the Greek: The importance of prayer.
In a nutshell, how do we guard against the workings of the Powers and Principalities?
- We put on the full armor of God
- …As we are praying.
We’ve spent some time talking about and looking at prayer, what it is and how we do it. At its center, prayer is paying attention to God. It is paying attention to God in a focussed and intentional way. It is paying attention to what God is doing in this world and in our lives. And as we pay attention to God, we align our own lives, our hearts and our minds, to His purposes.
So What Now…?
We are indeed in a battle. We are in a battle with spiritual forces, spiritual persons who seek to lead us astray. They try to disrupt everything that God has done and that God is doing. As we are confronted on every side with the powers and principalities of the world trying to distract us; as we start to let ambition and lust and greed rule our lives; if we find ourselves confused or directionless or despair immobilize us; when all we can see is our own small world, we pay attention to God.
We pay attention to the God alone in whom we live and breathe and move. We pay attention to God who alone loves us with a love that can’t be measured and will never end. We pay attention to the God who has redeemed us and is restoring us and is restoring this world. To the God who died for us, rose again, and raises us up as a people who will bring glory to His name.