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Spiritual warfare

May 2008

Dear Friends,

Three times recently Sandyford’s windows have been vandalised. That’s grievous but in one way I think we should find it encouraging – as long as we then make sure to respond.

It is of course, first, grievous. I assume there was a day in our land when God was enough feared that even careless people who thought nothing of damaging property in general, would think twice before doing it to places of worship. Such acts not only dishonour God, they express a spiritual darkness which might well distress us for the perpetrators' sakes. Add to that the cost of repairing windows so recently conserved and replaced, and the effort involved for our officebearers, and it is clear that all this is a wretched distraction as well as expensive.

It is a hindrance; there is the danger that it could become a distraction; but those very facts can also be an encouragement. Nothing happens just by coincidence, especially when it comes to assaults on God’s service and most especially when it is repeated like this. If His work is being hindered then behind that is the great hinderer, Satan.

Why should that encourage us? The church (and the individual) untroubled by Satan must wonder if they are making a difference for Christ. Conversely, the church that is repeatedly under assault is probably so because they are disturbing the Devil and he is reacting. So the evil underlying our recent experience says to me that we are being of some nuisance to Satan’s reign and some value in Christ’s. That makes me glad.

As one of the Puritans observed, ‘He who stands near his Captain is a sure target for the archers.’

So we are glad to be annoying the devil; but we will be wise not to stop at gladness but to do something very definite about it. We are familiar with the adage ‘know your enemy.’ Paul similarly writes concerning Satan, ‘we are aware of his devices’ and reminds us to follow him in this awareness and in the activities needed to thwart the evil one.

Since it seems that the Devil dislikes us what I’d like to do is to write not just of this particular assault but of spiritual warfare in general. I do so in the hope that you will join me in waging it in respect of the current vandalism; and in making a fresh commitment to thwart the devil’s work generally by playing our spiritual part in that battling.

I take it that in Sandyford we need no persuading of the existence of a personal Devil, and appreciate that we will make no sense of aspects of our Christian experience unless we take him into account. I take it that we know neither to ignore him nor to fear him. But I have not written of this combat for a while and the vandalism makes me think it is time to do so again.

What kind of things do we need to be ready for? His name Satan indicates that he is a hinderer, an accuser and an adversary. A hinderer – when Mr Philip’s ceiling fell down in the manse one weekend, he looked at it, said ‘that’s the Devil’ and closed the door of the room till the weekend’s ministry was over. He would not allow the Devil to be the distraction and hindrance that he wanted to be. Now we are in the same position.

His name ‘Satan’ also indicates he is an accuser. I find Zech.3.1-6 illuminating in that regard. A high priest was engaged in serving God and we are told Satan was standing by to accuse him. I imagine you have experienced similar accusations, a spiritual accusation or inward voice telling you that you are unworthy to be engaged in your particular service. But we see from the passage that the Lord rebukes Satan, declares that his dear children are brands plucked from the burning, and clothes us in the righteousness of our Saviour. What a relief it is to hold that truth in mind when engaged in Christian work!

Next, his title The Devil is a reference to his spirit of slander. This is not relevant to the current attacks but is very much to be prepared against.

At the personal level Pilgrim’s Progress illustrates this aspect of his work. Christian is distressed to experience wicked thoughts, and words which ‘he verily did think proceeded from his own mind’ against his wishes. In fact the Devil had first spoken the thoughts and then made him feel terrible about them, an experience we must all have suffered from. The key is to recognise what is going on and refuse to be ashamed of thoughts and words which come not from yourself but from the Devil. ‘Resist him, firm in your faith’.

Since a slandering spirit can spread also within congregations, we do well to prepare against this scheme of the Devil (2 Corinthians 2. 11, 12). Paul writes there of the forgiveness and love that outwit him. A spirit of forgiveness and affection between believers, declining to speak or even think evil of one another, is a core protection against the devil’s slandering influence.

But the passage above all to reflect on and take to ourselves, phrase by phrase, is of course Ephesians 6 verses 10 – 20.

What are we to do? I’d put it in three thoughts: don the spiritual armour, fight in definite prayer, and stick together.

1. Don’t just know about, but actually put on, the spiritual armour

If we are going to deflect the assaults of the Devil and stay standing we must take the protection God provides.

What is it to put on the belt of truth (Eph.6. 14)? The belt held the soldier’s whole clothing and armour together. The spiritual lesson for us is to make sure that our life is one harmonious whole, cohered in accord with God’s truth. If the Bible teaches something, we believe it. If it inculcates something, we live that way. If it forbids something, we eschew it. If it’s tiny in the Bible – being baptised on behalf of the dead, for instance – it’s of tiny importance to us and we decline to be dogmatic about it or to major on it. If it’s big in the Bible – that this is God’s world and that our great calling and fulfilment is to honour and enjoy him, for example – then we make that important and a priority for ourselves. There is great protection from the devil and his devices in holding to the truth of God and living by it.

Put the breastplate of righteousness in place (v. 15). The breastplate guarded the heart. When Satan wants to make us downhearted we let the fact of being clothed in Christ’s righteousness be a protection to keep our courage up. And when he would seek to make us dirty-hearted again, we run to Jesus in prayer and ask him to cleanse our hearts and keep us right and pure within. To take for ourselves the reclothing written of in Zechariah 3.1-6, referred to earlier, is the way to go about it.

Stand on the readiness that comes from being ‘shod’ with the gospel of peace (v. 15). Satan would lay many thorns across our track and prevent our advance in, and our advancing of, the gospel. The secret of readiness in these things is to take our stand on the good news that we have peace with God, on tiptoe to advance such a Gospel whenever and wherever we can, Satan notwithstanding.

Take up the shield of faith to protect us from Satan’s fiery darts (v. 16). How varied are Satan’s assaults on God’s handiwork! One of the cruellest is when he sends fiery darts of spiritual darkness, accusation, lust, envy against us; his fiery darts are as varied as our personalities. The great protection against them is to trust our Saviour who has all power, and ask Him to send Satan packing. That is to use the shield of faith.

Put on the helmet of salvation (v. 17). There is surely a picture here of the head being guarded: that is, we can – by keeping in mind the fact of our salvation – guard ourselves from Satan’s assaults upon our thinking.

A major temptation is to lose hope, so it is encouraging to read the equivalent verse in 1 Thessalonians 5:8, ‘For helmet, the hope (or full expectation) of salvation.’ When Satan would make us want to think the worst of a situation or to give up hope, let us keep in mind that God is in the process of saving us.

In this battle the words of hymns can be very helpful. How’s this:

"The work which His goodness began,
the arm of his strength will complete;
his promise is ‘yes’ and ‘amen’,
and never was forfeited yet."
and
"I muse on the years that are past,
in which my defence You have proved
Nor will you relinquish at last
A sinner so signally loved" (I love those last three words)

In those verses, Toplady is reminding himself that God will save him: he is putting on the helmet of salvation.

Use the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, Holy Scripture (v. 17). Here is our weapon for both defence and offence. Every thinking Christian goes through times of uncertainty, a healthy process but one which the devil loves to make much of. Back we can go to the sure word of truth and find peace from Scripture on the issues that concern us. As for its being a weapon of attack: to share Scripture and its truth, to show particular verses to people when there are grounds for discussion – there is no weapon quite so mighty as the Word of God when it comes to spreading the gospel. The Holy Spirit uses it in a special way in wresting Satan’s slaves from him into the wonderful liberation of becoming God’s children.

2. Fight in definite prayer

Above all it is God, not we, who is the effective worker in all these things. That is why Paul adds ‘Above all, praying hard over every issue and never giving up.’ (v. 18)

Which brings us back to the vandalism. On one level it has been a fresh reminder to get the windows covered with protective metal grilles as soon as possible. But I am saying to you that there are spiritual dimensions to people’s spirits being stirred to attack the building. I urge that we pray hard and regularly to God to send the devil packing and prevent his every assault upon the life and progress of Sandyford: both us as a people, and our building. Let us ask God to stop Satan from raising this violence against our property. Let us pray that God will bless those young men with new hearts and a new life in Christ.

It is particularly important to pray quite definitely that God will protect, as well as use, the times of worship and especially perhaps the preaching. There was an uneducated Cornish miner called Billy Bray who was greatly used when preaching the gospel. Here are a few lines from his biography: ‘By prayer too he kept the devil under restraint, who was to Billy Bray a very real person. His friend Mr Maynard says, ’Many a time when he and I have been leaving my home together he has said to me, “Now, friend Maynard, let us pray a minute before we go, or else the devil will be scratching me on the way. If I leave without praying this is the way he serves me; but when I get on my knees a minute or two before leaving I cut his old claws, and then he can’t harm me: so I always like to cut his claws before I go.”''

3. Stick together

Paul says, ‘stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the Gospel’. Our capacity to sweep the devil away is like the strands of a besom: more effective the more strands of prayer there are, and our being held together by the bands of love for one another.

Spiritual warfare is neither a fiction nor a joke and I have been particularly keen to make this letter a practical one. I do ask you to take it seriously and respond to it in regular active prayer. The immediate concern is to pray against any more vandalism, taking care to clothe ourselves in the spiritual armour; but let this remind us to make time to pray for the progress of the Gospel among the concerns mentioned in the pages that follow.

Yours sincerely,

Peter White

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