Successful Spiritual Warfare

It is interesting, given the amount of time I spend talking about spiritual warfare with my more zealous parishioners, how little the New Testament speaks of spiritual warfare. The New Testament does indeed speak of it, but really much less than it focuses on the result of successful spiritual struggle. The most famous passage on spiritual warfare, the one that immediately come to mind, is Christ’s exhortation in the Sermon on the Mountain. “Wash the inside of the cup and the outside will be clean as well.” What we allow to circulate in our minds is what will be manifest in our lives; therefore, the sins of murder, adultery and lying (as examples) all begin in the mind. The mind is where the battle must be fought and won, as St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Nevertheless, most of the exhortations of the New Testament do not deal with this inner, mental warfare, but rather with the result of this warfare: what we actually do, how we actually live, the way we love one another. In 1 Timothy, for example, St. Paul near the beginning explains to Timothy that “The purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.” Developing a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith are all matters of spiritual warfare, but the purpose of these is love—spiritual warfare is not an end in itself. By the end of chapter one, St. Paul is charging Timothy to “wage a good warfare” the result of which will be good conscience and a faith that does not suffer “shipwreck.” What a non-shipwrecked faith looks like, what someone with healthy faith actually does, is subject of the rest of the letter. First, someone who is effective in spiritual warfare prays and is thankful for all men. Note, St. Paul says the prayers are for others. Inasmuch as the focus of our prayers is on our own struggles, we may be completely missing the point of spiritual warfare. Successful spiritual warfare results in the abandonment of self into the hands of God (with all its conflicts, irresolutions, doubts and unruly thoughts and urges) so that love of God and neighbor become dominant. “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” When we let go of ourselves—including the preoccupation with fixing ourselves—then God’s desire becomes ours. God’s desire is a desire that goes out, out to neighbor, out to other. It is a desire to give ourselves, as our Master has, as a ransom for all, as an offering of service, as a living sacrifice wholly acceptable to God. However, for St. Paul, this offering of ourselves involves very specific attitudes and behaviors. Women are to dress modestly and learn in silence and submission (ouch. I note that men also must dress modestly and learn in silence and submission, but for whatever reasons—and the text makes mention of reasons that are theological, not primarily cultural—St. Paul feels it’s necessary to emphasize this matter in regard to women. However, this is just as St. Paul and other New Testament writers emphasize certain behaviors—not loving money, for example— that are required of all, when specifically addressing certain groups—leaders, for example). Bishops (which would include priests at this point in history), deacons and deaconesses (translated “their wives,” but was probably a reference to female deacons) are held to a very high standard of behavior. Those who lead, who are examples to the rest, are chosen not because of the success of their inner warfare per se, but because successful inner warfare has produced a godly life. And godly life is really what most of the New Testament exhortations are about. Godliness (the word could also be translated piety) is a quality of life and behavior that is easily (even by unbelievers) identified as dominated by love of God and neighbor. The way masters and slaves relate to one another, the way children relate to parents, and husbands relate to wives, and how the rich relate to the poor, all relationships are to manifest godliness. Godly behavior is the fruit of spiritual warfare. St. Paul ends this first letter urging Timothy to “fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on to eternal life.” But to “fight the good fight” is a summary of the previous verses in which St. Paul tells Timothy to “flee these things” (see 6:3-10, but most importantly the love of money). Successful spiritual warfare results in our ability to flee attitudes and behaviors that are not godly and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.” Notice, by the way, that one must flee and pursue (in Greek, it is the same word that can be translated “persecute”—to pursue relentlessly). One does not casually become godly. The focus of our spiritual warfare is to flee (like one flees an invading army) behaviors and attitudes that are selfish and self serving, and pursue (persecute) godliness in all my relationships: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.

One comment:

  1. It is useful to try everything in practise anyway and I like that here it's always possible to find something new. 🙂

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