Fighting the Good Fight
But perhaps the most intriguing and controversial images cluster around the notion of the life of the soul as spiritual warfare. Why was this picture of spiritual reality invoked by the writers of Scripture, and what does it mean for the way we do ministry?
Perhaps the place to begin is here: the biblical writers lived in a world where the reality of the spiritual was taken for granted; we live in a world where that belief erodes a little more each day.
The greatest book on spiritual warfare in the twentieth century was written by an Anglican intellectual who, I think, never himself used the phrase "spiritual warfare" and may well never have heard it used. C.S. Lewis's little book The Screwtape Letters is a classic because it shows the stakes at play over the fate of a single soul.
Lewis notes how difficult it has become for human beings to take seriously the reality of the spiritual as a fundamental dimension of the universe. Uncle Screwtape (a senior devil) writes, "Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, [human beings] find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes."
Sometimes, an inability to believe in Satan reflects a larger inability to believe in a spiritual plane at all. Our culture is relentlessly materialistic. This is, as Lewis points out, part of what makes prayer difficult for modern people.
People often speak of feeling frustrated that their prayers never make it past the ceiling. Of course, if the Spirit of God is present right here right now, they don't have to make it past the ceiling—God is already on this side of the ceiling.
In what may be the most important Bible passage using the warfare image—Ephesians 6—Paul ties the need for spiritual armor to qualities related to the development of character—the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith. The New Testament has much more to say about the discernment of right character than it does about mapping which demons are where.
Paul's primary point, which we forget to our peril, is to take seriously the God-powered development of our character, because we are spiritual beings destined for a ceaseless existence in spiritual reality.
Where Evil Resides
Because we live in a largely therapeutic culture, evil is a slowly disappearing concept. But every once in a while we are shaken by a holocaust, a genocide, or the destruction of a World Trade Center, and we remember why we need that word. The Bible reminds us that we battle "evil in the heavenly places."
Psychiatrist Scott Peck wrote of meeting with a depressed 15-year-old named Bobby, who was increasingly troubled after his 16-year-old brother killed himself with a .22 rifle.
Peck tried to probe Bobby's mind, but got nowhere. Searching for ways to establish a bond, he asked what Bobby had received from his parents for Christmas. "A gun," Bobby said. Peck was stunned. "What kind?"
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.