Behind today’s moral controversies are two diametrically opposed visions of life: Are we at peace or are we at war?

There is a profound philosophical division in our world between the moral modernists and moral traditionalists, between the relativists and the absolutists, between those who root moral law in human society and those who root it in God, between those who make moral choices as a yuppie chooses gourmet foods and those who make moral choices as a general chooses how to send his men into battle. Behind this division are two diametrically opposed visions of life: Are we at peace or are we at war?

What difference does it make? The difference between sleeping and waking. When you know you are in a war, your adrenaline flows. You are passionate. You willingly make sacrifices. You don’t expect or demand constant comfort, security, enjoyment, and entertainment.

Each day’s tasks a spy mission, an assignment from our Commander. The one thing life never is in battle is the very thing it is for the modern world: boring and purposeless. When there is “a clear and present danger,” life brings a great purpose and a great choice: “1 call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19).

Scripture is very clear about this. Spiritual warfare is its pervasive theme, from the Fall through the Last Judgment. The idea is sometimes explicit, but always at least implicit, in the background, assumed. The whole reason for the most important event in human history, the Incarnation, was spiritual warfare: God’s invasion of enemy-occupied territory to redeem his children from captivity to the forces of evil. Christmas was God’s D-day.

But modern Christianity is amazingly silent about this all-pervasive biblical theme. Most of the church seems to be sliding into the world’s way of thinking, needing but not heeding the unfashionable words of Jeremiah’s lament against the popular religious teachers of his day: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, / saying, ‘Peace, peace’ / when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). Peace is indeed one of the gifts of the Spirit promised by Christ; but that means peace with God, self, and neighbor, not with the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

The Power Of Negative Thinking

There are three aspects of the notion of spiritual warfare. All three are in danger of disappearing from our consciousness. First, there is the reality of spiritual warfare, the vision of life as a spiritual battle. Second, there is the reality of our spiritual enemies, of “principalities and powers” beyond flesh and blood. Third, there is the reality of spiritual evil, or sin. In the context of the first two ideas, sin means treason, working for the enemy.

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First, the Christian life as spiritual warfare. Traditionally, this life consisted of two parts: the positive and the negative. The positive part included prayer and works of charity. The negative included repentance, fasting, and “mortification.” Mortification? Not only the practice but the very word has disappeared from our vocabulary. Mortification means putting to death. That is the business of a soldier: to kill. The human race instinctively knows that the business of spiritual killing is terribly important; that’s why pagan religions are full of sacrifice, and why the most popular deities in Hindu lands are the evil-killers Shiva and Kali.

But “the power of positive thinking” has blinded us to the power of negative thinking. There is a need for negative thinking if there are real enemies. More important, there is a need for negative acting, not “going with the flow.” If we live in a world whose flow goes to hell, it is absolutely imperative that we do not go with the flow, but against it. If there is cancer in the soul, we are fools to nourish it like healthy tissue. If there are barbarians at the gates, we are fools to open up and pretend they are citizens.

The cult of unthinking “openness” and equally unthinking rejection of all “discrimination” has blinded us here. Should we be open to the forces of life and of death alike? Should we fear discriminating against ideas as well as against persons? Having an open mind is like having an open mouth, Chesterton says: it is not an end but a means to an end. The end is closing the mouth (and the mind) on something solid.

One deep cause of the disappearance of discrimination, the orgy of openness, and the modern world’s spiritual war against the idea of spiritual war, has been the hatred of hatred. When preachers and teachers tell us that we should love, they’ve got that part of the message right. What they mean by “love” usually sounds pretty wimpy, but at least this proposition is true: we must love our neighbors, all our neighbors. And since hate is opposite to love, we must not hate our neighbors, any of them.

But there is a place for hate in the Christian life. If we become incapable of hate, we become also incapable of real love. Both hate and love come from will, passion, energy. But the modern way is compassion without passion. The way of the saints is to make compassion a passion, to love with more passion, not less, than hate; to turn the very passion of hate toward its proper objects: the real enemies of love. In other words, to “fight the good fight.”

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Knowing The Enemy

Second, spiritual warfare presupposes spiritual enemies.

The vision of the cosmos common to nearly every society before the modern West included an invisible realm full of spirits, both good and evil. The modern horizon has shrunk to the bounds of the visible. We no longer see this larger world surrounding us.

We need to have our eyes opened like the servant of Elisha: “The Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).

The fiery horses and chariots are the angel army of the Lord. That’s whose side we’re fighting on, and we’d better know it, simply because it’s there. God simply opened Elisha’s servant’s eyes to see what was there. May he do the same to us.

We have not only one enemy but three: the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

The world does not mean the material planet. God created that, and pronounced it good (Gen. 1). The Greek word translated world in the New Testament is usually aiōn, from which we get the English word eon. It is a time-word, not a space-word. It means the world system or evil empire of Satan, the evil era or order of things that began not with the Creation but with the Fall. It began when our remote ancestors rebelled against God. “The world” is the world of the Fall, not of the Creation.

The flesh does not mean the skin or the body or sex. All that is also made by God and declared good (Gen. 2:7; 1:27–28, 31). The flesh is not the body as such but the addictive, selfish, bodily desires of fallen man: not sex, but lust; not money, but greed; not self, but selfishness. Paul’s list of “the works of the flesh” include not only licentiousness, fornication, and drunkenness, but also anger, envy, idolatry, and sorcery.

The Devil means, well, the Devil. We can forget the red tights, horns, hoofs, and pitchforks, none of which ever appears in Scripture. But we can’t forget the real fallen angel, the evil spirit. He has a mind and a will, a personality.

We need discernment. Fighting one enemy with weapons fit for another is folly—like attacking a ship with a sword or a sword with a ship. Our strategies against our three enemies must be different. We need to be detached from the world. We need to master and control the flesh, to tame it like a wild horse. And we need to be freed from the Devil; only God can conquer him.

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We dare not interchange these strategies. For instance, if we try to conquer the world instead of being detached from it, we take it too seriously. Christ has already conquered the world (John 16:33), not by power, but by suffering. Or if we think of our temptations of the flesh as coming straight from the Devil, we become obsessed with them—just what he wants. Or if we think the Devil’s work comes only from the world, from society, we underestimate him and think we can defeat him with social revolutions.

Remember, we are at war. What an advantage an army would have if the opposing army vastly overestimated or underestimated its power! It is as essential for us to identify our spiritual enemies and assess their real power, as for an army to identify and assess its physical enemies and their resources, and to use the necessary weapons against each, to use “the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11).

Sin Makes A Comeback

Third, spiritual warfare presupposes spiritual evil, or sin. Some say the idea of sin is making a real comeback; but it is certainly still a very unpopular idea.

Is sin outdated? Just the opposite. Malcolm Muggeridge says that sin is the only Christian dogma that can be proved just by reading the daily newspapers.

But haven’t psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists explained sin as mere maladjustment, or ignorance and bad education, or misprogramming? Didn’t Freud show that there is no sin, only inadequate adjustment between id and superego, individual and society? Didn’t Skinner show that there is no sin, only inefficient social conditioning?

In a word, no. No one can ever show these things, prove these “onlys”—no more than a dying cancer patient can explain her disease as “only” cells; no more than a book is “only” syllables. That’s not what it is, only what it’s made of; only its matter, not its form.

Why does the modern mind misunderstand sin? Because sin is a word that presupposes two things the modern world disbelieves in: a divine will giving moral laws, and a human soul receiving them. Sin means a mis-relationship between these two wills, a violation of the marriage covenant between God and the soul. But the modern world’s God is not a person but an ideal, not a lawgiver with a will but a vague force with a senile smile; and the human soul, as God’s image, is almost as vague and wispy. When God seems weak, so does his image.

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Evil is a broader term than sin. Evil does not have explicit reference to the God-relationship. Yet even the concept of evil is misunderstood by the modern mind, in at least five ways.

First, the Dracula misunderstanding: that evil is like Dracula, a great myth, a fascinating fiction, an imaginative exaggeration.

Second, the Hitler misunderstanding: that the only evil is cruelty (and thus the only good is kindness, or compassion). This notion is so pervasive that many readers think there aren’t ten commandments, but only one. If they haven’t killed anybody lately, they think they’re saints.

Third, the Jungian (and Hindu and Buddhist) misunderstanding: that evil is only “the dark side” of good, that good and evil are not really, ultimately distinct but one. This is utter blasphemy, of course, confusing God and Satan, but it is usually camouflaged under euphemisms such as “accepting” your “shadow,” or “enlightenment” that “transcends” categories (good and evil) that are “only human.”

Fourth, the Platonic and liberal misunderstanding: that man is by nature good and wise, and that evil is only ignorance and therefore can be cured by education.

Fifth, the Zoroastrian misunderstanding: that evil is a thing, even an absolute, a second God. (Zoroaster was the sixth-century Persian prophet who taught this ultimate dualism.)

The first four of these misunderstandings fail to take evil seriously enough; the fifth (dualism) takes it too seriously. The latter mistake was made mostly in the past, the first four are made in the present. If the late Middle Ages feared evil too much (thus the extreme penances, the legalism and guilt, and the paranoia of the Inquisition and the witch hunts), we moderns fear it too little. If they thought of life as a hot seat, we think of life as a hot tub. The Enemy is equally pleased with either error.

The inquisitors and witch hunters practiced spiritual warfare without ethics. We practice ethics without spiritual warfare.

Spiritual warfare without ethics believes that “winning isn’t the most important thing; it’s the only thing.” The inquisitors practiced the pragmatic philosophy that the end (defeating Satan) justifies the means (torture or terror). Thomas More refutes this, in Robert Bolt’s A Man For all Seasons, when he says he would give even the Devil the rights of law, for if you cut down all the laws, when the Devil comes for you, where will you hide then?

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Spiritual warfare without ethics is not even real spiritual warfare, because it plays into the hands of the enemy; it capitulates to immorality. But ethics without spiritual warfare is no better; it’s not even real ethics, because our practical need for moral maps comes from our battlefield situation. We need to know the lay of the land because we are fighting on it.

So in waging spiritual warfare we must avoid both the ancient, “hard” mistake and the modern, “soft” mistake. Our ancestors were better than we are at the “hard” virtues, like courage and chastity. We are better at the “soft” virtues, like kindness and philanthropy. But you can no more specialize in virtue than in anatomical organs. The virtues are like organs in a body; interdependent. Compassion without courage ceases under pressure, and compassion without justice is wasted. Justice without mercy becomes cruelty; chastity without charity, coldness. The “hard” virtues are like the bones in a body, and the “soft” virtues like tissues. Bones without tissues are a skeleton; tissues without bones, a jellyfish.

How can we learn to fight without hating, to hate sins but not sinners, to love sinners without loving sins? Only one ever did it perfectly. The only way we can do it is his way. He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” If he only taught the way, we could learn it from others. But if he is the way, we can learn it and live it only in him.

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