Spiritual warfare is hardly a neat war between the uniformed armies of equal countries, snapping up this bit of land with all those nice mines and factories in it or grabbing up that lucrative trade route. Spiritual warfare is guerrilla warfare. Satan is in a rebellion against God, so he can hardly sign a peace treaty and must fight to the bitter end, with dire consequences for humanity. Although we are bound up in an irregular war that defies neat solutions, although Christians are on the legitimate side and have to follow rules that the enemy does not, and although the smallest failure is a setback for the kingdom of God, Christians are free to pursue unconventional solutions, rely upon power that the enemy will never have, and the smallest victory is a step forward for the kingdom of God.
Although war is not perfectly one or the other, there are two kinds of warfare: conventional and unconventional. Regular armies are conventional while guerrillas are unconventional. Conventional war is about which legitimate authority gets to control this or that, but unconventional war is about which people get to control this or that. Conventional wars have the potential to get all wrapped up in a few days: we lob a few grenades at each other, I take what I want, we sign a peace treaty, and maybe we will have another go in the next decade. Unconventional wars have the potential to last for decades: you decide that you do not like the way that I am running the place, you think you can do it better, so you start shooting, but when my army gets through with you, you will face the police.
Any decent guerrilla war covers everything from the conversion of individual minds to taking control of the state. Guerrilla operatives can be anything from missionaries for the cause, gun men and bomb throwers for the armed conflict, to the political masterminds behind the whole struggle. Guerrillas can gain the conversion of individual minds by persuasion or by terror, and once they gain political power, they start enforcing their rules with legal rigor. Leaving aside the question of the proper role of Christianity in politics, spiritual warfare has a great deal to do with whether individual people take their cues from God or something else. Demonic possession is like guerrillas overrunning a provincial town, rounding up and shooting all the people who helped the government. Unless the locals really want the guerrillas out, it does not matter how many times government forces defeat them in pitched battle, and even government victories can increase guerrilla influence and control over locals.
Christians go back and forth between being uniformed members of a regular army and guerrilla fighters hiding in the wilderness. On the one end, there is all the formality of Roman Catholic canon law and Baptist church constitutions and bylaws, and on the other end, there is all the disorganization of huddled house church members in the 10/40 Window and the odd convert who picked up an FEBC radio broadcast. Satan’s rule has a similar spread, but even his most formally established control is based upon bribes of stolen goods and intimidation. Christians have the definite promise that Jesus will come back and roll Satan’s evil up very neatly and dump it into hell, while Satan can only fling doubts about God’s sovereignty and sincerity, going on to counterfeit God’s truth to hoodwink people who do not want to stay in the oblivion of skepticism. There is no way that Satan is going to win, but Christians have much to gain for the kingdom rule of God by winning souls for God.
One thing that my dad said is that Satan only has to get a person to look away from God just a little bit for him to win in that person’s life. Never mind that the person is not worshiping Satan, that they serve the poor, or are painstakingly honest on their tax forms, if they do not trust God, they are lost to God and ultimately to themselves. In the same way, Christians can start to win and then turn over and sow their own future destruction. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn writes,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Satan is able to use the spiritual corruption of individual Christians, especially leaders, to damage the apparent legitimacy of the Church as the Body of Christ. When Christians become so focused on the badness of evil that they forget to tend to their own “political indoctrination” in the ways of God’s love and joy, they inadvertently give themselves over to Satan. If they do not continue their own personal struggles for holiness and living out the fullness of the love of God through death to self and resurrection with Christ, then they lose the war on the home front and become fifth-columnists for Satan. Keeping proper attention to personal devotion to the Lord even opens up the possibility of martyrdom, but Christians forget that martyrs are very, very useful for guerrilla movements.
In 1 Corinthians 1, St. Paul talks about God’s foolishness being wiser than the wisdom of men and his weakness being stronger than their strength. God has allowed veritable Christian empires in Byzantium and Middle Ages Europe, and he has allowed his people to suffer the most abject persecution, and that for decades and centuries. Undoubtedly it would be nice to have certain Christian leaders from crises past to lead us again–surely they would know how to solve everything bothering us today. Wouldn’t St. Paul be able to put Richard Dawkins to the sword in debate? Wouldn’t the Apostles be able to run the Taliban into the ground for Jesus? Never mind the fact that all of the greats I just named died as martyrs or exiles. Christians cannot choose the trials they face, so whether we face bloody martyrdom or spit in our food from a grouchy diner chef, we have to follow the example of two great saints of the faith discussing the trials set before them:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Christ came to empty himself even to the point of death (Philippians 2), and until his Second Coming, Christians have no power to improve upon his methods. Perhaps God will grant spectacular mass conversions, perhaps he will grant the honor of martyrdom, or perhaps he will stick us somewhere in between with lots of hard work as we minister soul by soul. For the moment we must stick at deciding what to do with the time that is given us, living out the gospel and not betraying it in the process.