Spiritual Warfare? Satan? Are You KIDDING Me?

I grew up just outside Detroit in a household of bookworms and brainiacs. My father was, by all accounts, a brilliant engineer…multiple patents carry his name. My mother earned her master’s in guidance and counseling while I was still in junior high (if memory serves). My two older sisters both have master’s degrees as well; the eldest holds a Ph.D from Harvard. As the black sheep of the family, all I ever did was graduate from college with honors and a B.A. in communications.

So, yeah…we were a terribly sophisticated group, we Mayers of Birmingham. Dinnertime conversations (not a few of which developed into “passionate dialogs”) might focus on the implications of the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s opening of Communist China to the West, the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers…or something in a lighter vein, perhaps Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Yes, we had “normal” dinnertime conversations, too…but I distinctly recall both politics and culture were regular topics at our evening table.

My parents are both gone now, their recollections lost. And while my older sisters may wish to set me straight on this (memory can be a highly selective and deceitful mistress), I would venture to say that if you had shown up at our dinner table as an evangelical, Bible-believing Christian and engaged us in conversation about Satan’s desperate mission to destroy our mortal souls, we would likely have snickered into our sleeves. Hopefully, the front door would have shut behind you before some of us (me, for sure) burst out laughing.

I’m not laughing so much anymore.

In the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects, one of the most memorable lines is spoken by Kevin Spacey, as he very matter-of-factly informs his police interrogators that the greatest trick the devil has been able to pull off thus far is to make everyone believe that he doesn’t exist. For me, and generations of believers, the foundational book on the methods and machinations of Satan and his fallen angels (a.k.a. “demons”) is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Much ink has been spilled analyzing this classic, so I won’t try to contribute anything to that effort, I’ll simply quote the passage that most fully informs my life as a Christian and recommend that every Christian (at some point) read this work cover-to-cover.

The central conceit of Lewis’ book, just in case you haven’t yet read it, is that a senior devil (Screwtape) is instructing a junior tempter (Wormwood) on the fine art of leading humankind to hell. Thus, Screwtape holds forth on the proper use of distraction as a means by which to keep men and women from pursuing a personal relationship with God:

“I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy [in this context, referring to God, Satan’s enemy], of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.”

This passage hits me right where I live. Nowadays, whenever I run into a fellow believer who still doubts the existence of Satan and demons, I simply suggest that he or she set aside a regular time each and every day for five minutes of prayer and reflection on a Psalm, or a particularly meaningful passage in one of the Gospel accounts. Five minutes, that’s it.

Then I’ll make a mental note to check in with them in a couple of weeks to see how it’s going.

As I write this, I confess that my own daily Bible reading (about 15 minutes) has fallen off of late, and last week I missed at least four days of personal devotions in the morning. So lest you think I am casting any stones, I’m not; I am in the exact same boat, and I am entirely sympathetic to how hard, how really hard it is to stay in the Word consistently.

Ostensibly, my rationalizations for falling away from prayer and meditation these past few weeks look like this:

  1. Just a few weeks ago, the transmission in my truck died (a mere three months past the warranty date) and so I was without wheels for about a week, which totally messed up my morning routine. A few days after it was finally fixed, the “Check Engine” light came on…I’m still driving it like that as of Nov. 2.
  2. Oct. 22: I had my teeth cleaned and all was well. On Oct. 27, a caramel chew stuck to and dislodged a crown from my mouth. As I was quite literally in the middle of praying against discouragement, the zipper on my favorite leather jacket broke.
  3. Oct. 24: My wife notices that our washing machine is not working again; third time in as many months. Since she watches toddlers during the day and has five other people to care for in the evenings, we really need our washing machine to work flawlessly. Call the repair guys again, shake it off.
  4. Oct. 25: As we are preparing to leave town for a Springsteen concert, our daughter’s car inexplicably dies and won’t respond to jumper cables. Then, on the way to St. Louis in light traffic, a wayward rock cracks our windshield.
  5. Oct. 26: We get up even earlier since we still have a dead car…and a daughter with a “Zero Hour” class at Rock Bridge (thus, riding the bus is not an option).
  6. Same day, while driving to get the cracked windshield repaired before it spreads, I crash into the back bumper of a Roman Catholic priest (no, I am not making this up), who (for whatever reason) thinks that the onset of a yellow light in mid-Missouri means “stop immediately.” Nice guy; we exchange insurance info and have a great conversation about Jesus and death coming upon us “just like a thief in the night;” he files a claim against me anyway. Thankfully we’re both uninjured and the damage is minimal.
  7. Oct. 28: Back in the dentist’s chair. Crown replaced. Daughter’s car fixed. Washing machine repaired. Downstairs waterbed begins leaking.
  8. Oct. 29: Waterbed dismantled. Yep, leaking everywhere. Out of town in-laws due in Columbia within 24 hours; we really needed that extra bed. As bed is being dealt with downstairs, toddler upstairs finds delicious chocolate birthday cake, eats some of it with his hands, then decides to “clean” his frosting-laden hands on the walls of our home.

Ten years ago, I would have chalked all of this up to “a really bad run of luck.” But I absolutely do not believe in luck, good or bad, anymore.

While I certainly do not attribute every personal misfortune directly to the person of Satan and his dominion of darkness, I do know that we Christians worship a God who is absolutely sovereign over Mazda transmissions, cracked windshields, overly-cautious priests, waterbeds, and dental work. Indeed, we worship an all-powerful Creator God who has numbered the stars in the sky…and the hairs on our heads (Matthew 10:28-30).

Instead, I choose to note with interest how the introduction of just a bit (okay, quite a bit) of well-orchestrated chaos in my life has had the net effect of wrecking both my morning devotions and my evening Bible study time. And it affirms for me that, without doubt, C.S. Lewis was right; Satan will almost certainly not show up on your doorstep and seek to argue you out of your belief in God or your hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s way too obvious, and an attack like that might have the opposite effect of strengthening your hold on Christian apologetics.

Much of the time (though certainly not all of the time), Satan will decline to strike us down with something entirely catastrophic, such as a terminal illness or the death of a loved one, as these major tragedies tend to get those of us who survive to ask hard questions about life, God, and our place in the divine redemption plan. We might even speak openly about Jesus Christ to someone who has suffered a major loss where normally we might not be so bold.

No, instead, I think Satan and his minions will do far more damage to the Kingdom of God in the humdrum routine of life in a fallen world, or by simply suggesting to us that we might do well to eat lunch before we take up the serious matters of life, death, Heaven, hell and the character of God. And the truly terrifying part in all of this is that we’ll all think lunch was our idea. Jesus certainly believed that Satan was a real person (Luke 22:31-32) as did the Apostle Paul (Eph. 6:11-12).

While we should be wary of crying out “Spiritual warfare!” when the guy at the fast food joint forgets to add more pickles to our burger, I nevertheless think we as Christians do well to join Jesus in recognizing that Satan exists and we should be cognizant of his influence and actively praying against him, his servants, their works and their effects in our lives and the lives of others. I don’t suggest that we look twice at every caramel we come across, developing too much of an unhealthy interest in him; he is a vanquished foe, after all. I merely suggest that we would all do well to persevere in the Word despite difficulty, stomach-rumblings and unexpected car repair bills.

Perhaps stubbornly so, especially in the face of the everyday distractions.

For those of you who can relate to my family as I described us in the opening paragraphs, I’d just like to close with one more Great Lie that kept me in captivity for decades: “Warren, you are way too smart and too well educated to believe all this nonsense about Satan, demons, and a war raging against your soul.”

Clever…very clever. I’ll give him that. (1 Cor. 1:18-31)

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