Spiritual renewal is a daily process with daily setbacks. And as C.S. Lewis imaginatively reminded us (Screwtape Letters), the Biblical worldview includes a realm of activity beyond physical awareness, from which many of those setbacks originate.
The lineage of human brokenness is mixed. Sin derives from many sources. Envy and arrogance from within led Eve to eat the fruit. Yet as the story goes it was clearly the serpent that lured her in. But surely Adam’s absence had something to do with her transgression as well. As with Eve, so with us. Sin springs from many fountains.
The flesh, the world, and the devil conspire to preclude our progress in being transformed to look more and more like Jesus in the way we live. While Christians are usually somewhat sensitive to the presence of personal sin (both acts and condition, e.g. 1 John 1:5-10), and also alert to the allures of the world (1 John 2:15-17), there seems to be less perceptiveness regarding the ways of the devil (1 John 3:8-11).
Paul expressed concern for the church in Corinth regarding this potential imperceptiveness of the devil’s work, “…so that we would not be outwitted by Satan: for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:11).
I recently finished reading Renewal As a Way of Life: A Guidebook for Spiritual Growth by Richard Lovelace, which emphasizes our need for awareness of Satan’s role in our downfalls. Lovelace brings a balanced approach, neither attributing all sin to the devil nor ignoring the devil’s influence. Lovelace highlights three “clues” for discerning the devil’s work, calling them the “Stratagems of Darkness.”
- Temptation: Steering God’s children into forms of sin which are in obvious conformity to the world. “Temptation is not his most dangerous technique with believers, for they cannot be led away from Christ into damnation.” Nonetheless, sin can sideline believers, both through discouragement and discrediting.
- Accusation: There is no activity which is more characteristic of the devil (106). How do we become sensitized to spiritual conflict? How do we know when we are up against the devil? Based on the situation in 2 Corinthians 2, where believers are being tempted toward mutual resentment and unhealed relationships due to lack of forgiveness, Lovelace suggests that there are two ways in which the devil normally works: “dividing the body of Christ and using unhealed resentment as a gun emplacement for firing accusations” (153). He goes on to say, “Whenever we find accusation dominating our minds or the minds of others, especially with an apparent admixture of lies, we may be dealing with the devil” (153).
- Lying: Jesus said of the devil, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44). “Every part of the church…shows some marks of the devil’s ability to lead us into believing falsehood, causing us to ignore or doubt biblical truth” (108). There are those doctrines which directly contradict biblical teaching, and yet appeal to human arrogance. But there are also innovative philosophies which have a distinct biblical “ring” to them, and yet subtly subvert the teachings of Jesus.
There is one further “clue” to be aware of. Lovelace asks “How can we tell that we are dealing with demonic agents when many of their characteristic strategies employ the temptations, doubts, lies and slanders common to the flesh and the world?” (153).
There is a simple answer to this question. The powers of darkness do not afflict us aimlessly. There is usually design in their operations, and the design centers on blocking the expansion of the Messianic kingdom. Much of our discernment of Satanic powers come as we follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance in mission and ministry. As we begin initiatives for the kingdom, events will turn in a direction precisely calculated to block our efforts….If all of this comes with an especially disabling power behind it, Satan is probably involved.
If you feel the onslaught of temptations, accusations and lies, remember this: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn 1:8). Or as Lovelace put it, “To topple the power structure created by the interlocking operation of the flesh, the world and the devil, we need a liberator of cosmic dimensions and a Messianic people fully enlightened concerning the difficulty and the supernatural grandeur of the work yet to be done.”
And in addition to the Messiah’s conquering/delivering achievements (Heb 2:14-18), we must remember that we also have the Holy Spirit’s enabling achievement, as Paul directs in Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The Holy Spirit is the active agency by which the remaining sin in us will be killed.
But to the extent that we are deficient in understanding Satan’s role in influencing, and the Spirit’s role in killing sin, to that extent we will be deficient in the fight and thus flagging in faith and joy.
So go forth and conquer in the confidence of the Messiah and the power of the Spirit.
Resources for further consideration:
Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, Richard Lovelace. The original work, from which Renewal As a Way of Life is distilled. More historical/theological context.
The Enemy Within: Straight Talk About the Power and Defeat of Sin, Kris Lundgaard. Drawn heavily from the teaching of John Owen, but much briefer and easier to read.
Overcoming Sin and Temptation, John Owen. The evangelical standard from which so many others take their cues.
Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis. The classic masterpiece that imagines an expert demon who writes to his novice nephew, instructing him on best methods of tempting humans.