Is Spiritual Conflict Real?: guidance from the Apostle Paul

This past weekend at Eastbrook I preached from Matthew 12:22-37, where Jesus is accused of exorcising demons by the power of Satan. You can watch or listen to my message, “The Messiah and Satan,” but the entire episode raises an important question: is spiritual conflict, or spiritual warfare, real?

The Apostle Paul addresses that pretty directly in the last chapter of the book of Ephesians, where he closes out the letter by writing these words:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”(Ephesians 6:10-12)

Paul’s final word to the believers here is that there is a spiritual conflict, and the struggle is real.

So, do I believe in real spiritual forces that stand against God and His people? Absolutely, yes. The Scripture is replete with that idea, from Jesus’ encounters with demons to hints of demonic forces in the book of Daniel and Revelation.

Because of that, we must arm ourselves appropriately for such a struggle by relying upon the strength of the Lord and not our own strength. We all know that our human strength is limited, but that God’s strength is unlimited.

As it says in Psalm 73:26, “My strength and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forevermore.” Or as it says in Isaiah 40: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and the young stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”

If we want victory, we must rely on God’s strength.

Paul says that we do this by arming ourselves appropriately in what he terms “the armor of God.” Notice that this armor is made by God and has its source in God. The goal of relying on God’s power and arming ourselves with His armor is so that we can “take our stand.” This tells us something important here: the armor and our role in the conflict is primarily defensive. Paul helps us understand how to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the devil and his forces.

What are those forces? Well, Paul lists out several aspects of them:

  1. they are not flesh and blood
  2. they are rulers and authorities
  3. they are the powers of this dark world
  4. they are spiritual forces in the heavenly places

We are not talking about people here, but about forces running higher and deeper than mere human force. Certainly, we are talking about the devil and spiritual forces. Jesus faced them and the early apostles faced them and we too will we face such demonic powers.

The words of 1 Peter 5:8-9 are still true for us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

Returning to Ephesians 6, we must also remember that along with the purely spiritual forces against us, Paul also speaks to the reality of other powers at play in the world.

There are kings and rulers of the world, there are social-cultural dynamics, there are hidden powers of sin and injustice that seem to have super-human power within societies and the world. The Ephesians believers lived in a context dominated by worldly living, idolatrous religion, and perverse customs and practices.[1] These, too, Paul says will often stand against us as believers. They are impersonal but often used by personal beings, whether human or demonic, to oppose God’s people.

Sometimes this evil is readily apparent, but at other times “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). This requires even more vigilance. Therefore, the attack comes in ways that might be appealing or enticing or just plain nice to be around. Yet, as Eugene Peterson writes, “Paul is calling us to be alert to the evil that, in fact, looks like the good.”[2]

“Believers,” Paul says, “this struggle is real. See it. Name it. Prepare yourself for it. And stand in the face of it.”


[1] John Henry Jowett, The Whole Armour of God (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1916), 13-15.

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection:  A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 257.

Finding the Secret to Contentment and Joy

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

The Apostle Paul writes from prison these words that show at least that contentment is not dependent upon circumstances. Instead, contentment comes by learning a secret for living in God and also deriving strength from God. Both the secret and the strength come through Christ.

The reference to contentment here supports the driving theme of this letter, which is joy in the Lord, as Paul writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). All through the letter we actually see how adverse circumstances may teach us how to learn contentment and joy. How can this be? How do we discover and learn this?

Paul’s revelation here is that there is another source of contentment and joy that can pervade one’s life. It does not come from within us but through God. By reaching out to God, resting within him, with living faith as our source for living, we can experience a rich strength to rejoice regardless of what may come.

This does not disconnect us from the suffering of life, which is still real, but roots us in the unchanging character and being of God through Christ, enabling us to face real suffering with an entirely different outlook and character. This is not a “pie-in-the-sky” attitude but something more robust that comes from the life of God who Himself has walked through the fullness of human experience in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

God Himself strengthens us amidst real trials and hardships. It is through Him that we can find the secret and strength for living. Only something more durable and meaningful can bring real contentment and joy in adverse situations, and this comes from God.

Lord, teach me that secret and take me into Your strength that I might truly live filled with contentment and joy in You.

The Weekend Wanderer: 26 September 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Breonna Taylor“The results of the Breonna Taylor investigation” – I texted and talked with a lot of my African American friends this week who were both anxiously awaiting the verdict from the grand jury trial in Louisville and then devastated with the outcome. For those who don’t know the timeline of this case, take a look here. For a sense of what many black Christians were looking for in relation to the killing of Breonna Taylor read John Allen Randolph’s article “The Long Fight for Justice: A Freedom Narrative from Louisville.” Adam Russell Taylor’s piece at Sojourners, “No Justice for Breonna Taylor: The Indictment Didn’t Even #sayhername,” written after the announcement of the verdict, describes the festering wound many continue to grapple with. David French, in “The Awful Realities of the Breonna Taylor Case,” reflects on how this verdict raises questions of safety in our homes and calls for reviving the importance of the Fourth Amendment.


Amy Coney Barrett“Is Judge Barrett’s ‘kingdom of God’ different from Obama’s?” – A lot of recent attention has focused on the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg this past week and what that means for the Court, the Presidential election, and nominees for the highest court. One of the leading candidates for nomination is Amy Coney Barrett, a committed Roman Catholic and conservative. In the midst of a series we are walking through at Eastbrook on the kingdom of God, I found this piece on what the kingdom of God means to different people in the political realm thought provoking. (On a related topic, you may also enjoy Russell Moore’s article, “The Supreme Court Needs to Be Less Central to American Public Life.”)


article_5f6ce2e7b5087“The Church as a Political Force” – I’m thinking about faith and politics a lot right now both because of our current teaching series on the kingdom of God, but also because I want to equip myself and others with a thoughtful and biblical understanding of faith in the public square. Here is Peter J. Leithart on this topic, giving specific attention to the book of Acts and the ministry of Paul. The last paragraph of this article is a very clear and helpful description of the tension and opportunity. (If you’re interested in this topic, you may want to consider joining us online this Monday night at 7 PM (CST) for Dr. Vincent Bacote’s lecture at Eastbrook, “The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life,” followed by Q&A.)


man in the moon“Your Preaching Is Not God’s Work. You Are God’s Work.” – Todd Hunter has always been an important voice on evangelism, spiritual formation, and ministry. Here he offers some important insights for preachers as part of his own change of mindset based on a conversation with an invaluable mentor. Preachers, we need to learn and re-learn this lesson.


Gaslight“Gaslighting” – Here is Alan Jacobs on the overuse or misuse of the term “gaslighting” and why it does not always apply or make sense in its contemporary use. “One of the more pernicious quirks of English usage to arise in the past few years is the employment — by a remarkably large number of people, it seems to me — of the term ‘gaslighting’ as the default explanation for disagreement. Nobody just disagrees with me anymore, they’re trying to gaslight me.”


Books On Table Against Shelf In Library

“Here Are The 50 Books Nominated for 2020 National Book Awards” – Everyone probably knows that I am a book guy. I love reading (although I didn’t as a child) and was an English literature major in college. Well, one area of interest for me is book awards and seeing what books are nominated for awards and why. I always find a book or two that captures my attention (plus a few that I wonder how they made it to the list). Here is the latest list of the National Book Award nominees for 2020.


Music: Julianna Barwick (featuring Jónsi), “In Light,” from Healing is a Miracle.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Stoking the Fire of Our Passion for God

There are times when we falter in our pursuit of God. The wind and rain of life’s pressure comes against us to put out the fire of our passion for the Lord.

Jesus’ parable of the seed and the soils is fitting for times like that. In that parable Jesus describes how we receive God’s word into our life similarly to how different soil types receive seeds. Different types of soil bring about varying types of fruitfulness. As with certain soils that choke out growth, the stress, fear, and confusion of daily life may crowd out the possibility of fruitfulness for God’s kingdom in our lives.  We decrease in passion for Him and, as a result, we lose our fruitfulness in Him.

Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). The Apostle was urging this young church to continually stoke the fires of their passion for God.Read More »

Can We See and Change Our Blind Spots?: three possibilities for growth

blind spot

One of the greatest challenges for all of us is the reality that we have blind spots in our lives. The concept of the blind spot is probably best known from driving a vehicle. Those of us who took driving classes probably remember the explanation of that space between your peripheral vision and the reflected images of your mirrors that you cannot see. Driver’s education teachers remind everyone to always check their blind spot before changing lanes or merging into traffic. It is relatively easy to resolve blind spots with a quick glance over your shoulder when driving, but much harder to resolve in our lives.

In the larger context of life, blind spots are those aspects of our approach to living, character, or thinking that we simply do not see. Unlike with driving, it is much harder to deal with the blind spots in our larger life context. Why? Because we do not see what we do not see. At least part of the reason for this is that we are too close to our own lives and experiences to see patterns, behaviors, thinking, or speaking that has become second-nature to us.  Because of this, we often discover our blind spots in one of three ways: 1) we smash into them; 2) we have a friend who is close to enough to point them out to us and help us change; or 3) we encounter a different way of thinking or being that confronts us with the need for dramatic change.

The first way of discovering our blind spots is perhaps the most challenging because it causes pain to us and others around us. This painful discovery may sometimes be relatively small, such as the person who realizes their lack of time-consciousness hurts their friendships. At other times it is devastating, such as the person whose serious character flaw causes the end of their marriage, their career, or their friendships. The Apostle Paul had an experience like this. His blinding encounter with the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus ironically opened his eyes to his theological blind spot about the nature of the Christ (see Acts 9:1-19). He was never the same after that painful realization. Like a child who discovers heat is real by putting their hand on a burner, however, we rarely forget our blind spots after encountering pain. It forces us to change whether we want to or not.

Thankfully, this is not the only way to discover our blind spots. We can also learn to see our blind spots through the careful intervention of friends who know us well. When a true friend sees us veering into our blind spots again and again, they will lovingly address that blind spot with us. A friend who loves us does not gloss over difficult things. This is why Scripture tells us: “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6). This is, of course, different than a critic who forces their view of someone’s error upon them without the trust-filled context of friendship. That approach is more like another proverb that tells us “a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). To have a friend who gracefully brings a painful but good word about our blind spots paves the way to change. I still can point to various times when good friends—my wife, my roommates in college, an accountability partner, a ministry colleague—have spoken to my about blind spots. Their wisdom and grace helped me to see myself through their eyes; seeing what I could not see so I could grow.

Seeing through another’s eyes is a fitting description of a third way we can deal with our blind spots. We have all likely experienced the striking moment where a flash of insight came to us to about the way things are in the world. When that happens in relation to our own lives, it often shines light upon a blind spot in our lives that needs to be dealt with. This can happen when we hear a message or lecture, read a book, watch a movie, participate in an event, travel to another country, spend time with others unlike us, or participate in personality profiled or self-assessment. The flash of insight that comes through these experiences has the power to change us as our blind spots are illuminated. When I first traveled cross-culturally, I had a powerful revelation about how task-oriented I was in comparison with more relational cultures. While I still tend toward task-orientation, I am at least aware of that tendency, even if I struggle to operate in other ways. The Apostle Peter’s visionary encounter with God on the rooftop of Simon the Tanner is an example of this. This vision opened Peter to his blindness and prepared him for a radical new understanding of and approach to Gentile inclusion in the church (see Acts 10:9-48). The breakthrough brings insight of tendencies that provide the opportunity for change in relation to blind spots we have.

In my own experience, seeing and addressing my blind spots has often come through a combination of the three ways mentioned above. I have sometimes encountered an insight that quickly was paired with either the rebuke of a friend or the pain of smashing into my blind spots. Sometimes a friend’s gracious attempt to point out a blind spot was something I resisted until I read or experienced something that brought that to clarity. My own sense is that it is very difficult to see our blind spots. The moment we think we see them all is the moment we are probably most dangerously blind to something. I have found it sometimes shockingly easy to see others’ blind spots, but difficult to help them see it themselves. Sometimes, I have found that blind spots in others that I turn a critical eye toward often parallel a blind spot in my own life that I see later. Again and again, I return to the final verses of Psalm 139 as a helpful prayer for the revelation of blind spots in my own life:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
(Psalm 139:23-24)