Getting A Grip on The Spiritual Realm

A Spiritual Warfare Primer

All of us in ministry have heard this one:  “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.”

People who talk a lot about spiritual conflict seem to focus on the second part of this verse and pretty much ignore the phrase:  not against flesh and blood. Another common error is to think about this verse outside its context, which allows us to fast forward into the more intriguing demons-of-darkness part of the passage.  You know, if we fast and pray, the dark towers of Mordor will come crashing down. Our Middle Earth will be free at last.

Yeah, there are demons.  More frightening than the drooling ghouls of Lord of the Rings, but the battle isn’t just about us and them.  It’s about us and us.  Look at the context, beginning in 5:21:  Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This is the supreme principle governing all our important relationships at home and at work, which are identified by Paul in the verses which follow:

  • Husbands love your wives.
  • Wives submit to your husband.
  • Children obey your parents.
  • Parents, don’t provoke your children.
  • Slaves (employees?) work hard
  • Masters (supervisors?) treat your slaves well.

Marriage.  Children.  Work. And then in verse 10, because home and work are the battlegrounds of life, Paul writes, “Finally [or therefore, which denotes a concluding statement] be strong in the Lord and in his might power.  Put on the full armor of God,”  because “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.

In other words, what happens in our homes and at work—and in our churches and mininstries—is not just about what happens in our homes and at work—and in our churches.  Yes, we have people problems, but under it all, over it all, around it all are spiritual forces of darkness.  The wise person looks beyond the more obvious human elements of every problem and, without downplaying them, sees that life is a spiritual battle, that our natural world is constantly interfacing with the spiritual world.

I was talking with a highly competent young woman on our church staff.  She was telling me about a difficult leadership situation she was facing, and how it seemed to be possessing her thoughts and emotions.  She said, “My feelings about this whole thing have been entirely disproportionate to the circumstances.  So I said to myself this is not natural.  This is supernatural.”

I’ve written several books about spiritual stuff:

In each of these books (two of the three are available in my website bookstore), I’ve tried to address a core issue:  our general blindness to and apathy about the reality of the spiritual dimension and it’s affect on our daily lives. It’s a cultural problem, because our “civilized” modern world has an anti-supernatural bias.

You know, all that stuff about angels and demons is primitive thinking, and national news wouldn’t think of the possible spiritual side of everything from hurricanes to revolutions.  Even in many local churches, where people love the Bible, there is resistance to things like praying for physical healing or, God help us, speaking in tongues.

What Paul writes in Ephesians 1 is, I think, particularly applicable to Christians in North America:

18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know [1] the hope to which he has called you, [2] the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and [3] his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Why do we need our eyes open?  Why do we need incomparably great power?  We have three big problems that need a big, supernatural God:


We see through a glass darkly

Paul writes about life in the here-and-now in contrast to life after life:  “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! (1 Corinthians 13:12, The Message).

I especially like the reading of this verse in the old King James:  “For now [in this life] we see through a glass, darkly; but then [life after death] face to face.”  In other words, seeing the reality of the spiritual dimension in this life is just plain difficult, like looking into a car with dark-tinted windows.  Even the apostle Paul, who had “seen” the third heaven and things he had no words to describe, recognized the powerful pull of the natural world on our thoughts and feelings.

This is why he also tells us that we should “live by faith and not by sight.”  Yet any survey of Christians, even the best kind, would probably tell us that it’s much easier to live by sight and not by faith.

I’ve spent my life in ministry, preached hundreds of sermons, have two seminary degrees, and have authored multiple books on the Christian faith.  I have to confess, though, that it’s easier for me, like Thomas, to believe what I see around me more than I believe in God’s Word and the reality of the spiritual realm.  Why? Because our fallen human nature binds us to time and space—and blinds us to the realities of the spiritual dimension.

It all started in Genesis 3:

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ”

4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

It seems pretty clear that Satan’s offer means that their spiritual eyes would be opened, and as a result they would become more like God.  So …

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened

Just like the devil said! But …

… they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves

Forgive me for being crass, but at the first reading, this seems like a story for little children.  Even ludicrous.  Here we have the moment in creation history when sin and death enter the human race, and the first consequence of this dreadful moment is that Adam and Eve, like in a bad dream, realize they left for work without getting dressed.

I can imagine their bulging eyes and high pitched screams as they see each other’s naked, pink bodies for the first time.  Or maybe their bodies were milk chocolate brown.  And like anyone else caught naked, they frantically made themselves fig leaf coveralls.

But surely there must be more to this ancient narrative.  We read a little later in Genesis 3 that, as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, human beings were sentence to the certainty of physical death.  But something else died right then and there:  our capacity to have open relationship with God.  To walk and talk with him.  To see him as we hope to see him when we pass from this life to the next.  As a result of the original sin, we also lost our pristine capacity to allow our lives to be governed entirely by the reality of the spiritual realm, instead of the curse of being bound by time, space, and the daily circumstances of life.

When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, human nature was turned upside-down.  Physical sight became primary and our capacity for spiritual sight was severely disabled.  Ever since, we have to look at heaven through brown frosted glass, and life is a struggle to keep our eyes fixed “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

It’s why Paul prayed for the Ephesians, for the eyes of their hearts, their spiritual eyes, to be opened to the realities of God’s reality and power.

The resurrection of Christ gives us a glimpse of the future, where our literal, physical bodies will continue to exist in but won’t be bound by time and space. Just ask the apostle Thomas about the resurrected Jesus.  He poked his finger in his his wounds, and some of the other disciples had breakfast with Jesus on the beach.  Yet something about Jesus’ new body was ethereal—not bound by time and space.

So why do we need our eyes open?  Because we’ve been spiritually blinded by sin.  But there’s more.


We pride ourselves in not being superstitious

In Western culture, even though we love things like Harry Potter and vampires, we don’t really believe in that stuff.

Christian author and student of the spiritual realm, George Otis Jr., writes, “The worldview of most non-Westerners is three-tiered:  on the top is the cosmic, transcendent world, in the middle are supernatural forces on the earth, and on the bottom rests the empirical world of our senses.  The unique tendency of Western society [Europe and North America] has been to ignore the reality of the middle zone.”

Even our language, English—and other western languages—betray our ignorance of the spiritual realm.  Did you know that the English word “supernatural” does not appear anywhere in the Bible?  There is simply no equivalent in Hebrew or Greek for our terms:  natural/ supernatural.  Instead, the Bible uses words like “sign” or “wonder” or “miracles.”  Instead, in the Bible—and in other cultures—the two worlds are equally real and fully integrated.

In India, for example, the amount every rupee note (their money) is printed in fifteen languages in fifteen different alphabets!  According to my friend in northern India, Paul Pilai, planter of thousands of churches, the English word “supernatural” has no equivalent in any of the fifteen major languages of India.  Again, the idea of two different realms, separate from one another, is foreign to most of the world’s population.

Why do we need our eyes open?  Why do we need incomparably great power?


Life is a spiritual battle

I absolutely love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Ephesians 6: because he captures the gladiatorial aspect of our “struggle” against principalities of darkness:

This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels (The Message)

Let me show you from the Bible how virtually every aspect of human life is a spiritual battle.

Your mind

But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3)

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

Your attitudes and emotions

In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:26-27).

Your family and your work

Once again, the context of Ephesians 6:12  husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees—the flesh and blood of the home and the work place.  Sometimes the daily battles of life merge with spiritual darkness, so if life sometimes feel like hell, it is.

God’s work, advancing God’s kingdom, telling others about Jesus

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:1-2).

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).

In conclusion, then, if the spiritual realm is real and it intersects our lives daily, it will alter the way we do life, the way we relate to one another, the way we resolve conflicts, the way we share our faith.  We will talk—and yell—less.  We’ll fast and pray more.

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