The Enemies of Godliness

A survey of the opposition in spiritual warfare.

In explaining the parable of the sower, Jesus described three types of poor ground:

"Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them." – Mark 4:15

"Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away." – Mark 4:16-17

"Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful." – Mark 4:18-19

While the ground of the beaten path clearly represents those who are tempted by Satan, the remaining soils reveal two additional enemies of God's Word: the world and ourselves. The world, which does not comprehend the things of God, persecutes His children. We are also a frequent barrier to the work of God in our own lives, as evidenced by the worries, lies, and desires that come from within ourselves.

Thus, there are three (not one) major avenues of temptation. This may seem like a minor issue, but it is quite significant. All temptation does not come exclusively from the devil; it is possible to be tempted without his direct involvement. Failure to recognize all potential enemies is quite dangerous and entirely unnecessary.
It is also is important to remember that, regardless of its source, there is a concrete intelligence behind every temptation. It customizes its approach and it adapts to our responses. Whatever the suggestion there is a reasonable expectation that we will consent to it.

Note: This overview is far from universal or comprehensive. Only general tendencies are described below, and numerous exceptions can be found.


Who is he?
Many Christians quickly become uncomfortable when a discussion turns to the subject of Satan. They may downplay his significance or even deny his existence. To them, Satan is little more than an embarrassing symbol of an obsolete and ignorant era. 

This perspective could not possibly differ any further from the beliefs of most early Christians. They believed there was a realm of spiritual beings that included hordes of malicious demons. One of the most widely read early Christian books, The Life of Antony by Athanasius, describes intense spiritual warfare continually being waged by the title character. 

These extremes are examples of how Satan uses his favorite tool, deception. He will repudiate the truth or exaggerate the truth, but he cannot tolerate the truth. Consequently, the best defense against his tricks is to know the truth about him. The Apostle Paul says as much while counseling the church at Corinth.

"... in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes." – 2 Corinthians 2:11

The Scriptures clearly teach He is a real person with a hostile agenda. Jesus called him the father of lies (John 8:44). If the truth were widely accepted, then his ability to maneuver would be severely limited; therefore, he denies the truth about himself in at least three key areas: his existence, his objectives, and his accomplishments. 

He denies his own existence. It is not an accident that so many people (including many Christians) do not think he is real. If you do not take him seriously, then his job is much easier. 

He frequently denies his own objectives. When he tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, he hid his true intentions from her. He did not tell Eve what he was doing there. He neglected to mention his failed coup. He certainly was not there for her benefit. 

We often think Satan promotes evil for the sake of promoting evil, but that is too simplistic. His actions are guided by a very clear purpose: he wants to sit on God's throne. Everything he does is driven by this intense desire. He is focused, organized and intentional. 

He often denies his own accomplishments. Even though he holds the patent on pride, he does not have to be acclaimed for everything he does. He often prefers to work in anonymity, and is content to delay gratification if it furthers his long-range plans. In many ways, he practices a much better form of self-denial than do most Christians. 

Not only does Satan avoid "taking credit" when it is due, he also loves to take credit for things that are not true. As part of his "anything but truth" policy, he falsely claims to have power and authority that he does not truly possess. 

Many of those who do accept the existence of Satan erroneously think he is more powerful than he really is. Satan is merely one created being with many creaturely limitations. He is powerful, but is not all-powerful. He is intelligent, but is not all-knowing. He is creative, but is not the Creator. He desires to be like God, but is not deity. He would like to be perceived as an equally capable alternative to God, but he is not even close. Having made this point, Satan should still be warily respected because he rules a vast host of demons, which, like him, are bent on our destruction. 

Satan professes to have authority he does not have. He wants us to believe that he can give us whatever we desire. He promises happiness and success if we submit to him, but he does not have the authority to truly grant these wishes. The best things he can offer are just cheap counterfeits of God's true gifts. For example, God offers peace that passes understanding and is unlike anything the world has to offer, while Satan's best imitation of this gift is a simple and temporary respite. 

What does he want?
To replace God. By opposing the redemptive work of Christ, deceiving mankind, and persecuting believers, he hopes to reach this goal. Temptation is his primary means of accomplishing these tasks. 

The process of temptation is fairly straightforward. An ungodly suggestion is made, which is then considered for its merits. A sin is committed once the proposal is found acceptable. Sustained acceptance leads to spiritual bondage. Essentially, Satan is the Master Suggester (see the sidebar on lust for more information).

Contrary to popular opinion, Satan does not have intimate knowledge of our inner thoughts. Like an experienced interrogator, he looks for clues and signs to figure out what we are thinking, but he cannot read our minds. His suggestions are simply educated guesses, albeit very good ones, based on his extensive experience. Without our consent, he is powerless. The devil cannot make us do anything. 

How does he operate?
With purpose. Many Christians assume that Satan knows he is going to lose. While his ultimate defeat is clearly prophesied in Scripture, I believe he rejects the idea. He is simply too active and too focused to be fighting for a hopelessly doomed cause. He is aware that God has said he will lose, but he knew that God would resist him from the very moment he rebelled. Satan is so twisted and warped by his pride that he thinks he can still win, and this makes him even more dangerous.

With vision. Satan does not have to win every battle if a loss can be turned to his advantage. He often "throws" one fight to instill a false sense of victory. For example, he may "tempt" you in an area where you can easily resist him. While you win the initial confrontation, you are now more vulnerable to suggestions of vanity (see the sidebar on vainglory for more information).

With experience. Satan is not interested in a challenge, much less a fair fight. He has no interest in attacking areas of strength, but seeks to take advantage of weakness. If something is working for him, then he will stick to it until he is finally rebuffed. 

With evaluation. Satan intentionally and frequently attacks those who pose greater threats to his plans. The easiest way to escape his notice is to remain spiritually stagnant, but this creates more problems than it solves (see the sidebar on pride for more information).

What is his weakness?
God is greater than Satan. Practice humility and submission (ASPIRE's Reflection).

"Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." – James 4:7-10


What are we?
We are unique. When God created the universe, He gave some gifts and responsibilities exclusively to mankind, such as dominion over the earth, the ability to make moral choices, and our most precious privilege, the honor of bearing His image.

We are the only creatures to be made in the image of God. This fundamental truth carries with it at least two important implications: 1) God Himself is the blueprint from which we were created, and 2) we are to positively reflect the nature of God.

Although mankind's initial state of perfection is modeled after God's, it is subtly different. His perfection is an unalterable and inseparable part of His very nature, but creaturely perfection (such as ours) is neither unalterable nor inseparable from who we are. Unlike God, our perfect condition had the potential to change.

This was possible because we were also entrusted with free will. Satan suggested to the first humans that they could be like God, which is puzzling because they were already more like God than any other created thing. They agreed with Satan, chose to disregard God's will and acted out of pure self-interest.

Their choice had devastating consequences. Once they attempted to supersede God, they surrendered their perfection. They still bore His image, but now imperfectly so. Their ability to make moral choices was also corrupted. Not only were they damaged, but everything else under their care also suffered. All of their descendants would be born with sin-inclined natures, and creation itself would groan under the weight of being managed by successive generations of sinful men. 

God still loved man and set out to restore what they had ruined. Jesus Christ made redemption possible, and whenever people accept Him as Savior, they are given a new nature. While on earth, our new nature uneasily coexists with our old sinful nature (also referred to in Scripture as the flesh, the carnal nature, the old man, etc.). When our time on earth is over, the process of redemption will be completed and our sinful natures will be discarded. Only then will we be completely restored.

This summary of our Creation and Fall is relevant to victorious Christian living. We need to understand that we possess dual natures, one of which is fallen and inclined towards evil. It is quite possible, and quite common, to sin without ever being tempted by Satan or his accomplices.

Many centuries ago, a young Christian asked Poemen (an early monastic authority) about temptation. He asked, “Why do the demons attack me?” Poemen replied, “Is it the demons who attack you? It is not the demons who attack me. When we follow our self-will then our wills seem like demons and it is they who urge us to obey them. If you want to know the kind of people with whom the demons fight, it is Moses and those like him.” Sayings of the Desert Fathers X.62. [Note: This mention of Moses most likely refers to Moses the Black (c. 330-405 A.D.), a highly respected contemporary.]

What do we want?
Pleasure. In and of itself, pleasure is not a bad thing. That every soul craves satisfaction is a universal, unchangeable, and undeniable truth. God intentionally made us this way so He could abundantly fulfill our desires for happiness.

Unfortunately, our sinful nature makes it difficult for us to find true happiness. We still desperately want it, but we look for it in places where it cannot be found. Many things promise happiness (such as sex, drugs, fame, power, etc.), but can only deliver emptiness. We are so busy pursuing happiness that we never experience it.

How do we operate?
With deception. Our single-minded quests for personal satisfaction are undertaken at the expense of others. By nature, we put ourselves above and before others, because we "know" our own "needs" are important. "Me first" behavior is, at first, morally uncomfortable, so we must lie to ourselves to justify our selfishness. We foolishly tell ourselves that we do not need anybody else's help, advice or concern. Ultimately, self-delusion leads to impaired judgment, a weakened conscience, and extreme loneliness.

With company. As long as it does not compromise our feelings of self-sufficiency, we enjoy company. It is easier to convince yourself that your own sinful behavior is acceptable if you are not the only one doing it. If we cannot find a crowd already doing what we want to do, then we will attempt to assemble one.

With diversion. Practicing virtue (such as ASPIRE) threatens to weaken our flesh, so it responds by getting in the way whenever we try to do right. Prayer can become a distraction-filled struggle for focus. Bible study can turn into a search for trivial minutiae. Self-examination can be hindered by anxiety and worry. 

With darkness. Temptations springing from the sinful nature are so often successful because they are so easily misidentified and misunderstood. Sinful desires are often deemed acceptable because they are natural. ("If it feels good, do it."). The flesh thrives until it is rightfully exposed as a corrupt, fallen, broken and sinful nature.

What is our weakness?
God is greater than our flesh. Diligently practice repentance (ASPIRE's Examination).

"So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God -- through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God's law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin." – Romans 7:21-25

The World

What is it?
Others. Not only do you have a sinful nature, but so does everybody else you know. The world is full of competing sinful natures bent on achieving their own goals. To make matters even worse, Satan recognizes the world's usefulness and manipulates it to his advantage. The same temptation often comes to many different people in the same community at the same time.

This does not mean that Satan and the world are true allies because they do not really look out for each other's well-being. However, Satan is crafty and appeals to our flesh through the world. He is not particularly concerned with the method of our downfall as long is it occurs. If he can lead us into bondage, then he will abandon us there to let the world do what it will.

Take care that you are not a part of the world to those around you. Do not let your sinful nature encourage others to sin. To say that God does not appreciate it when you cause someone else to stumble is a vast understatement.

What does it want?
Approval. People do not want to be scrutinized. They do not want to be told that they are wrong. Generally speaking, we are willing to avoid judging others to escape having judgment passed on our own behavior. People can do this to buy silence, which is then tacitly used as a basis for self-justification.

This is possible because the world has tried to usurp God's position as the standard by which all truth is measured. Many cultures have abandoned the concept of absolute truth in favor of moral relativism. Many behaviors once rightly regarded as sinful have slowly and steadily gained acceptance in the court of public opinion. "Do whatever works for you" is now regarded as good advice. Today, everybody can be right and wrong is simply an unfortunate state of mind.

Despite the world's fondness for acceptance, it rarely tolerates any form of intolerance. This is an ingenious method that can be used to justify virtually anything. Whenever the world calls someone or something intolerant, it allows them to feel enlightened and claim to be morally superior.

For example, consensual sex between unmarried adults is widely considered to be acceptable. If you object to this idea, then the world will find you to be either foolish or offensive; however, they err by assuming that their opinions matter. It does not. Truth is never determined by a majority. Legitimacy is not bestowed by popular opinion. When the absolute authority on moral behavior unequivocally states that something is wrong, then it is wrong whether or not we agree.

How does it operate?
With fraudulence. The world functions similar to both Satan and our flesh. Like Satan, it makes false promises that it cannot possibly fulfill. Like our sin nature, it attempts to recruit others to join them in their ungodly behavior. Many advertisements work effectively from this principle. "Use this thing and you will be beautiful, happy and popular. Look at all the other beautiful, happy and popular people who enjoy this thing."

With entanglement. People have a tendency to look around and see others as competition. Those who accomplish great things uncomfortably "raise the bar," so the world takes whatever steps it can to discourage growth and depth in others. By encouraging compromises and creating distractions it reduces the pressure to perform at a high level. It is hard to grow up when the world holds you down.

With desertion. The world does not offer retirement plans or loyalty bonuses. You are only sought by the world as long as you have something to offer it. Once you have been reduced to an empty shell, then you are discarded without any care whatsoever. 

With hostility. If the world cannot recruit you, it will persecute you. Mockery, slander, flattery, dissension, violence, intimidation, and even martyrdom, are a few of the weapons that can be used to knock you down to size.

What is the world's weakness?
God is greater than the world. Avoid its enticements (ASPIRE's Abstinence). It cannot tempt you if you are not there.

"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world -- the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does -- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." – 1 John 2:15-17

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