The Art of Spiritual War
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one of the most ancient and most revered military manuals in all of human history. In it, Sun Tzu set out what he believed to be the “essentials of military victory.” He wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”1
Many of the seventeenth-century Puritans also emphasized the importance of knowing the enemy and his tactics when they approached the subject of spiritual warfare. For instance, in his Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, Thomas Brooks highlighted “the essentials” of spiritual warfare: “Christ, the Scripture, your own hearts, and Satan’s devices, are the four prime things that should be first and most studied and searched. If any cast off the study of these, they cannot be safe here, nor happy hereafter.”2
It is vital that we are aware of the schemes of the enemy. God gives us clear insight into the maneuverings of the evil one, from the opening pages of the Old Testament through the entirety of the New Testament, so that—as the Apostle Paul said—“we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Cor. 2:11). It is to this end that we turn to the Scriptures to glean all that we can about the strategies of the devil.
We will never understand the tactics of the enemy properly until we understand the first three chapters of Genesis. The New Testament—in setting out a biblical theology of temptation—records the first enticement with which the evil one led our first parents into rebellion against God. In 2 Corinthians 11:3, the Apostle Paul writes, “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” He draws attention to the subtle nature of Satan and then explains that the cunning way in which he deceived Eve is paradigmatic of his deceptive attacks against believers.
Satan is the “most cunning” of God’s creatures. Every one of his strategies, temptations, and attacks is full of cunning deceit. As Brooks put it, Satan loves to “present the bait and hide the hook.” He “paints sin with virtue’s colors”; then, he “extenuates and lessens sin.”3
In his initial approach, Satan comes as a cunning deceiver—subtly and strategically seeking to lead Eve to listen to him rather than hold fast to God’s words. Satan denied the truth about the words of God. He made himself a counterfeit authority. “Did God actually say . . . ?” (Gen. 3:1) carried with it a denial of not only the authority of God’s words, but it also cast aspersions on the sufficiency, clarity, and necessity of what God had told His image bearers. Whenever Satan seeks to lead men and women into sin and rebellion, he does so by planting seeds of doubt about what God has said. He knows that if he can tempt us to turn from the Word of God, we will be susceptible to any and all forms of unrighteousness and evil. Even after a believer sins and falls prey to a temptation, Satan continues to seek to lead him or her to doubt God’s Word. “The accuser of the brethren” loves to paralyze fallen believers by tempting them to distrust God’s gracious promise to forgive and cleanse all who come to Him through Christ in contrition of spirit and confession of sin (1 John 1:8–2:1).
After he convinced Eve to doubt God’s words, Satan sowed seeds of doubt about God’s character. He wanted her to doubt God’s goodness. Satan well knew that God had graciously given Adam and Eve the fruit of every tree of the garden, with the exception of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There had to be one tree that was off limits so that Adam and Eve would remember that God was the Creator and they were the creatures. However, Satan misrepresented what God had said in order to deceive Eve into questioning His goodness. He said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). Satan loves to convince people that God is harsh and cruel—a God who doesn’t want good for His creatures. This continues to be one of the leading schemes of the evil one in his warfare against believers. If he can convince the believer that God is not full of goodness, he can convince him that there is something better to be found in what God has forbidden.
After tempting Eve to doubt God’s words and goodness, he then tempted her to doubt God’s justice. When God revealed His will in the prohibition of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, He said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:17), whereas Satan said, “You will not surely die” (3:4). Satan convinced Eve that there would be no negative consequence for her sin. He deceived her into thinking that there was no punishment for disobeying God.
The final step involved Satan’s convincing Eve that she deserved more. He said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). This was the chef d’oeuvre of Satan’s first temptation. Eve ultimately gave into pride. C.S. Lewis, in his preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost, wrote: “Eve fell to pride [thinking that] . . . her beauty lacks spectators . . . [that] she ought to be adored and served by angels. She would be the queen of heaven if all had their rights. God is trying to keep the human race down. Godhead is their true destiny, and Godhead is what she thinks of when she eats.”4
When she sinned, Eve acted on “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). She “saw that the tree was good for food [i.e., the lust of the flesh], and that it was a delight to the eyes [i.e., the lust of the eyes], and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise [i.e., the pride of life],” and so “took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). In all his temptations, Satan aims for these three spheres of desire: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. The people of Israel repeatedly fell to the lust of the flesh (Num. 11:1–9, 31–35), the lust of the eyes (1 Cor. 10:7–8), and the pride of life (vv. 9–10) when they were tempted by the evil one.
The wisdom of God at work in the victory that He gained over Satan by Christ confronts the strategy that the devil used to conquer our first parents and Israel. Jesus came as the second Adam and true Israel. He was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. The temptations of Jesus, though uniquely crafted to His situation and calling, were nevertheless of the same nature as those Satan used against man in the garden. Satan tempted Jesus to doubt the words, goodness, and justice of His Father, and to act on the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Jesus refused.
The Father had borne witness at Jesus’ baptism that He was His beloved Son (Matt. 3:17). Satan introduced his temptations by questioning God’s words. He introduced the temptations with the preface, “If you are the Son of God . . .” (Matt. 4:3, 6). Jesus withstood these assaults by holding fast to His Father’s words. When Satan tempted Jesus to turn the stones to bread, the evil one tempted the Son of God to deny His Father’s goodness toward Him. When Satan tempted Jesus to throw Himself off of the temple mount, he twisted the Scriptures—citing Psalm 91:11–12 but strategically leaving off verse 13, an allusion to God’s promise of Satan’s own demise in Genesis 3:15. In so doing, Satan was denying God’s justice.
While Satan has different temptations for every person in every season of life, he utilizes the same fundamental tactics that he used at the beginning in the garden. During our time of sojourning here, we will be subject to an onslaught of his attacks. We must take up the whole armor of God. We must abide in God’s Word and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Captain of our salvation. We must study the tactics of the enemy and know our own hearts. Finally, we must long for the coming of Christ, when our warfare will be brought to an end. As Brooks reminds his readers: “Until you are taken up, into the bosom of Christ, your comforts will not be full, pure, and constant. Until then, Satan will still be thumping on you, and spreading snares to entangle you! Therefore you should always be crying out with the church, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Rev. 22:20).”5
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War (New York: Race Point, 2017), 116. ↩︎
- Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices (Philadelphia: Jonathan Pounder, 1810), 3. ↩︎
- Brooks, 16. ↩︎
- C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (New Dehli: Atlantic, 2005) 119 ↩︎
- Brooks, 318 ↩︎
*This is the final post in a series on spiritual warfare that was originally published at Tabletalk Magazine Online on May 24, 2019.