The World, the Flesh and the Devil
The "world", the "flesh" and the "devil" are the three fronts where intense spiritual warfare is constantly taking place. Jesus called the Devil a Murderer and a Deceiver, whose obsession is always to rob us of life. Hence, for Catholic spirituality, spiritual warfare always includes the struggle for personal sanctity, together with the struggle to witness daily to the new life in the Spirit gifted to us by Jesus. In a "specialist" sense, spiritual warfare is about setting free those persons who are afflicted by evil spirits. For this, an important role is played by the deliverance ministry and the prayer of exorcism. But of greater consequence for victory in "general" spiritual warfare is self-denial in the power of the Spirit, and alertness against the enticements of the world, particularly its constantly pressurizing Christians to a materialistic and selfish lifestyle.
The "world" in a theological sense is the fallen world of human beings, alienated from and hostile to God. As long as the world remains unredeemed, Christians may not live as if they still belonged to the world (Col.2:20). In fact, friendship with the world is enmity with God (Jas.4:4), for the world hates Jesus (Jn.15:18). Hence, "the world" refers not to God's beautiful creation but to the chaotic world, constructed by human sinfulness and oppressive socio-political structures, whose works are evil (Jn.7:7). It is a world under the control of Satan (1Jn.5:19). It is the world of materialism, consumerism, oppressive social structures, hedonism, egoism, etc. "The flesh", on the other hand, is the traitor within us. It is our own sinful ego, and it betrays our resolve to grow as committed and authentic disciples of Jesus Christ. St.Paul insists that those who belong to Christ must crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal.5:24).
To get a holistic picture of spiritual warfare, let us look at some texts from Scripture and from the Pope's encyclicals. The Book of Revelation declares:
"And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world - he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him… Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus" (Rev.12:7-9, 17). [Here the "woman" stands for the People of God of both the Old and New Testaments.]
From this text we have to conclude that all human beings are involved, consciously or not, in spiritual warfare! Each of us is created in the image and likeness of God, hence God's Enemy hates us. Moreover, we are redeemed and given new life in the Spirit by the life, passion, death, and resurrection of God's only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, hence the Devil hates us even more.
[N.B. The presence and activity of evil in the world are a mystery of faith. We will never understand fully: "Why is there a Devil? Why does he/she have such power to tempt and hurt us? etc.". But God's word tells us about the fact of it, and also shows us how to face it victoriously.]
St.Peter reminds us, "Discipline yourselves, keep alert. For your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him/her, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering" (1Pt.5:8f). St.Paul too tells us, "Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places… Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication" (Eph.6:10-12, 17-18).
The history of salvation shows that God's coming close and making Godself present to human beings and the world meets with resistance and opposition in our human reality. St. Paul speaks eloquently about it: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate …I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Rom.7:15-17). He also tells us that "the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, licentiousness, drunkenness, and the like." There are also other "works of the flesh" like "enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, and envy" (Gal.5:19ff). Pope John Paul II explains:
"Resistance to the Holy Spirit finds in every period of history, and especially in the modern era, its external dimension, which takes concrete form as the content of culture... It reaches its clearest expression in materialism, both in its theoretical form as a system of thought, and in its practical form as a program of corresponding conduct… Materialism is a system that is essentially and systematically atheistic, and radically excludes the presence and action of God, who is spirit, in the world, and above all in man…" (DeV, 56).
Materialism also leads to the acceptance of death as the definitive end of human existence. Hence, in today's civilization, the Pope says,
"The signs and symptoms of death have become particularly present and frequent. One has only to think of the arms race and of its inherent danger of nuclear self-destruction. Moreover, everyone has become more and more aware of the grave situation of vast areas of our planet, marked by death-dealing poverty and famine. It is a question of problems that are not only economic but also and above all ethical. On the horizon of our era there are gathering ever darker 'signs of death': a custom has become widely established of taking the lives of human beings even before they are born (abortion), or before they reach the natural point of death (euthanasia). Furthermore, despite many noble efforts for peace, new wars have broken out and are taking place, wars which destroy the lives or the health of hundreds of thousands of people. This is only a partial and incomplete sketch of the picture of death being composed in our age" (DeV, 57).
The Pope is telling us here that all of the above are part of spiritual warfare. Human beings must not only fight evil within themselves, as individuals, but there is a global, cosmic, systemic sin which they must fight against in order to establish "the new creation". St. Paul's words about not contending "against flesh and blood, but against… the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" apply to all human persons regardless of their religion, color or social status.
How to Engage Victoriously in Spiritual Warfare
Pope John Paul II has introduced a new emphasis within this subject of spiritual warfare. Writing in his encyclical on "The Holy Spirit", he points out that it is not only the Devil that is involved in spiritual warfare, but the Holy Spirit too is equally involved, or more involved in it, bringing men and women of goodwill the ability to overcome evil in their lives, so that they too can say: "Where evil abounded, grace super-abounded!" (Rom.5:20). The Pope points to St. Paul's teaching given to the early Christians: "Walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would" (Gal.5:17).
If it is true that all human beings must fight strenuously against the Evil Spirit, it is also true that all human beings enjoy the active help of the Good Spirit. Hence, the Pope points out the Christian certainty that the Spirit is at work in human beings and in the world, seeking to renew the face of the earth; that if "the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit", it is even more true that the "desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" and that the Spirit is taking many new and powerful initiatives in our times to fight against evil!
"The Church is supremely aware of the reality of the inner persona, of what is deepest and incorruptible. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit this inner 'spiritual' person matures and grows strong …The hidden breath of the Divine Spirit enables the human spirit to open in its turn before the saving and sanctifying self-opening to God… The Triune God, who exists in Godself as a transcendent reality of interpersonal gift, giving Godself in the Holy Spirit as gift to men/women, transforms the human world from within, from inside hearts and minds …and enables men/women ever more fully to find themselves through a sincere gift of self" (DeV, 58,59).
Millions of people, Christians and non-Christians, are experiencing this action of the Spirit "transforming the human world from within" and leading them to make a "sincere gift of self" to God and to "neighbor". Hence, the Pope can declare, "The Spirit's presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions. Indeed, the Spirit is at the origin of the noble ideals and undertakings which benefit humanity on its journey through history" (RMis, 28). [You can read more about this in my 2 books, God's Best Ideas and The Holy Spirit. In these books, I have given many more texts from Scripture, the Pope's writings, the documents of the 2nd Vatican Council, and have also illustrated the teachings with many practical examples from my travels across the world.]
The lives of the Saints provide us with an excellent commentary on real spiritual warfare. St.Ignatius of Loyola, a military man and master strategist, gives excellent guidelines for recognising and guarding against "the deceits of the rebel chief" and for a "knowledge of the true life exemplified in the sovereign and true Commander". He says that the Enemy summons and scatters innumerable demons throughout the world and goads them on to lay snares for men and women and to bind them with chains: first they are to tempt them to covet riches, that they may the more easily attain the empty honours of this world, and then come to overweening pride; from there he leads them to all other vices. Christ, on the other hand, attracts men and women to the highest spiritual poverty, and if God so chooses them for it, even to actual poverty; secondly, to at least a readiness (if not also a desire) for humiliations (insults and wrongs), for from these spring humility; and from there to all other virtues.
St. Ignatius wrote the above 500 years ago, but the respective strategies of the Enemy, and of Christ, are still the same today too! Materialism and consumerism are nothing but temptations of the Evil One to covet riches, by which people can then attain the empty honours of this world, and end up in overweening pride. The huge success of the Enemy's strategy is seen from the fact that individualism and freedom from restraint, together with self-indulgence, have become distinguishing characteristics of our modern generation, not only in secular culture but also within Christianity, for example, in the signs-and-wonders branch of fundamentalist TV evangelism.
On the other hand, knowing that the "world" and the "flesh" are the vast battlefronts where the Evil One is gaining ground, Jesus invites us to the direct opposite of "coveting riches, and empty worldly honours, and pride". He pours out his Holy Spirit, so that our "desires are against the flesh" (Gal.5:17), and so that we experience power to "not live as if we still belong to the world" (Col.2:20). The Holy Spirit tries to attract us to the Beatitudes (Mt.5), and to a Gospel-lifestyle as in the early Church (washing one another's feet, bearing one another's burdens, forgiving one another 70 times 7, becoming the servant of all, etc., etc.).
Hence, a most important way of getting equipped for effective spiritual warfare is personal openness to the Person of the Holy Spirit, and to the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. The charismatic gifts of faith, discernment of spirits, and prayer in tongues, the messianic gifts of wisdom, counsel, knowledge and fortitude, and the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, self-control and steadfastness are especially important items of the spiritual armour we must wear every waking moment. This is because the Spirit is "another Advocate," especially given to us by Jesus and the Father, to help us in spiritual warfare. Jesus even said it was better for us that he himself should go, otherwise we could not receive his Spirit. And whereas the world, the flesh and the devil are very strong, "the Spirit who is within us is greater than the one who is in the world" (1Jn.4:4).
Even so great an apostle as St. Paul would confess, "I buffet my flesh, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be lost!" (1Cor.9:27). Paul engaged in this ordinary and personal spiritual warfare throughout the year, besides the special spiritual warfare he waged when casting out evil spirits from other people. In the Catholic Church, the season of Lent is the special time when the whole People of God gears itself annually to renewed involvement in spiritual warfare. Then, the means of daily personal prayer, a steadily increasing familiarity with and devotion to the word of God, fasting and penance, making new attempts at promoting social justice, frequent participation in the sacraments, enlisting the powerful intercession of Mary in the context of an authentic Marian devotion, etc., are all recommended. But all these are not merely for the season of Lent! For those of us who are serious about spiritual warfare, they are the basics of ongoing, ordinary, all-year-round spirituality.
To conclude, spiritual warfare, I mean holistic spiritual warfare, is more than just "casting out demons". That kind, the extraordinary kind (of setting people free who are oppressed by evil spirits) is meant for a few Christians, depending on the ministry they are called to. But the ordinary kind that is meant for all is fighting against the "world" and the "flesh". This is the kind Paul was referring to when he wrote about fighting against the principalities and powers of darkness, and what Peter warned us, about the devil going about like a roaring lion. In this "spiritual-warfare- made-easy", all of us must be involved as Spirit-filled and Spirit-led disciples, and we will experience the Holy Spirit taking many initiatives on our behalf, for God's greater glory and our eternal good!