War Against the Soul
by Stuart Briscoe
Benjamin Franklin in his famous “Poor Richard’s Almanac” commented that “A little neglect may breed mischief;” and illustrated his point by saying, “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of a rider the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.” His aphorism, as well as illustrating the dangers of a “little neglect,” can also be used to demonstrate that often the great battles are won or lost, not necessarily because of planning by the generals in the situation room, but by the effectiveness of the solitary man guarding his position and fulfilling his role on a lonely hill.
In recent years great emphasis has been placed on the fact that human beings live in an environment that is the scene of a titanic struggle between the forces of good and evil. Paul taught the Ephesian Christians that they were not to regard their struggles purely from a human point of view, but to recognize, “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” (Eph. 6:12). At the time, Paul was in prison at the mercy of the Emperor awaiting trial which would eventually lead to his execution in Rome. So while he was struggling with the deprivations, indignities, discomforts and uncertainties of life in a Roman prison, he saw his struggle as more than that, it was not all about flesh and blood. He recognized he was involved in spiritual warfare.
Failure to recognize the reality of spiritual warfare by seeing the travails of this life as nothing more than human struggles is as serious as a soldier on the battlefield failing to recognize the enemy and fighting the wrong battle, that leads to defeat. We do well to remember that as long as we inhabit a place in this world, we are living in a war zone; and the forces of evil lined up against us are spiritual and formidable and can only be countered by spiritual dynamics. An understanding of the scope of the spiritual conflict in which we find ourselves has led to a healthy emphasis on the need to concentrate on the spiritual disciplines and dynamics that will allow us to “be strong in the Lord” in order that we might take our “stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph. 6:11). But it has also led in some instances to emphases that are not always helpful. For example, where there is a great emphasis on the cosmic dimensions of spiritual warfare, there can be a tendency to see everything as the work of the devil through the agency of demons and spirits to the exclusion of other factors. This can lead to a kind of “the devil made me do it” theology which overlooks the fact that the devil can’t make you do anything, he’s powerful but not that powerful. He doesn’t make you do anything, you choose to do it! Then there is the tendency to see everything from the “situation room” perspective while giving scant regard to the fact that battles are won and lost on the field of conflict, often in the lonely place by the courageous individual. So we must beware of concentrating so much on the identification of “territorial spirits” which may or may not exist, and in taking dramatic measures to “break down strongholds” which may or may not be there, that we overlook the lonely courageous work of the individual doing battle in the mundane things of life.
Peter was aware of this when he wrote, “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in this world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). His emphasis was not so much on a great spiritual conflict of cataclysmic proportions between gargantuan forces taking place somewhere out there in the “heavenlies” as on the “war against (the) soul” taking place in the realm of “sinful desires.”
“War against the soul” (psuche in Greek) refers to the things that go on within the inner recesses of a human being’s personality that can lead to the destruction of what that person is intended to be. There is a great conflict “out there” in the heavenlies¾the situation room where the generals strategize and mobilize, but the battle is being fought “in there” where human desires and emotions, aspirations and phobias reign. What Peter is saying is if we don’t handle these things properly, an individual can be rendered spiritually impotent and a skirmish may be lost in the lonely place. And if our analogy from Franklin’s aphorism is valid, for the want of a single rider a much larger battle may be lost. In fact, this is precisely what Peter is concerned about. He wants the people to handle the war against their souls properly in order that they may “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2 :12).
What then are the forces that wage war against the soul? What is it that can so debilitate a believer that she becomes a nonfactor in the struggle for the souls of men and women, or worse than a nonfactor, a negative force that plays into the hands of the enemy of our souls? Surprisingly, Peter speaks of nothing more dramatic than “sinful desires” or “fleshly lusts.” While Peter gives no details, Paul is very specific about these inner spiritual dynamics. He lists them as “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness. orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19, 20). Obviously he was addressing the specific things that he saw manifested in first century culture; and it is possible for us to dismiss the list because we zero in on, for example, “idolatry and witchcraft” and feel confident that we don't have a problem. The reality, of course, is that all of us will find something in the list that describes our own inner “demons” even if it is only in the “and the like;” for we all must accept the fact that, regenerate though we are, our sinful propensities were not eradicated in our new birth, and they continue to “war against the soul.”
Peter’s admonition is straightforward: “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against the soul.” He’s talking abstinence! Any recovering alcoholic can tell you that abstinence means recognizing a problem, rejecting the problem, building in disciplines to address the problem and then calling on a “higher power” to assist in abstaining from the problem. Christians can be more specific. They call their inner drives which are forbidden by God, “sin.” They abhor sin, and then calling on the power of the indwelling Spirit, they say “No” to sin and apply themselves in the power of the same Spirit to a life of discipline and glad obedience and dependence.
If we may paraphrase Franklin, “for the want of spiritual discipline a character was lost, for want of a character a testimony was lost, for want of a testimony a message was lost, for want of a message a ministry was lost, for want of a ministry a spiritual warfare was lost.” We can do better than that. And we must! Peter shows us how!