As strange as it may seem, as recently as a year or two ago, I did not know we were at war.
Seeing things as I see them now, this is hard for me to explain. I was raised in a devout Catholic home, sent to Catholic schools and have practiced my faith all of my life. I was taught about sin, heaven and hell, good and evil. How could I not known that we were at war?
Without being aware of it, I was also shaped by modern culture, a culture which had infiltrated my Church as well. This “modern” perspective caused me to look askance at the idea of the devil, for example, associating our adversary with images of a creature with horns and a tail. My modern mind tended to dismiss him as little more than a fairy tale character like any other encountered in my childhood story books.
Then, as my career moved me toward social services and then psychology, unconsciously I began to increasingly view bad behaviors as the product of environmental deprivations and abuse rather than something called “evil”. It seemed unfair to use such a derogatory term when people were simply acting out pain that had been inflicted on them first, through no fault of their own.
I see now that this was all part of the plan.
What better way to wage war than to convince the opposing forces that there is no war going on at all? Put them all to sleep and they will not fight back. Shamefully, I look back and see that this is exactly what happened to me.
Also, if I am honest with myself, I think that in the past, I did not want to see that we are at war. It scared me too much. When I was 18 years old, the movie, The Exorcist, came out. I didn’t see it (quite purposely) but the things I heard about it disturbed me for years to come.
Though intellectually I believed God to be stronger than the devil, the fear fueled an alternate approach, “if there is a devil, I’m not going to think about him” (i.e. if I act like there is no enemy, he cannot hurt me and I do not have to fight him).
This too was part of the plan to keep me unaware. And I allowed it.
Others might argue, “But you had an active prayer life. You went to church regularly. You gave to the poor and served those in need.” All that is true. And many people can and do say the very same thing.
But I did all of this without knowing that we are at war and that is an incredibly important distinction to make.
I said and did all of these things from a place of safety, a place of comfort, even a place of pride. I did not know that I did, which is what makes the sin all the more insidious. Whether I am a Catholic maintaining all of the rules and practices of my tradition or a Protestant evangelical proclaiming myself “saved”, it can be a surprisingly dangerous place to be.
Though I risk offending by so stating, it is one of the more subtle temptations of the enemy to suggest that all we need do is believe that the Jesus has taken care of everything. All we have to do is be baptized, accept him as our personal Savior, be born again, etc. and we are saved. End of story. Nothing else is required.
It is subtle because it sounds so “right”. It is a temptation because it frees us from the need to be watchful, to engage in battle and risk all that we have and are for the sake of the Kingdom.
To know that we are at war is to know that there is evil alive in our world. Unrelenting evil that is always at work to lead us away from God. The tactics used by the enemy may be ingenious and not at all what we expect. Thus, we must guard our minds and our hearts continually.
As I have talked with others about such things, I have found myself saying surprising things. I have described discouragement as a great temptation. I would not have thought of it that way before – but it is. What better way to lead us away from God than to cause us to grow weary and hopeless so that we cease our efforts?
In the religious teaching of my childhood, good and bad were very clearly demarcated. Thus, I was led to believe that temptations were urges to break the commandments and could readily be identified as such and therefore defeated.
While it was important for me to learn to watch for these temptations, it perhaps left me feeling too safe if I managed to foil these more obvious allurements. I failed to learn just how many shades of grey there could be.
Temptations missed do not always lead to sin but they can most certainly lead to trouble. The temptation to feel sorry for myself. The temptation to stay home when there is some place I ought to go. The temptation to not call someone who needs to hear from me. The temptation to hold onto anger. The temptation to sleep too much (or too little) to escape things I do not want to face. The list is endless.
And, of course, the object is not to become obsessive, to start examining every inclination as a possible temptation to wrestle with. Rather, as St. Peter tells us, we must be “sober and vigilant” (1 Peter 5:8).
If we know we are at war, like any soldier in battle, we listen for directives from our commander to guide us. We know that we ourselves cannot see what to do in a battle of this scope nor can we trust our own inclinations – especially since it is in our inclinations that we are most vulnerable to attack.
In this spiritual warfare, we need stillness of heart so that we can hear the Lord whispering His words of truth to guide us.
Life does not get easier when we do this. Indeed, it may seem for a time to grow considerably more difficult. The enemy doesn’t want us to wake up.
And yet to repent, to believe, to truly know Christ, I must be fully awake. I cannot live any other way…