For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil. (Ephesians 6:12)
A pool shark can make hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in a single night, winning bets at barroom billiard tables. What does it take to succeed as a pool shark? At least two things. First, he must be very good at shooting pool. He won’t win bets if he can’t win games. But he also needs a second skill. He must be a convincing actor and give the impression that he’s not that good at pool. If everybody knows how good he really is, nobody will bet against him.
When a pool shark goes into a bar, he tries to blend in. He gives the impression that he’s just a regular guy out for a good time. He doesn’t usually suggest a bet himself. He lets others suggest the bet and acts reluctant about putting money on the game. Eventually he agrees, and then proceeds to lose (on purpose, of course). Once somebody has beaten him and taken some of his money, they’re sure they can beat him again. But when they play again, the shark wins, though not by very much. His opponent is eager for another game of “double or nothing,” sure that in the next game he’ll win back what he lost. In the end, all the person’s money is in the pool shark’s pocket.
In all of this, the shark never lets the other person know that he, the shark, is by far the better player. If the shark does it right, he can even come back to the same bar night after night to rake in the money from other victims—or even from the same ones. The shark never shows off how good he really is. He makes sure to miss plenty of shots, though seldom when a game is on the line. He makes sure to lose a game here and there, though never with too much money on the table. He doesn’t appear to be much better than those he plays against; the ball just happens to go in for him whenever it matters most. He seems lucky.
But luck has nothing to do with it. The shark has total control of every shot and every game. Even so, his victims, no matter how much they lose, are as sure as ever that he just got lucky and that they can beat him if they play again. They don’t realize they never had a chance.
Taking Satan Seriously
Pool sharks remind me of the way Satan operates. Satan is far too much for any mere human to defeat. He is so skilled and strong that his victims don’t have a chance, yet so smart and sneaky that his victims seldom know what they’re up against. Some people don’t believe Satan is real. They don’t think the devil and demons even exist. They say it’s unrealistic to believe such things. But who is being unrealistic? How can you read history or watch the news and not believe Satan and his demons are real? What else explains the dreadful power of evil?
We see smart, sophisticated people get tangled in scandals or trapped by addictions, and we wonder how they could be so stupid; we don’t recognize the tempter’s cunning. We see wars, terrorism, torture, crime and cruelty, and we wonder how people can be so awful to each other; we don’t recognize the devil, whom Jesus described as “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). It’s not just a people problem; it’s a demon problem. Humans can be sinful and silly, of course, but behind it all lurks demonic evil and deception. The real enemy is Satan.
But we still find it hard to take Satan seriously. We think it’s more realistic to believe in our own ability and in that glorious thing called progress. We think we can conquer our problems if only we try just a little harder. We see war and hatred, and we think, “With just a little more negotiation, with just a little more international cooperation, we can make a new world order of peace and security.” We see countless children without fathers, we see AIDS destroying millions around the world, and we think, “If we just spend billions of dollars on sex education, things will get better.” But the harder we try, the worse it gets.
Who is being realistic: those who think we have human-sized problems with human-sized solutions, or those who believe we’re up against something more than human weakness and wickedness, that we face a mysterious enemy of horrifying power? It’s amazing that a pool shark can beat someone game after game and take all his money without the victim ever knowing what he’s really up against. It’s even more amazing that after Satan has done so much damage, many people still don’t even think that the devil and his demons are real.
If you can’t see Satan’s power in crime, conflict, war, and massacres, just look at your own life. Here, too, Satan can be controlling you without you knowing it. He can be taking you for everything you’ve got, and you still think you can win. You give in to a temptation, and you think, “Oops! That was a mistake, but it won’t happen again. Next time I’ll do better.” You might have a deadly habit. You might have a nasty temper. You might be addicted to pornography. You might abuse your wife or hold grudges or drink too much or have some other rotten habit and think, “This is getting to be a problem, but I can handle it. I just need to try harder. I’ll do better next time.” All the while, you keep losing to Satan, and he’s so sneaky that you don’t even know what you’re up against.
Like a pool shark, Satan may even let you win once in a while. You resist a temptation, you’re okay for a few weeks, and you think, “See, I can do it. I can beat this thing.” You don’t realize that Satan can beat you any time he wants.
Satan is a former archangel. He has powers you can hardly imagine. He’s far more clever and powerful than you or I. He’s been in the temptation business for centuries; he’s been ruining people for thousands of years, many of them smarter and with greater will power than you or me. And yet you think you can make progress if you just keep trying, if you just give it a little more effort? It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. You’d have better luck against a pool shark.
Satan is real. His demons are real. That’s not superstition. It’s realism. Read your history. Watch the evening news. Look at your own life. The real enemy isn’t just human but demonic. The Bible is utterly realistic when it says, “For 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” (Ephesians 6:12).
That may sound terrifying—it is terrifying—but it’s a major step toward victory to know your opponent, to see your enemy for who he really is. If you have problems with other people, don’t focus all your fury on them. See Satan as the real enemy. Also, don’t think you can solve your problems on your own, and don’t think human progress can solve all our troubles. Satan is too strong to be defeated that way. Depend on God’s power to overcome the enemy.
Targeting Demons, Not Humans
Our real enemies are not humans but demons. When you accept this fact, you see people differently. When someone does terrible things and harms you, you might be tempted to hate that person and want him in hell. When you see a certain group of people as the source of everything that’s wrong with the world, you might want them to be wiped out. But the real enemy is Satan. He is pushing people to do his dirty work. The main struggle is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual powers.
Picture this: A boy throws a stone at a dog. When the stone strikes, the dog yelps in pain. Then the dog bites the stone furiously to get revenge. But as it bites the stone, the dog ignores the boy who threw the stone. The dog doesn’t know the real cause of its pain. That, says John Calvin, is what it’s like to ignore Satan and to attack humans who have wronged us. True, they may have hurt us, but Satan is the main culprit, and we should see him as our chief enemy.
If you’re fighting a war against a brutal dictatorship, what is a better strategy: to blast civilians who have been dominated by a cruel regime or to go after leaders and military targets? It would be morally wrong and strategically stupid to attack people who are ruled by a horrid regime and not attack the regime itself. A successful strategy would target leadership. The main focus would be fighting strategic command-and-control elements and the hardcore divisions of the enemy military.
If that’s the case in ordinary warfare, it’s even more important in spiritual warfare. Focus on enemy leadership and on the most hardened, fanatical warriors. The real enemy is Satan and his demons, not people who are caught in the grip of the evil one. Many of those people can still be won over to the Lord’s side. Even if humans are on the side of Satan, there is still hope for them. They might live under the power of evil and even serve the cause of evil, but they might become very different if only they are liberated from Satan’s tyranny. Satan and his demons are wicked beyond repentance, hardened beyond all possibility of salvation. But most human sinners have not yet reached that point. They might still be saved. God has saved some terrible people in the past and transformed his enemies into his friends, and he can do so again. So whenever you meet a human enemy, you may have to oppose that person, but don’t demonize that person. Make the demons your main target, and regard human enemies as potential friends.
This does not excuse human sin. If you sin and go along with Satan, you are responsible. It’s no excuse to say, “The devil made me do it,” any more than it’s an excuse for a soldier who commits war crimes to say, “I was just following orders.” If you serve an evil commander and follow his commands, he is responsible, but so are you. If you keep resisting God and siding with Satan, you will meet the same terrible defeat as the demons.
But another possibility is open to you. God gives you an opportunity that he does not give to Satan or his demons. Surrender to Jesus, join the Lord’s side, and he will show you mercy and rebuild your life. It is too late for the demons. God’s full fury is targeted at Satan’s regime, and all demons are doomed to everlasting hell. But it is not too late for you. You have the opportunity to receive God’s mercy, abandon the doomed kingdom of evil, and become part of God’s kingdom of joy.
God’s main battle is not against flesh and blood, so if you’re presently God’s enemy, you can still become his friend by faith in Jesus. And if you’re already God’s friend, you should be ready to show other humans the same mercy God has shown you. Jesus tells his followers, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). Knowing that the real enemy is demonic helps us to be more merciful to human enemies.
Knowing the real enemy also helps us to depend less on human power and methods and to depend more on God. You and I are up against evil forces of overwhelming power. If all we have is our own best effort, we can’t possibly come out on top. You may think it’s gloomy and depressing to talk this way. But it’s just the opposite! It’s glorious to know what the Bible says about Satan. That way he won’t be able to fool us any longer, and he won’t be able to beat us either, if we use the right weapons.
If the enemy were not so dreadful, the gospel would not be so grand. The glory of the gospel is that God shows us the enemy in all his dreadfulness, and then he announces his victory over Satan and tells how we can share in that victory. The death and resurrection of Christ have dealt Satan a crushing blow. Satan is doomed. With that good news, the Lord calls us to put our faith in Christ, to join the battle against Satan till the victory is complete, and to use the weapons and armor that God provides. We’re in a great spiritual battle, and it can only be won with great spiritual weapons. Nothing less will do.
This may sound foolish and backward to some people. They want to be more practical, more relevant. If the problem is war, we need stronger international organizations and better peacekeeping forces. If the problem is crime, we need more police, more prevention, and more sports programs in crime-infested neighborhoods. If the problem is teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, we need more education. If the problem is an addiction, we need a therapist or support group. If the problem is strange teaching in the church, we need a committee to study the matter. If the problem is bickering, we need a course in interpersonal skills and conflict management.
These things may be good, in some cases they can be helpful, but they’re not enough. If we think a flurry of activity and techniques will solve our deepest problems, we’re fooling ourselves—or rather, Satan is fooling us. We’re in a spiritual war. We face a powerful spiritual enemy. The only way to win is with powerful spiritual weapons. It’s tragic when even the church itself forgets this. The church is tempted to think it can save individuals by becoming just another therapy group or save society by becoming just another political lobby. But Satan laughs if that’s all we fight him with. We’re fighting a war with squirt guns and paper airplanes. We’re putting Band-Aids on gaping wounds.
What the world needs more than anything else, what you and I need more than anything else, is a gospel that strikes right at the heart of Satan’s evil empire. We need a gospel that takes Satan seriously, and we need a gospel that exalts Jesus Christ as the only one who can defeat Satan. When Jesus called the apostle Paul to preach the gospel to the world, he said, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18). I can’t think of a grander, more urgent, more practical message, than that. Satan is a dreadful enemy, but he is also a defeated enemy. There is one thing Satan fears, and that scares him to death: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Satan will do anything to keep you from laying hold of the gospel, because once you do, you will see him for who he is, you will be aware of his schemes, and you will have power to defeat him. If you don’t believe that Satan is real and don’t depend on Jesus to overcome him, that’s just the way Satan likes it. He will do everything he can to keep it that way. People sometimes say the reason they don’t believe the gospel is that they’re free thinkers, well educated, and progressive. They can’t accept the backward, old-fashioned teachings of the Bible. But unbelief isn’t a sign of intelligence. It’s a sign of blindness. Satan “has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Satan is scared of the gospel. He does all he can to blind you to it, and he does all he can to keep the church from spreading it. He’s constantly trying to get church leaders and congregations to leave the biblical gospel behind. Sometimes it works. According to the Bible, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). There are those in the church who say that the Bible contains errors. They say Jesus isn’t the only way of salvation. They say that there is no Satan and no hell. These people think that they follow the latest scholarship and bring religion up to date. But the truth is that they “abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” Isn’t it ironic? They don’t believe demons exist, and they’re doing the work of demons.
Satan wants to blind you to the truth. He wants the church to forsake the gospel and follow his lies. But what if you believe the gospel anyway, and your church refuses to compromise the truth? What then? Does Satan just give up and take his attacks elsewhere? Dream on! It’s often the strongest churches and the most vibrant Christians who are the target of Satan’s fiercest attacks.
Satan can’t destroy a church built on the gospel, but he can try to disrupt it and make it ineffective, especially if we’re not alert to his schemes. He tries to cause arguments and bitterness and division in the church. He arouses suspicion and distrust and dissent. These aren’t just human disagreements or personality conflicts. They are the work of Satan. He wants to rob us of our joy and make us miserable. He wants to disrupt our fellowship and destroy our united witness to the glorious gospel of our Lord and Savior. He does all this because he hates the church and because he fears the gospel. He wants to make every biblical church so cranky that it’s unpleasant for those inside the church and unattractive to those outside the church.
Let me say it again: Satan’s most terrible attacks are often on the strongest churches and the most vibrant Christians. Why? Because he hates them the most and because they are the greatest threat to his power. If you’re a Christian, especially if you’re eager and active, expect Satan to attack you. Expect that he will even try to make you doubt that you belong to God at all. Some of the godliest Christians, even on their deathbeds, have said that Satan was attacking them with doubts about their salvation. They didn’t give in, but that vicious old serpent was taking one last opportunity to hurt them as much as he could.
If you belong to Christ, Satan cannot possibly separate you from God’s love or take eternal life away from you, but Satan will do all he can to weaken your joy and your confidence. He does this out of hatred and because he wants you to be so crushed and exhausted that you won’t be effective in relation to other people. Satan doesn’t want your faith to be joyful, confident, and contagious. He doesn’t want other people to hear about Christ from you or to see Christ at work in you. Otherwise, they might believe the great news that they can be saved in Christ and have victory over the devil. That’s the last thing Satan wants, so he does all he can to weaken the witness of those who love Christ.
But no matter what Satan tries, don’t give in. Don’t let him fool you or defeat you. Don’t be careless and ignore his power, but don’t go to the opposite extreme and despair of ever defeating him. Satan is hateful, he is cunning, he is powerful, but he is also defeated. Jesus is Lord! Satan is scared of Jesus; he is scared of the Holy Spirit; he is scared of the gospel. So “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” With truth and righteousness and peace and faith and salvation as our armor, with God’s Word as our sword, and with the power of prayer to energize us, we can do more to drive Satan back and change this world than all our other efforts combined.
If you’ve been living without Jesus, if you’ve been in Satan’s grip, maybe without even knowing it, now is the time to change. Now is the time to recognize your real enemy and know what he’s been doing to you. Get rid of Satan’s domination. Pray for God’s salvation. Trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome his Spirit into your heart. “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” (James 4:7-8).