My biggest enemy is …

A preacher advertises Sunday’s service with the announcement that he will reveal his biggest enemy during the sermon. He is going to reveal who has been his worst thorn in the flesh, his most difficult opponent. Come Sunday and the church is packed. Everyone is there to see who the enemy is and they’ve all brought their lawyers with them.  The preacher stands up in the pulpit, silence falls. Then he begins “My biggest enemy is …. me.”

It’s one of those  apocryphal stories that does the rounds, I don’t know if it is real but it is certainly true. My biggest enemy is me.  A week or so back, I wrote about how we survive friendly fire. I observed that one of the hardest situations to face is when a close friend lets us down or turns on us.  Yet, the real problem is not with obstacles put in our way by opponents, nor by friends hurting us and sticking the knife in our backs as painful as that might be. The true enemy within is self. 

I hurt myself when I choose to entertain temptation in my mind and to give in to it. If isolation has taught us anything, it should be that we cannot blame others for our own sins and failings.  We can be tempted into sin alone in our own rooms.

I hurt myself when I choose to believe lies about God, that he is not as wonderful and powerful and loving as the Bible says. The result is that instead of clinging more tightly to Jesus, I hold tightly to my own idols.

I hurt myself when I choose not to hear the truth of grace and instead believe lies about myself.  Outside of Christ, I was unlovely, a rebel sinner, deserving death. Yet in Christ, I am a new creation, I have a new name, he is at work in my life making something beautiful. 

So, when the New Testament talks about spiritual warfare, the focus is primarily about how we battle with our inner thought life.  In 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, Paul says that:

We are human, but we don’t wage war as humans do. [a]We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.

What is the weapon here? Well given that it is Paul, the Apostle speaking, this should remind us that he writes as one who brings God’s Word.  The first battle in our thought life will be won when we turn to Scripture. How do I deal with wrong and unhelpful thoughts? I replace the lies with the truth of God’s Word. This means gaining a sense of the whole story of Scripture, the story of redemption. It is as we return to the Gospel that we defeat the lies we have learnt to believe. It also means responding to specific temptations with Scripture.  Jesus when tempted by Satan answered back with God’s Word.

At the heart of the battle is the question of my identity.  I can be tempted towards pride believing that I am responsible for my own salvation. It is helpful to memorise verses such as Ephesians 2:8 and Romans 5:1-2 which remind me that I am saved by grace through faith in Christ.

I can also be tempted to defeat and despair, I can listen to accusation and condemnation and start to forget or doubt the reality of forgiveness. So, the beautiful reminder of my identity in Christ in Romans 8:1 is a major help.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power[a] of the life-giving Spirit has freed you[b] from the power of sin that leads to death.

Romans 8 is also another significant Bible passage when it comes to the question of Spiritual warfare.  Paul writes in verses 12-14

12 Therefore, dear brothers and sisters,[e] you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. 13 For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature,[f] you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children[g] of God.

The “therefore” here reminds us to check out the context of these words which is that we no longer belong to our old sinful nature but to the Holy Spirit. The second battle in our thought life is won when we grow dependent upon the Holy Spirit. It will be won in our prayer life as we prioritise crying out to God, talking to God daily, asking for his help, trusting him for forgiveness. There is a daily work of sanctification as we put to death sinful desires.

This means that we have to be ruthless. It means that we might need to make drastic changes in life. Are there websites you look at, music you listen to, routes you take to work, school the shops that set you up for temptation. Sometimes it is simply a case of stopping from looking, listening and going. 

Thirdly, in Galatians 6:1-3, we are told to bear each-others’ burdens. We are to help one another. The focus of these verses is specifically on when we see each other struggling with sin. The third battle in our thought life is won when we are firmly rooted in our church family. It means being ready to hear the challenge and the encouragement of others. Although the battle is with my own thought life, I am not meant to fight it on my own. This makes the gathering of the church all the more important when we cannot meet in our physical meetings.  One temptation at this time is to bunker down and completely isolate until the storm blows over. But we need each other.  Online church is not easy, it takes effort.  However it is worth it. Take time to join in the Zoom calls and watch the livestreams on face-book. Get calling others in the church by phone or video call. Take time to encourage each other and to pray with each other.  And when this present crisis is over, continue with those good habits.

At times we will want to give in. It will feel like the battle is not winnable. It is at those times that we need to be reminded that it has already been won on the Cross.  Jesus has already won the victory and is at work in our lives to change us to be more and more like him so that one day:

“we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is.”[1]3

[1] 1 John 3:2

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