What is Spiritual Warfare?
Updated: May 3, 2021
When faced with an enemy assault, it is critical to identify the strategic objectives of your enemy, for once these are known, you can create effective counters to his aggressive moves. However, as we know from metaphysics, evil is not a positive objective but instead is classified as a privation by philosophers, meaning that it merely negates what God is positively trying to achieve. Thus, in order to confront our spiritual enemy effectively, we must begin with the divine plan that he opposes: what is God up to?
The two greatest commandments are the greatest precisely because our fulfilling them prepares and fits us for the beatific love of God.
Fortunately, Jesus made this relatively easy for us, by identifying God’s two primary objectives for human beings in what he called the “two greatest commandments”! The greatest divine objective is that we come to love God with all of ourselves, and the second greatest is similar to it, namely that we come to love our neighbors as ourselves: lives transformed by the theological virtue of love so that every human faculty—reason, volition, imagination, aspiration, appetite, memory, etc.—is infused with and habituated toward our supreme good. Why are these the greatest two commandments? They indicate that God’s ultimate objective for us is to love him maximally, to love him face to face, to love him as wife to his divine husbandly love. The Church has come to call this everlasting activity of loving God “the beatific vision” for in seeing God nakedly, we know the greatest beauty and fulfillment possible for a human being. So, the two greatest commandments are the greatest precisely because our fulfilling them prepares and fits us for the beatific love of God.
The demons deem matter below their own dignity, so a mixed-substance creature like man is repulsive to them, a half-breed of spirit and biological muck. Theirs, accordingly, is the first racism, the first rejection of another creature based solely on the way that God made him.
Since the demons wish to undermine the divine objectives, their primary goal is to prevent human beatitude. Obsessed with their envy that God should in his infinite grace deign to mix “their” (actually, His) spiritual natures with matter, they seek every opportunity to show God the alleged stupidity of this design by concocting ways to persuade human beings to reject divine love. The demons deem matter below their own dignity, so a mixed-substance creature like man is repulsive to them, a half-breed of spirit and biological muck. Theirs, accordingly, is the first racism, the first rejection of another creature based solely on the way that God made him. So, it is somewhat ironic that after they lost the battle for heaven, St. Michael tossed them into the physical universe, the very place that they despise. Unfortunately for us, their imprisonment in the material means that we have to deal with them. God saw fit to permit the demons to prove their case that man is a joke, but paradoxically their assaults on us provided him the means to prepare us for himself. Why? Because virtue is spiritual blood, filled with the power to overcome evil and grow creatures like ourselves into the full human persons God meant for us to become. And where there is no conflict, no possibility of fall, there is likewise no potential for growth. This is why the demons don’t usually bother with rocks, plants, and animals—these elements of the divine creation lack free will. Similarly, they don’t generally bother with the unfallen angels, because their holy brethren have already rejected their rebellion. All that remains (that we know of, that is) is humanity. Thus, we are the battleground between good and evil, between Satan and God.
The last thing the demonic needs is an investigation by the FBI that definitively concludes that, oh yes, an invisible set of beings are hell-bent on undermining human morality, and the nations of the earth need to formulate a world-wide defensive plan!
It’s precisely because the demons must target our moral freedom that we can identify the severe limitations that they are under in this war. Without question, demonic power is sufficient to destroy whole cities, but an extra-cosmic attack with fire and death wouldn’t accomplish anything for them. If they killed us, we certainly wouldn’t choose to reject our hybrid natures and love them over God. On the contrary, we would easily recognize just who our enemy is. So, the demons must, for the most part, work subtly to make rebellion against God seem natural and appear desirable. Thus, their primary method of attack is temptation. While it is true that they occasionally break out from their camouflage as invisible spirits in order to infest places, or oppress and very rarely even possess people, these are breaks with the usual pattern that come with serious risk of detection. The last thing the demonic needs is an investigation by the FBI that definitively concludes that, oh yes, an invisible set of beings are hell-bent on undermining human morality, and the nations of the earth need to formulate a world-wide defensive plan! So, for our purposes here we will focus on their primary strategy of temptation and leave the visible thrusts for another discussion, as they are an entirely different kettle of fish.
So, how do demons tempt people, and what defense can we develop against their attack? Let’s begin with the strategic structure of human temptation, since most of us already know that they are trying to motivate us to embrace mortal sin, that is, fully habituated vice that twists us so badly that we turn away from our divine lover. What tactics do they use to achieve this? (While strategy captures the overall objectives of our enemy, tactics are the active steps they take to implement that strategy.)
Recall how we divide philosophy into four general areas that correspond to our pursuit of the good, the real, the true, and the beautiful: ethics (the good), aesthetics (the beautiful), epistemology (the true), and metaphysics (the real); we can identify the demonic tactics in each of these four areas. Let’s begin with ethics, with our moral lives, since that is the area with which most of us have immediate familiarity with temptation.
Hedonism is a deceptive philosophy of life, a false ethic, a demonic deception that confuses pleasure (a partial human good) with the true happiness of sainthood (the complete human good).
What tactics do the demons use to thwart us morally? Well, let’s recall what God’s moral objective is for us, namely that we be fully prepared by the theological virtue of love to know him face to face. This requires that we love goodness with our volition, or will. What sort of goodness? Human goodness. The good of each creature differs with respect to the kind of creature it is. Thus, the goodness of a cow pertains to its appetite for grass and milk production. The cow is essentially an appetitive animal, lacking reason, free will, and imagination. If human beings were persuaded to pursue nothing but their appetites, i.e., their desires, then they would be to that extent overtly animal-like. We human beings do have desires, and our fulfilling them is part of the totality of our completion. But if we focus solely on the satisfaction of our desires, then we descend into the nature of the animal. This animal-like focus on pleasure alone has a name, Hedonism. Hedonists mistake pleasure for happiness, thinking that if they satisfy all their desires, if they get everything that they want, then they will be happy and complete. However, since human nature is more than the animal, involving all that intellectual, imaginative, aspirative, and morally free power of the immaterial, we cannot reduce our natures solely to the material and expect to be happy or complete. Thus, Hedonism is a deceptive philosophy of life, a false ethic, a demonic deception that confuses pleasure (a partial human good) with the true happiness of sainthood (the complete human good).
The demonic moral tactic thus comes down to trying to shove us to one side or the other to prevent our acquisition of this composite moral virtue. They attempt to persuade us to seek pleasure over love, thus moving ourselves from our human good to an animal good, or they attempt to persuade us to seek spiritual (i.e., “spiritist”) things over love, thus moving us from our human good to an angelic good.
However, there is another thrust of the enemy attack on us morally, not this time to reduce us to the strictly animal, desirable, and material, but instead to drive us in the other direction to become strictly spiritual, simply idealistic, and wholly immaterial in our aspirations. Keep in mind that the term “spiritual” is used in two very different ways. In one sense it means good or godly, and this is what your priest means in his sermon when he speaks of “spiritual” things. In the other sense it might be better to have rendered it “spiritist” but that’s hard to say, so we just reduce it again to “spiritual.” This is the sense of the spiritualism movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a group of people worshiping immaterial substance itself and aspiring to its ends. This is most definitely not good for human beings. Remember, human nature is a composite of both immaterial substance (what in theology we call “spirit”) and material substance (what in the natural sciences we call “physical.”) God created both substances and they are accordingly equally good. Our human experience is thus sourced by both kinds of stuff at once. This is why some of what occurs in our consciousness is what we choose to occur (the free immaterial part), while some other elements of what occurs in our consciousness are things that just bubble up into our minds without our choice (the unfree material part). Modifying the whole of ourselves toward our human good thus requires that we focus both on the immaterial, spiritual elements and the material elements at the same time and by way of a merged approach. That approach we call the formation of habits, since habits are materially instantiated dispositions built upon freely chosen applications of the rational direction of the intellect seeking what is good, true, and beautiful, applications that can modify every composite faculty of human nature. Our moral choices have to be made over and over again in order to habituate us toward fully accepting and instantiating them in our experience. Eventually, once these choices are fully set, we say that we have developed the virtue, in other words have established in our characters these good habituated qualities. The demonic moral tactic thus comes down to trying to shove us to one side or the other to prevent our acquisition of this composite moral virtue. They attempt to persuade us to seek pleasure over love, thus moving ourselves from our human good to an animal good, or they attempt to persuade us to seek spiritual (i.e., “spiritist”) things over love, thus moving us from our human good to an angelic good. While Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure over love, Gnosticism is the pursuit of spirit (angelic nature) over love.
One example of Gnosticism comes straight from the New Testament where Jesus’ enemies were constantly trying to trip him up by pitting his love for people against their notions of holiness. They defined holiness not in terms of loving their neighbors but in terms of separation from certain physical things. They thus saw their neighbors as contaminants, whereas Jesus saw them as patients in need of a physician. These pharisaical enemies of Jesus made the mere rule more important than its purpose, because they saw their human goal not in terms of loving their humanity but instead in terms of escaping it.
Gnosticism promises to “elevate” man above his own nature to that of the angels, but since angelic nature is purely immaterial (strictly spirit), while human nature is a hybrid of the immaterial and the material, angelic nature is also unfitting for man.
Gnosticism is present in every generation, because it appeals to the pride of those who reject Hedonism. It promises to “elevate” man above his own nature to that of the angels, but since angelic nature is purely immaterial (strictly spirit), while human nature is a hybrid of the immaterial and the material, angelic nature is also unfitting for man. Nevertheless, entire religions are devoted to the Gnostic objective of circumventing or overcoming human nature with the ultimate goal of ascension away from the body to permanent status as a strict spirit. These religions thus focus their efforts on preparing their initiates for this eventual nature-fracturing by dehumanizing them. Every human activity that exalts the flourishing of our hybrid nature, the Gnostics demean. Thus, the family, human friendship and social association, the political (in its best forms), agriculture, business, and the mimetic arts are all subject to scorn and assault. These religions ultimately serve their demonic masters, for it is the demons who invented them. Why? Because the Gnostic worships not the God of pure trinitarian love, but instead immaterial (spiritual) nature. And what nature is that? The angelic, which of course is exactly what the demons are themselves. Thus, the demons manufacture Gnostic religions in an effort to direct men to reject both their own natures and their natural end in the love of God to instead worship the demonic on the supposed promise that ascension to a “pure” realm of “energy” or spirit or consciousness is possible. It isn’t, of course, for no creature can change natures, but they never bother themselves with this difficulty.
Hence, the demonic ethical tactics come down to pushing us to one side or the other of our hybrid human natures: the animal (the pursuit of pleasure as the good in Hedonism) or the angelic (the pursuit of an existence that splits the body away from the spirit permanently in Gnosticism). We can see this clearly in our moral virtue theory where for each moral virtue, there are two vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. The vices of excess are Hedonistic, while the vices of deficiency are Gnostic. The true moral virtue is the mean that orders the particular human faculty properly toward our good. Thus, in the case of the human faculty of fear, we can have an excess of fear, hiding and running where we should be standing our ground. This is the vice of cowardice. On the other hand, we can have a deficiency of fear, brazenly pushing ourselves into situations where neither our opinions nor presence are appropriate. Courage is the virtue that rationally governs human fear, for fear is not bad in itself, but is a tool that God provided to help us navigate the dangers of this world. Gnostics treat fear itself as the problem, rejecting it in favor of an inhuman “calm” that is really brazenly detached from the circumstances. Hedonists, on the other hand, treat fear as a lifeline to safeguard their pursuit of pleasure, following it wherever it leads because courage is rarely all that pleasant. But since God created human nature with this faculty of fear, neither abandoning it (the Gnostic deficiency) nor giving into it (the Hedonistic excess) are appropriate. The human virtue is courage.
We can see the same structure modelled for each human faculty. Take sex as another example. Hedonists think of sex solely as a source of pleasure, and so they use other people to satisfy their sexual urges. Gnostics think of sex as degenerate profligacy, of an animal urge that has no place in a being seeking a “higher” existence. Some Gnostic religions go so far as to encourage not only celibacy for all but even castration. In our moral theory we have names for these excesses and deficiencies concerning sex. We call the vice of excess lust, while we call the vice of deficiency in sexual matters insensibility. The moral virtue is called chastity, a virtue that recognizes the proper use and enjoyment of our sexual faculties in the self-giving love of fidelity in marriage. Gnostics would like us to think that sex is dirty and wrong, while Hedonists would like us to think that sex is unrestricted, but both the deficiency and the excess dehumanize us. Marriage is the proper human boundary of sexual love, a love that truly fulfills the couple and moves them ultimately toward their divine lover.
Let’s move now from the demonic ethical tactics to the demonic epistemic tactics. Epistemology is the study of how we properly know things. God gave us the faculty of the intellect to know what is true. The demons would very much like to convince us of lies in order to thwart our understanding of what is actually good for us. You’ll recall that the very first temptation of a human being involved lying to the human subject. The serpent lied to Eve about the reason why God gave the command about not eating the tree. Eve could have halted the serpent’s challenge by pointing out that she did not know the reason for the command, nor did she have any particular reason to trust the reason that the serpent was proposing. These would have been the proper use of her intellectual faculties against this temptation. But instead, she simply followed the appeal of the fruit and its apparently lofty Gnostic goals, goals that she accepted on face value from the serpent’s lies.
Epistemically, the demons emphasize reason without faith in God’s revelation to one set of people, while they emphasize religious credulity without the safeguards of rational scrutiny to the other set. The objective: to push people away from a clear understanding of divine truth.
Demons attempt to thwart us epistemically and intellectually either by demeaning God’s revelation or by replacing it with one of their own. We see both tactics employed broadly in our world. To people inclined to believing in a world of strictly physical processes, they suggest that spiritual matters such as the reality of the soul, the existence of God, the authority of the Church, and the need for human salvation are just figments of the human imagination. To people inclined to believing in a world that includes spiritual matters, they operate in the entirely opposite direction, seeking to disable the discriminatory powers of reason to make false (demonic) revelation more attractive and as plausible as authentic revelation. These are the gullible who wander from cult to cult, always seeking but never finding, whose minds are incapable of critical reasoning. Thus, the demons emphasize reason without faith in God’s revelation to one set of people, while they emphasize religious credulity without the safeguards of rational scrutiny to the other set. The objective: to push people away from a clear understanding of divine truth. You can probably again see the pattern of shoving us to one side or the other of our composite nature. To the physicalists who exalt natural science above all other science, they emphasize the purely animal. To the spiritualists who exalt religious experience of every sort (except that of the Church, of course), they emphasize the purely spiritual. The human epistemic virtue is faith, the proper acceptance of divine revelation on the basis of rationally vouched for divine messengers such as Moses and Jesus.
Demons excel at motivating certain sets of aesthetics and feelings within people, the proud and arrogant over-confidence of the physicalist scientist versus the sycophantic brazenness of the occult dabbler.
In aesthetics the demons also try to drive human nature to extremes away from the ordered beauty of the divine creation. While a full discussion of this demonic tactic would take us deeply into art theory, for our purposes here let’s focus on the aesthetics of the demonic itself. The demons would like to persuade people either that they do not exist at all, or that they do and that they are either scary or intriguing. The demons would like to create an emotional baseline of over-interest in their affairs that renders a person vulnerable to the occult, or a baseline of non-interest in their affairs that renders a person invulnerable to any form of spiritual overture, even from the true Faith. Demons excel at motivating certain sets of aesthetics and feelings within people, the proud and arrogant over-confidence of the physicalist scientist versus the sycophantic brazenness of the occult dabbler. Once again, both tactics drive a human being away from the proper spiritual order that God established in the Church together with its attendant aesthetic of liturgical humility before the Eucharist. The demons drive the physicalist scientist to embrace animal-like determinism, while at the same time they drive the incredulous “seeker” straight into demonic worship or the “true believer” into constant and irrational terror of attack.
The final set of demonic tactics under our consideration today concerns the metaphysical. In the divine metaphysical order, God is an infinite and uncreated Spirit, the angels are created and finite spirits, human beings are finite and created matter/spirit hybrids, and the animals and plants are created material substances. Loving God according to the sacramental modes that he provided directs human nature toward both its material and spiritual elements at once, since each sacrament consists of both a material and a spiritual element. The sacraments all ultimately direct us toward the perfect instantiation of human composite reality in the Incarnation of the Son of God. God created a sacramental mode of salvation for human beings that is accordingly wholly human. Once again, the demons strive to undermine this metaphysical order by convincing human beings to reject this composite natural order in favor either of our animality or our spirituality. In the pagan era we find proto-sacraments mixed with carnal animality, religions that somewhat pointed to the truth while at the same time driving men toward vice. In the Gnostic mystery religions of both the past (e.g., the cult of Mithridates) and the present (e.g., Scientology), initiates undergo a myriad of mystical layers of pseudo-spirituality that drives them increasingly away from normal human living and toward the Gnostic objective of ascension as a “pure” spirit. In the Protestant Revolution (not really a Reformation since they never re-formed with the Church), the sacraments are stripped of their hybrid status and reduced to mere symbols, a Gnostic contrivance that likewise strips them of their divine power. And, finally, for so many others in the world today, theirs is the religion of ultimate animality in their embrace of atheism and physicalism, reducing a creature made in the image of God to a mere accidental blip in the timeline of cosmic history. But God did make man in his image, and he sent his Son to assume our nature as his own and make available to us the grace of metaphysical restoration through the human hybrid sacraments of his Church.
Sacrament-enriched virtue is the key to achieving the Golden Mean of a fortified virtuous defense against our enemy.
So, what should our response be to these demonic incursions into our world? How, in other words, do we fight back? In each of the four demonic strategies to twist our humanity morally, epistemically, aesthetically, and metaphysically, we saw that their standard tactics are to shove us either toward the animal side of ourselves or to the angelic side of ourselves but never toward the perfect composite that is authentic human nature. We further saw that the virtues mediate against our becoming either Gnostic or Hedonistic, for the virtue is the true human character that properly reflects human composite nature. As such, to defeat our enemy’s temptations against us, we need to recognize how each suggestion to operate our intellects away from the truth, to engage our wills against the good, or to enrich our desires and imaginations at the expense of love functions to turn us against our own humanity. Once we recognize that, we should reject both the excess and the deficiency in those areas and instead choose the virtue. The virtue both functions to thwart the current temptation and strengthens our human system against further assaults, because virtue is human maturity. Since all demonic temptation functions by suggesting vices of deficiency or vices of excess, we can forge a successful path to defeating them by taking care always to choose the virtues and defend our own human nature. Keep in mind, too, that the cardinal virtues of wisdom, moderation, courage and justice require the fuel of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. That fuel is initially infused through the sacraments of initiation—Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist—and then maintained and strengthened through the Eucharist, Reconciliation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. Sacrament-enriched virtue is the key to achieving the Golden Mean of a fortified virtuous defense against our enemy.
St. Paul describes our war with the demonic most explicitly in his sixth chapter of his Ephesian letter. There he explains that our war is not with our fellow human beings, but against the demonic who have irrevocably made themselves the enemies of God and those who love him. Since we know that demons are immaterial beings, i.e., spirits, it follows that our weapons against them must ultimately be spiritual weapons. St. Paul describes these weapons using the analogies of Roman legionary equipment. The five weapons he offers there include both the cardinal and theological virtues (e.g., the breastplate of justice and the shield of faith), the sacraments (e.g., the helmet of salvation), the fruit of the Spirit (those characteristics that emerge from a life consumed with love such as truth and peacemaking), and, always, prayer. When we habituate the full set of virtues in our lives, sincerely participate in the sacraments, and commit our lives to truth, peacemaking, and prayer, we directly attack our enemy’s plans to thwart God’s gracious offer of hope and love to the world.
Jesus understood the Church’s mission as chasing the enemy all the way to their own city, besieging them, and then assaulting their gates!
As St. Paul says three times in that Ephesians 6 text, we thereby stand against the full enemy assault like a Roman Legion that will not buckle. But this should not misdirect us to think that our position is a permanent defense under enemy fire. For after Roman legionaries withstood the enemy missile fire of arrows, darts, and slinged shot on their shields, they then loosed their own javelins, knocking down enemy shields with their heavy lead spear points. They then drew their swords (i.e., “taking” the sword of the Spirit), and charged the enemy (i.e., feet shod with the gospel of peace). Christianity is not a defensive religion, because love is infectious and spreads like fire. Christian love overcame the Roman imperial pagans, it overcame the barbarians who conquered them, and it will ultimately overcome all those who stand against the Church, for Jesus himself promised St. Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. Jesus understood the Church’s mission as chasing the enemy all the way to their own city, besieging them, and then assaulting their gates! This final assault on the demonic began with Jesus’ descent into hell and victorious smashing into the enemy stronghold to take back those who had been wrongfully held captive, and it ends with his Second Coming, when, according to the angels at his Ascension, he will descend back to earth just as he was taken up, only this time with the armies of heaven, both angelic and saintly, to bring hell and mortality itself to a final and utter defeat.
That is why we call ourselves in this mortal world, the Church Militant. We are at war. Never forget that, because our enemy won’t. To become a Catholic is to join the fight for truth, goodness, and beauty, for wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, and for faith, hope, and love. It is to join God against Satan, St. Michael and his angels against the demons, life against death, heaven against hell, and victory over the ultimate despair of those who choose hatred in the miserific vision over love in the beatific vision. That is spiritual warfare.