Q&R: What’s with ‘spiritual warfare’?


I’ve been thinking about this idea of war. Is there any space for ‘war’ in God’s heart?

I think absolutely not. Just peacemaking, and laying life down, and endless mercy and love, etc. But what about spiritual warfare? What about the spiritual battle language so prevalent in the church. Is that not a form of war against…the devil, demons, etc? Is that appropriate. Are they not also God’s creatures whom he cannot hate? Will he not forgive them in the end?

Or is spiritual warfare just a metaphor to help us make sense of things? If so, I feel like it’s really problematic for our war-mongering, us vs. them culture. Can we hold on to any sense of a ‘war in the heavenly realm’? What about Saint Anthony the Great’s story of spiritual warfare with demonic beasts that you mention in the book. Did they think they were indeed warring against demons? Is that not a form of violence? Is it all metaphor for how we face ourselves and our inclinations towards selfishness, sin, and destruction?

Can we not begin to use better language and metaphors that don’t tap into our desire to beat everyone and everything and win by any means necessary?


Overall, I think you are on the right track.

First, let’s define violence as “doing harm” and you will see where the limits are more clearly. The Jesus Way of John 10:10 is about life-giving, not death-dealing or harm-doing. 

Paul agrees. He says, “the weapons of our warfare are NOT the weapons of this world.” And “our battle is NOT against flesh and blood.” We “do NOT overcome evil with evil. We overcome evil with good.” Worldly warfare and death-dealing are, in the strict sense, “anti-Christ” (I’m not speaking of an apocalyptic human adversary here).

As for ‘spiritual warfare,’ the strongest sense of that metaphor was to set it over against ‘worldly warfare.’To invoke the phrase was first of all a call to renounce ‘worldly warfare.’ Our warfare, like our kingdom, is completely antithetical to the Empire and its weapons. The warfare metaphor is, thus, completely ironic. When we forget that, we pick up swords again and venture on crusades. It’s really scandalous. 

The second sense of ‘spiritual warfare’ is that we’re battling personal ‘demons’ and worldly ‘principalities.’ And yes, the first Christians very quickly came to see ‘demons’ as personal cravings, vices, and impulses … compulsions and addictions. As when an alcoholic speaks of battling his or her ‘demons.’ Even St. Antony seems to be speaking metaphorically, although who knows how these things might manifest to the human psyche? 

And the ‘principalities and powers’ are the spiritual energy that drives militarism, nationalism, racism, and the worldly ideologies of our age. Principalities are never defeated by joining an opposing ideology or using the same weapons of worldly power. They are defeated through the cruciform way of living our gospel witness: as peacemakers, as truth-tellers, as humble witnesses and servants. 

Even if we were to identify demons and principalities as spiritual beings, the nature of warfare is described as resisting temptation, doing justice, acting mercifully, and a life of the Cross. Before these, ‘the enemy’ flees. It’s not about having imaginary spiritual swords with which to destroy them. We’re called to be a shining light (described in the Beatitudes) that dispels the darkness of alienation, confusion, and animosity.

If the metaphor has become so problematic that the church confuses the irony (it has!) and takes up arms and rights and political power-plays, (it has!), you are probably right. We may need to fast from the metaphor until we can tell the difference. 

Great question. Thanks!

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