Seeing the Unseen: The Nature of Spiritual Warfare

Author Greg Koukl Published on 07/01/2017

Sometimes, if you know what to look for, you can “see” something that is invisible; you can see the unseen. It’s not a parlor trick, but a valuable spiritual skill. And it’s not that difficult if you know what clues to look for. I’d like to show you what those clues are.

First, though, a foundational matter. I am convinced that most Christians do not understand spiritual warfare. Either they are unaware of the unseen battle or, if they do recognize its importance, they do not focus on the central issue but instead are distracted by a secondary concern. In military terms, they have been taken in by a feint. Here is the feint.

Some Christians think of spiritual battle in terms of power encounters with the devil (or demons) where prayer of a certain sort is the principal weapon employed to defeat, or at least to neutralize (“bind”), the powers of darkness. Curiously, Jesus never taught this approach. He never told us to pray to devils. Instead, He taught us to ask the Father to “deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13).1

I certainly do not mean to minimize the importance of prayer in any area of our Christian lives, especially this one, but to invite you to see something you might not have noticed. When it comes to spiritual warfare, the New Testament emphasis is not on prayer-infused power encounters, but on something completely different, and if we miss that, then I think we miss the heart of it.

The Invisible Battlefield

We live in a world made by an invisible Being and this world is thick with invisible things. They are all “around us,” in a sense, but not immediately obvious to many since the visible realm is so much more imposing.

In 2 Kings 6:15–17, the prophet Elisha’s attendant saw something in the visible realm that overwhelmed him—the Syrian army encircling their city with horses and chariots. “Alas, my master!” he said. “What shall we do?”

Elisha, though, was not shaken. He saw a deeper reality in the unseen realm.

“Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them. Elisha then prayed and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’ And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

Elisha saw something his servant did not see: the enemies of God surrounding the city were themselves surrounded by a massive invisible force arrayed behind the scenes for Elisha’s protection. The prophet was able to see the unseen.

Of course, there was no non-miraculous way for Elisha’s servant to see into that realm. He needed help. In our case, though, there are passages in the New Testament that tip us off, giving us clues to help us detect details of a world Elijah had access to. There is an invisible army arrayed against us, too, and sometimes—if we are alert—we can track its maneuvers.

I want you to consider a familiar passage that contains an insight you may not have thought about before. Here is that passage:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. (Eph. 6:11–13)

In this text, Paul tells us we are at war. He acknowledges the reality of opposition in the visible world (“flesh and blood”), but instructs us that the more fundamental conflict is at a deeper level in the invisible realm (“the heavenly places”). This you already know.

Here is what you may not have seen before. Paul also tips us off that the enemy operates according to specific strategies he calls “schemes”—battle plans, of sorts, that inform the devil’s tactical maneuvers. Being clothed with the proper armor allows us to “stand firm” against his schemes, resisting the devil’s subterfuge.

Can we know anything about those schemes? I think we can.

Weapon One

I want you to consider a quartet of verses that add up to a sobering truth alerting us to the principal way Satan advances his army in the spiritual battle.

We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 Jn. 5:19)

And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world. (Rev. 12:9)

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:3–4)

The Lord’s bondservant must not be quarrelsome, but...patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:24–26)

It may not have occurred to you how complete the enemy’s penetration into the minds of men has been, but these passages make it unmistakable. According to the New Testament the entire world is in the devil’s deathly grip. He holds people captive to do his bidding by trickery and deceit, blinding the minds of those who are perishing, keeping them from coming to their senses and seeing the world the way it really is.

Jesus warned that the devil “is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44), employing ruses even Christians are vulnerable to. When we come to Christ we have a new spirit, true enough, but our minds are still filled with Satan’s foolishness, the lies we readily believed that “deceived” and “enslaved” us (Titus 3:3), as we walked “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2).

A key element of our own rescue, then, is reversing the process. We are to “lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit,” and “be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self which...has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor...” (Eph. 4:22–25). Do you see the emphasis?

Not surprisingly, then, the very first step in arming ourselves for battle against the devil is to gird our loins with truth (Eph. 6:14). And when we engage the battle with God’s “weapons of warfare [that] are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses,” we attack those lies and lay waste to them, “destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God...” (2 Cor. 10:3–5).

Note: nothing about binding and loosing here. No spiritual wrestling match hinted at in these verses. Rather, the bulk of the biblical testimony takes us in an entirely different direction. As I have written elsewhere:

[The devil] gains ground by craftiness and secrecy, and he destroys by lies, accusation, enticement, and subterfuge. If you doubt him, beware. Stealth is his weapon. Satan happily stays in the shadows where he can do his dark business undetected.2

The principal weapon at the enemy’s disposal allowing him to gain ground in the spiritual conflict, then, is not power but deception. Thus, if the basic strategy for Satan’s spiritual assault is spreading lies, then the most potent weapon we can wield in the battle against him is its opposite: spreading truth. The counter to lies—the answer to deception, the antidote to deceit—is truth. I conclude, then, that spiritual warfare is much more about truth encounters than it is about power encounters.3

Seeing the Unseen

So, we are at war. We battle otherworldly forces in the unseen realm with weapons that are effective to oppose the spiritual strategies and demonic plans in play against us. Our job is to resist those schemes by exposing them, doing everything we can to stand firm by opposing lies with truth.

There is another angle, though, another key insight you must not miss, a clue that allows us to unveil the unseen schemes.

A person who can see will not easily stumble into a ditch, even a small one. He’ll walk around it. A blind person, on the other hand, will walk right over a cliff because no matter how deep or wide the abyss, he does not know it is there. In the same way, Satan can foist a very big lie on the world—one so obvious that thoughtful Christians easily see through it—yet the world at large will be oblivious to it because they cannot see it. They have been blinded.

And here is the clue, the “tell,” the giveaway that reveals the scheme and helps inform our own counteroffensive against it in the battle. Look for the big spiritual lie that seems completely transparent, the obvious ploy that appears ridiculously ham-handed, the massive ditch that can’t be missed but the world doesn’t seem to see, the abyss the blind masses fall into without giving it a second thought. Find that and you will find the scheme.

If you wonder why anyone would buy into such an obvious spiritual error, if the gullibility of the throng perplexes you, if you catch yourself saying, “This makes no sense,” then you have probably stumbled onto a scheme. You have identified a maneuver in the battle, since the only explanation for such lack of spiritual perception is spiritual blindness, and we now know who is responsible for that.

Let me give you a few examples.

Three “Schemes”

The first scheme is easily revealed by answering this question: What single religion in our culture has the suffix “phobia” attached to it to protect it from criticism? Is it “Hindu-phobia”? “Jew-phobia”? “Buddha-phobia”? “Christian-phobia”? Hardly. It’s “Islamophobia.” The word has become a fixture in the social lexicon, showing up not only in Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, but also in Merriam-Webster, the English Oxford Dictionary, and the Cambridge English Dictionary, to name just a few.

Why is this significant? Because Islam is currently the most dangerous religion in the world. On September 11, 2001, what Time magazine called the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War, 2,996 lives were snuffed out by Muslim terrorists. Yet within a few short months Islam somehow achieved most favored religious status in the West. Over the last 16 years since then, Muslims—following a tradition clearly taught in the Koran and endorsed by hundreds of millions of Muslims and respected Muslim clerics—make headlines weekly with acts of murder, mayhem, and mutilation all over the globe, yet any public criticism of that faith is labeled bigotry.

Ironically, even New Atheist Sam Harris sees the problem (not every non-believer is blinded by every lie). He once tweeted, “Islamophobia. A word created by fascists, & used by cowards, to manipulate morons.”4

Not only is Islam the most dangerous religion in the world, it is also the mortal enemy of Judaism and Christianity. Hmmm. Maybe I have an overactive imagination, but does anyone else see a scheme slipping past the eyes of the spiritually blind?

The second scheme has been around for a long time, but people continue to be taken in by it, despite it’s obvious absurdity. This con has gone through a number of iterations over the years, but it still boils down the same simple notion: There is no truth.

Claiming there is no truth is a kind of “end around” the whole who-is-right-about-religion debate. If there is no truth to begin with, then feuds about what religion is true would be pointless. There’s no sense fighting about who has the right answer when there are no right answers to begin with.

This tack is appealing in part because it’s meant to engender a kind of tolerant peace and harmony between people. That is the point of the clever “COEXIST” bumper sticker—clever, but ultimately contradictory. Everyone is “right,” in a certain sense (“true for you”). In another sense, though, a whole bunch of religious people are wrong if they think their own view is true in any deep way.

When people say there is no truth, I often wonder how they want me to respond to their own statement. I think they want me to believe them, but the minute I’m tempted to think they might be on to something—the minute I start agreeing with them, in other words—I run into a problem. I cannot give the nod to their relativism, since that would be the same thing as saying their view were true, which is the one thing they will not allow me to say. You see the problem. You can also see how the idea that there is no truth cuts the legs right out from under the Great Commission.

Notice the pattern. Something of spiritual significance is going on in the visible realm that is obviously false, and the response of the rank and file is obviously wrong-headed, but they don’t see it. Why? Because there is a ploy, a ruse, a scheme in the unseen world working blindness among the masses. And the spiritual consequence of this blindness is devastating.

The third scheme is front and center at the moment. Two thousand years ago, Jesus made a simple observation about the created order: Humans are made male and female. From that observation He drew some fairly common-sense conclusions about the nature of sex and marriage: one man, with one woman, becoming one flesh, for one lifetime (Matt. 19:4–6).

Jesus was not trading on His Divine authority here, or even on His superior perception. No special clout nor spiritual shrewdness is necessary to see what is self-evident. Rather, Jesus was making a pedestrian observation about something that nature (and nature’s God) had clearly dictated: There are males and there are females and each was made for the other. Nowadays, though, this simple truth is no longer clear to multitudes. In fact, it is aggressively repudiated by hordes of otherwise intelligent people.

Why is the obvious no longer obvious? Why is Jesus’ observation lost on so many (including countless Christians, sadly) when it comes to gender and homosexuality and a host of other sexual adventures? And what accounts for the intensity of the opposition towards those who see what others are blind to? It’s not something natural; it’s something supernatural. This lie is driven by a hidden power in an invisible place.

The gender/sexuality controversy is ultimately about neither. Rather, it is about who is in charge—the creature or the Creator, the Potter or the clay.

Out of the Shadows

You can see the significance of each of these lies from the perspective of spiritual combat. Each is a scheme to blind and deceive regarding something spiritually significant.

Islam is a threat to religious liberty the world over and is a special menace to the “people of the book,” Jews and Christians. Relativism undermines all attempts to separate truth from lies, giving free rein to the father of lies. The “gender wars” takes personal choice to near comical extremes and places those who advance God’s view of sex and marriage right in the crosshairs of the spiritual conflict.

Here is the key. If you want to see the unseen, look for something spiritually dramatic going on in the visible realm that is so obvious everyone else should see it, but they don’t. That is the tipoff. That is the “tell.” That is the giveaway letting us know we’re dealing with an area where the enemy has doubled down.

Others are blind to the ruse since it’s driven by spiritual forces of darkness in a realm they cannot perceive, but we can. We can see the scheme, we can marshal our forces of truth at that point, we can do everything within our means—wisdom and truth and the grace of God—to “stand firm.”

I will close with this word from former slave trader turned hymnist and pastor, John Newton, taken from his first public service at St. Mary Woolnoth, London, December 19, 1779. His text was “...speaking the truth in love...” from Eph. 4:15:

The Bible is the grand repository of the truths that will be the business and the pleasure of my life to set before you. It is the complete system of divine truth to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken with impunity. Every attempt to disguise or soften any branch of this truth in order to accommodate it to the prevailing taste around us either to avoid the displeasure or court the favor of our fellow mortals must be an affront to the majesty of God and an act of treachery to men. My conscience bears me witness that I mean to speak the truth among you.5