It’s not a joke, you know. As we make our way through this life, we face some powerful enemies. In the second chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes the pre-Christian past of the people in this church. As he does that, he tells them that three powerful forces were arrayed against them: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
These people had a deep inclination toward evil that came from their inmost parts (“the passions of our flesh”), they faced a powerful opponent from outside themselves (“the prince of the power of the air”), and all the while their whole environment was opposed to them (“this world”). They were outside of fellowship with God and, therefore, were “children of wrath.”
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
For some time now, and especially since I read Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, I have been pondering the way these forces were, and in some ways still are, opposed to me. Though through faith in Jesus Christ I have been delivered from the dominion of these forces, I have not yet been fully and finally delivered from their influence. Each of them continues to oppose me, and at times—too many times—I succumb, choosing sin in place of holiness. No wonder then, that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer leads Christians in this prayer: “From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil: Good Lord deliver us.”
I have a theory about these three influences and the way different Christians understand them. There are many theological tribes within Christianity and I believe that each of them has an imperfect balance in their understanding of the way these forces operate against us. Let me give just three examples. Each example is imperfect, of course, but I believe there is a thread of truth in each.
Fundamentalists tend to have a deep suspicion of the world—a world that is full of sin and adamantly opposed to God and his purposes. In my experience, Fundamentalists are quick to look to the world and to hold the world responsible for sin and the temptation to sin; hence, they battle hard against worldliness and look to worldly pleasures and entertainments with deep and lasting suspicion. If Fundamentalists are out of balance, it is toward the evil influence of the world and away from the influence of the flesh and the devil.
Pentecostals tend to lay the blame for sin and temptation at the door of the devil and demonic forces. They often have a heightened sense of demonic activity and influence. When they face the temptation to sin, or when they feel or discover opposition, they are quick to see the influence of Satan and to find ways of standing fast in the face of that kind of power. If they are out of balance, it is toward the evil influence of the devil and his forces and away from the influence of the world and the flesh.
Calvinists have a deep sense of their own depravity. After all, Calvinism begins with the T of TULIP—Total Depravity. We believe that humanity is totally depraved, so that sin extends to our every part. In his grace God restrains us from becoming as sinful as we could possibly be, but we are all still sinful to the furthest extent; the heart, the mind, the will, the desire, the inclination—all of it—is marked by the Fall. As we consider the enemies of our souls, we tend to focus on the flesh, assuming that temptation arises from within more than it arises from without. If we are out of balance, it is toward the influence of the flesh and away from the influence of the world and the devil.
All of us, I am convinced, need to understand that evil takes many forms, that it arises from within and from without, that we face enemies physical and spiritual. To emphasize one at the expense of the others is to lower our guard. Perhaps the most helpful response is not to diminish our own emphasis, but to elevate the others. When we understand the vast array of forces against us, we better understand Christ’s power in conquering them, we better arm ourselves to resist, and we better anticipate the day of the Lord’s return when their influence will be finally and completely broken.