Since having some understanding of warfare in general is vital to understanding spiritual warfare, the first thing that bears examination, I think, is the basis of warfare. If we do not know on what principles wars are fought, then spiritual warfare will confuse us. That said, the warning against becoming obsessed with spiritual warfare ought to be repeated. Understanding the general principles of warfare laid down by those who understand it is good and applying those principles to spiritual warfare to better understand the battle in which every believer finds him- or her-self is better still, but best is to accomplish both and not allow one’s self to become consumed by the topic.
In human warfare, many sets of conventions have been set down over the centuries to govern how nations wage war, but spiritual warfare predates any such convention and those notions grew out of an idea that human life is precious. In spiritual warfare, one combatant deems human life valuable while the other does not. The Bible tells us that Satan accuses believers day and night (Revelation 12:10) and that Christ gave Himself as a ransom (Matthew 20:28 / Mark 10:45 / 1 Timothy 2:6). One side of this conflict wants humanity destroyed. The other wants humanity saved. We have to put out of our minds entirely all the lovely modern notions of things like the Geneva Convention. Spiritual warfare began sometime between eternity past and the Garden of Eden. At a minimum, our adversary became our adversary in Eden. At a maximum, humanity — believers in particular — became casualties in a conflict that had been raging since before our creation. We may never know and it is probably better for us if we do not know.
All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive … Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant…. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
Sun Tzu writes that deception is the basis of warfare. It seems fitting, then, that humanity’s entrance into spiritual warfare begins with the acceptance of a lie (Genesis 3). The serpent, crafty bugger that he is, convinces Eve that God lied to her. Maybe He did not give her the whole story on what the consequences of eating that fruit would be. Maybe He was scared that she could become godlike in her own right. It was a message of (self-)empowerment and (self-)aggrandizement — it was the invitation to pride.
The serpent followed Sun Tzu’s instructions to the letter. He seemed harmless: just another animal hanging around in Eden (when able to attack, we must seem unable). His tone is conversational, not at all like he is trying to lead Eve into sin (when using our forces, we must seem inactive). The enemy feigns ignorance of God’s command, seeming weak and uninformed, and leads Eve into arrogance; into pride (Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant). So no one thinks that Adam is innocent in all of this and just trustingly took a piece of fruit from his wife, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that death entered into the human race through Adam and Genesis 3:12 makes it crystal clear that Adam knew that the fruit he received was from the forbidden tree.
One of the great deceptions we have swallowed in the modern world is the notion that there are unimportant battles in spiritual warfare. C.S. Lewis may have said it best when he wrote, Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible (Mere Christianity, Book Three, Chapter 9). If we regard any compromise as trivial or inconsequential, then the enemy has won. Worse, the ground we lose must be regained in order to secure victory and the enemy’s deception has caused us to relinquish what we will now have to fight that much harder to regain. Jesus fundamentally said that our modern notions of “It’s okay to look at the menu, so long as I don’t sample anything.” or “I just have anger management issues.” are nonsense when He told us to pluck out eyes for looking lustfully at another person (Matthew 5:27-30) and that even calling someone a dolt would place us in danger of Hell fire (Matthew 5:21-22). Believers excuse our bad behavior or try to rationalize it away when what God has called us to is to execute those parts of ourselves. We have believed the lies of our enemy that there is such a thing as an insignificant battle.
Another, possibly the other deception 21st century believers — indeed, most 21st century people — have accepted is that there simply is no devil. Revelation 12:9 tells us that Satan deceives the whole world and the notion that he simply does not exist is one of his more powerful deceptions. In C.S. Lewis’ novel, The Screwtape Letters, the old tempter writes to an apprentice, I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. … Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. If a believer decides to think that there is no devil or no devil interested in tempting human beings, then that believer will not pay attention to any warning to be on guard against that devil.
If, then, deception is the basis of warfare and God is unable to lie, it may be asked how God is able to engage in combat with the devil. Or, for that matter, how a believer is able to engage in combat. The answer which most fits the facts is that God allows the devil to deceive himself. When Christ was being prepared for the cross, it is entirely possible that the devil thought he had an advantage. Jesus had made only a very few men privy to His close friendship and those were an unreliable and flaky lot. All those who had walked with Jesus were scattered. There were prophecies about striking the Shepherd and scattering the sheep (Zechariah 13:7), but Jesus had made some prophecies of His own about the apostles. If deception is the basis of war, then God has a stark advantage over the father of lies (John 8:44). It is entirely possible that Satan, despite having the same prophecies available to him as are available to every person, is unable to believe them and to concede that he has no hope of victory, because his nature is one of deceit.
Before leaving this entry, it bears note that God is the undisputed Master of appearing where He is not expected. A casual read through the scriptures reveals that He seems to delight in appearing unexpectedly. He drops in on Abraham in the hottest part of the day (Genesis 18) to have a chat about Abraham’s future son and about God’s plan to nuke Sodom and Gomorrah. He appears to Moses and commissions him to go deliver the Israelites when Moses had probably given up all thought of being anything more than a shepherd — forty (40) years of being a shepherd in the middle of nowhere. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego do not hang out with God until after they have been tossed into the furnace (Daniel 3). Jesus appears to John and dictates a few letters while the apostle is exiled to an island (Revelation 1-3). Over and over again, God proves Himself the King of unexpected appearances.