*I wrote this some weeks back and for whatever reason just didn’t post it. After reading this very good post (which serves as one of many possible great illustrations for my thoughts here) today, though, I returned to this post and decided to go ahead and publish it now.
It’s ISIS, right? Or maybe ISIL. We can cover all bases by saying ISIS/ISIL, or perhaps just keep it at IS. Recently our President said that although those first two letters stand for ‘Islamic State,’ ISIL is not Islamic. What!? Just the other day I heard a rather alarming report that although previously believed to include 10,000 fighters, whatever-they-are-called have more accurately amassed somewhere around 30,000. Some have suggested that they pose only a regional threat and no real threat to Western civilization, although most have come to the agreement that they, in fact, do. I saw a rather funny video just a couple of days ago that shows our Secretary of State saying very directly that we are not at ‘war’ with ISIL, only to then declare we are at ‘war, if that’s how you want to put it,’ just 48 hours later.
The truth is, the identity of our enemy has everything to do with our response! In relation to ISIS, should we respond at all? And if we do, should we arm those in direct combat and leave it at that? Should we aid those fighters with supplemental air strikes? Should we send Special Ops in to help train and strengthen a foreign defense? Does the enemy pose enough of a threat to justify putting our own troops in harm’s way? If so, how many? I would hate to imagine us sending in what we would consider enough military power to deal with 10,000 fighters, only to arrive and learn that we are dealing with 30,000! (I’m sure that would never be the case, but hopefully you get where I’m going with that.)
The point is, the nature of the enemy will, at least to some degree, dictate our response to that enemy. If we mis-identify the enemy, we stand the chance of defeat through an ill-fated response. This terrorist threat must be clearly identified and completely eliminated. The same idea holds true for us as believers. If we fail to clearly identify our enemy, we stand the chance of either engaging the wrong enemy or underestimating the enemy. Both of these scenarios can produce catastrophic consequences, spiritually.
Engaging the wrong enemy
Paul clearly identifies our enemy in Ephesians 6:12 where he writes, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Did you catch that? Our enemy does not consist of flesh and blood. Our enemies, instead, exist within the spiritual realm. They consist of the evil one (Satan or the devil) and sin. It seems, however, that we can sometimes get this backward. We tend to pay the evil one very little regard and neglect to properly combat sin, while at the same time making enemies out of people who participate in, promote and celebrate sin, instead. Whatever we identify as the enemy will inevitably end up squarely in the crosshairs of our derision and hatred.
If we fail to realize the spiritual nature of our enemy, that means that we will aim our weapons of warfare at the wrong enemy. I’m afraid this can sometimes become the case within the church. While I think we need to be careful with how far we carry extra-biblical cliches such as “love the sinner, hate the sin,” we need to be careful to remember the basic truth it conveys. Scripture offers an abundance of commands to hate sin, but never says the same about people. In fact, we are commanded to love our neighbors, whom Jesus clearly identifies as everyone (Luke 10:25-37), even including our enemies. (Enemies, here, meaning that we are not given the option of not loving even those who set themselves up against us, not those whom we identify as enemies.)*
Although they may engage God and his Kingdom (even us!) as hostiles, people outside of Christ are not our enemies. People living in and celebrating sin should never become the target of our hatred and wrath. Instead we should be broken over the state of pervasive lostness because we are all too familiar with the struggle with sin from our own dealings with the enemy. We should engage them with compassion, remembering what it was like to live in pervasive lostness. We should realize that they are POW’s, held captive by the evil one, in bondage to their sin. We should beg God to allow them to see his love, grace and mercy through us as we bear with them. We should hate the sin that has them bound and be intentional about proclaiming the good news of rescue available to them through Christ.
I realize this is a very thin line. We must not compromise the truth and we must continue to engage and combat sin within our culture; but, we also must find a way to do that without abandoning the call to love our neighbors. If we get this wrong and engage the wrong enemy, the church loses its evangelistic voice and begins to abdicate its responsibility to proclaim truth and the good news of the Gospel within the culture in a compelling way. Outsiders will be viewed as enemies who need to be destroyed or avoided rather than potential worshipers in need of redemption. The church will spend its resources in building its own subculture rather than invading the culture with truth, saturated in the love of Christ.
Underestimating the enemy
After identifying our enemy in Ephesians 6:12, Paul then urges believers to properly gear up for warfare. He writes of certain pieces of armor that are specific for the type of battle we will face. He insinuates that without this armor we will be ill-equipped to face off with our enemy. He even suggests that we bear the whole armor of God in order to stand agains the schemes of the devil. Among a variety of applications we may glean from these verses, Paul clearly conveys the seriousness of this fight. He also appears to be saying that there is an appropriate way to prepare for and engage in the battle. Paul proposes this preparation in light of the identity and nature of our enemy.
A soldier who truly understands his enemy would never enter the field of battle without first being properly equipped. Soldiers understand the life or death nature of what faces them. They understand that to be under-equipped could mean certain death. We must apply the same sort of thinking in our spiritual warfare. We face a serious enemy who actively engages us in order to kill, steal, destroy (John 10:10), and devour (1 Peter 5:8). He never rests. If there were a Geneva Convention for spiritual warfare, he would be guilty of countless war crimes! He fights dirty. We cannot take him lightly. We cannot underestimate him.
Now, on one hand we engage this enemy with the promise that, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4), yet Scripture also exhorts us to not be taken captive (Colossians 2:8) and stand firm against the Devil’s schemes, withstanding evil (Ephesians 6:11, 13).
We will not be prepared if we fail to abide in the Word of God. We will not be prepared if we do not take sin seriously. We will not be prepared if we allow the culture to be the sole voice that shapes us and our worldview. We will not be prepared if we remain unengaged in the mission God has given us. We will not be prepared if we allow ourselves to buy the lie that we are ‘good’ and become blinded by our own self-justification. We will not be prepared if we live our lives acting as if there is no enemy and we really don’t have a great problem with sin.
Misunderstanding our enemy in Iraq and Syria could have a profound impact on both the future of the Middle East and our own country’s safety. Misunderstanding our spiritual enemy will result in our unkind treatment of people and an allowance of sin to hold sway over our lives that it should not have. I am reminded lately that we must clearly identify and engage our enemy on both fronts. The stakes are simply too high.
* I am speaking here individually as believers, not as a nation toward enemies such as ISIS, which I believe to be the appropriate context of this command in Scripture.