Waging Spiritual Warfare on Racial Injustice

Part of our series on racial injustice and the church.

When we look at problems as massive as material poverty and systemic injustice—issues with deep roots in history and culture and branches that spread seemingly into every corner of the world—it is natural to feel overwhelmed. Where do we even begin to push back on things so manifestly beyond our control? Two temptations always seem ready to offer a simple path out.

The first is a pull to give in to the weight of things, resign ourselves to the status quo, and get on with our lives. But such apathy is not an option for followers of Jesus—who is actively engaged in the world, reconciling all things to Himself, making peace by the blood of His cross (Col. 1:20)—and it is certainly not a comforting choice for those on the receiving end of oppression and suffering in this life.

The second is to take quick action, but in ways that perpetuate a false dichotomy between “spiritual” approaches (prayer, personal piety and acts of kindness, and preaching and teaching Scripture) and “secular” approaches (voting, activism, protest, economic development). Separating these often has an effect in the church of elevating spiritual actions as the only good and right things to do, while putting down other approaches as sinful (at worst) or misguided (at best). In the world beyond the church, that script is flipped, with spiritual actions dismissed as ineffective or even as a fig leaf to cover a refusal to address problems.

As we have shared, though, fighting the spiritual battle in the heavenly realms and the depths of human hearts through prayer and faithful obedience to God’s word is real work. This work needs to be done because human beings are not just bodies but whole people who bear the image of God as body, soul (mind, affections, will), and relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. At the same time, to ignore the physical world around us with all its brokenness is to fundamentally misunderstand the fullness of why Jesus came to earth in the first place. Every physical problem in this world is also spiritual in nature.

Demonic Forces Are Real

Throughout this series, we’ve been looking at the way all the five causes of poverty impact American life around the issue of racial injustice and how each needs to be addressed by God’s kingdom community in the local church. One cause, perhaps more than any other, looks at the way the spiritual and physical realms cannot be separated. It is also one of the most ignored in Western churches—demonic forces.

Indeed, what else would we call it when one group of people sets themselves over another in who they consider truly human and worthy of love and care? What else would we call it when a class of people sees another class of people as tools for their own economic prosperity? What else do we call it but demonic when people refuse to hear the cries of their fellow human beings simply because listening well and acting justly would require changing in their own behavior and sacrificing their comfort?

This should be obvious to us, as Scripture has plenty to say about the ways Satan and his legions are actively involved in the affairs of this world. Yes, God is still sovereign over all things, including demonic forces. But after the Fall, the fact that God allows bad things to happen is not the same thing as God personally doing those things. God is not a puppet-master, and He allows His fallen creatures to continue to act, even when some of their actions are sinful and destructive. Under this framework, God allows Satan significant latitude to wage war on humanity, so much that the Bible refers to Satan as the “god of this age,” the “prince of this world,” and the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (2 Cor. 4:4; John 12:31; Eph. 2:2). In fact, Satan has sufficient power over unbelievers that they are described as following his ways and as being under his dominion (see Eph. 2:2; Col. 1:13).1

Satan and his demonic minions—he is not omnipotent, omniscient, or omnipresent, and needs help to perpetrate his schemes—have been working to undermine and distort God’s design for the world since Genesis 3. Satan seeks the downfall of the righteous (Job 1-2). He is seen as the source of some blasphemous and destructive words (Matt. 16:22-23) and deceptive false doctrines (1 Tim. 4:1). He fills the hearts even of church members with evil thoughts that lead them to act sinfully (Acts 5:3). He roams about seeking someone to devour (1 Pet. 5:8), disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), and can even influence “public policy” through tempting leaders (1 Chron. 21:1)2 or working to make political and social systems oppressive (Dan. 10:12-11:1; Rev. 2:10). Demons are behind the worldly “wisdom” of selfish ambition (James 3:14-16), and are the spiritual reality behind the idols of the world (1 Cor. 10:18-22).

How Do We Know When Demonic Forces Are at Work?

The consistent aim of Satan and his demons is to thwart the worship of God by any means at their disposal. Sometimes they work overtly, with displays of power that trap people in false religions and superstitions. Often, they work covertly, too, blinding people to the spiritual realm and convincing them to place their self-confidence, wealth, or worldly powers.3

They use individual sin and temptation, as well as the seemingly immovable systems of the world. They sow discouragement in the slow, arduous pursuit of righteousness, and plant the false urgency of passing fads. Even more, because Satan is the deceiver, sometimes he works to throw us off God’s design by just enough that we can mistake his work for God’s.

Perhaps nothing is more demonic than idolatry. In turning aside from the worship of an obedience to the One True God, we are not, as we may think, pursuing an alternate good but an ultimate evil. And this is true even (maybe especially) when we seek to locate our ultimate authority within ourselves. When we look inside, we may think we are becoming as gods, but as literature scholar Jessica Hooten Wilson writes, “whoever establishes themselves against Jesus is subsumed by the devil…. Each person imitates Satan’s desire to be one’s own god, without recognizing any association with the devil.”4

All idols distort God’s image, leading us to seek Him where He is not, but also to deny His image in those we find inconvenient—dehumanizing others is always a downstream effect of idolatry.5

Idols, which are fronts for our enemy who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), demand human sacrifice and call us to justify the ways we harm or fail to protect our sisters and brothers.

To see this, it can be helpful to consider the opposite of God’s commands or ways that He describes Himself. Any time we see people and systems pursuing an “anti-10 commandments” or “anti-fruit of the spirit” way of life, the work of demons is present, tempting us to trust our own sinful hearts instead of God’s words of life. Paul says as much: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21).

Addressing Demonic Forces

Whenever we encounter evil in the world, we must remember that the real battle we have in this world is not with flesh and blood, but with these forces of darkness (Eph. 6:12). And true victory over the power of Satan is not ours to win—Jesus has already won it (Rom. 16:20, Rev. 20:10), and we live out His victory. We had to have a Savior. The Fall was caused by our sin, but also trapped us in spiritual darkness. We could never simply “do better” under our own power. As theologian Michael Horton writes: “What Adam and Israel failed to do—namely, drive the serpent from God’s holy garden and extend his reign to the ends of the earth—the Last Adam and True Israel accomplishes once and for all.”6

We needed the Lord to rise up and bring justice and salvation and to remove the deception of the evil one from our hearts. We need him still to keep us from growing weary in loving mercy, doing justice, and pursuing righteousness and to give us strength to repent, and to forgive.

If we forget this, we end up pursuing strategies that dig deeper into broken relationships between God’s image-bearers. Satan wants the church to be divided and ineffective, and if we ignore the reality of his attacks on us, we are apt to forget that our anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness (James 1:20). This is vital to our continued faithfulness as an alternative witness, showing God’s beautiful community as a testimony against the ways of the world. Seemingly insurmountable conflicts can be resolved when we remember that no one is beyond the seriousness of repentance and conversion through Christ’s power. We need to name the evil in the world, and locate it in Satan, so that we remember that those who oppose us in this life are not our true enemies, but fellow image-bearers in need of grace.

Living out Jesus’ Victory

There are two key ways in which we live now with confidence in Jesus’ power over Satan. The first and most obvious is through prayer and what we traditionally think of as “spiritual warfare.” We are to put on the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18)—truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, salvation, and the word of God—and stand firm against the temptations and attacks of the evil one. Submitting to God and resisting the devil through refusing to allow lies and idols to reign in the church causes him to flee (James 4:7).

The second form of spiritual warfare requires a bit more thought to unpack.7When Paul writes to the church in Ephesus about the wonders of their salvation by grace through faith and not by works, he brings his message to an interesting crescendo: believers are “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10, emphasis added). This theme is echoed again in Titus 3, Romans 6, and other passages—a major purpose of our salvation is to do good works in the world that demonstrate Christ’s power over sin, death, and the devil. It stands to reason then, that a key place where Satan attacks the church is our obedience to Christ, and we outwit him and thwart his schemes when we practice faithful obedience and forgiveness in the kingdom community of the church (2 Cor. 2:9-11).

So what are these good works? The things to which we are called by God’s word, to love Him with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves—and the unfolding of that summary in the law, the prophets, and the apostles’ teaching. All true obedience is in response to God’s commands, and we can not add to them or subtract from them—we don’t get to pick which of God’s words we will obey and which ones we will ignore, or try to offset our sins of omission by do-goodism.8

Of course we are not earning our salvation by obedience, but reflecting God’s work in our hearts and living into our identity as His redeemed people. And we will not obey perfectly, but must confess and repent when we fail, and bear fruit in keeping with obedience.

In this we stand firm as God’s kingdom community, becoming conformed to the image of Christ and resisting the temptation to justify our disobedience to His word. This is how we are able to live together in hope, instead of dividing one another in fear of losing our comforts. A church filled with the power of the Holy Spirit is a church of prayer warriors and faithful worshippers of God in spirit and in truth. A church filled with the power of the Holy Spirit is also a body of believers boldly spending themselves on behalf of others(Isa. 58:10), declaring and demonstrating the kingdom of God here and now by addressing false gods, destructive practices, broken systems, broken people, and demonic forces by the power of Jesus’ name.

Come, Lord Jesus!

  1. Paragraph adapted from Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream, 2019 (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 179.
  2. Interestingly, the parallel passage on David’s unlawful census and God’s judgment 2 Sam. 24 says the “anger of the Lord burned against Israel” showing the interplay between man’s pride and Satan’s work in tempting us to sin.
  3. See Becoming Whole, 179-191 and Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic, A Field Guide to Becoming Whole: Principles for Poverty Alleviation Ministries, 2019 (Chicago: Moody Publishers), 143-147.
  4. Jessica Hooten Wilson, Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky, 2017 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers), 22, 82.
  5. Irwyn L. Ince, Jr., The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best, 2020 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 46.
  6. Michael Horton, Pilgrim Theology, 2011 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 206.
  7. This section adapted from a sermon by J.R. Caines, East Ridge Presbyterian Church, August 9, 2020. Accessed online at: http://www.eastridgepc.com/sermons
  8. Lest we delude ourselves into thinking we are obeying when our hearts are far from God (like the Rich Young Ruler in Matt. 19:16-26), many church teachings and confessions, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms, helpfully expound both the positive duties required and various sins prohibited by each of God’s commandments.
The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center

The Chalmers Center helps God’s people rethink poverty and respond with practical biblical principles so that all are restored to flourishing.