Spiritual Warfare Part 1: An Overview


“Why would anyone do such a thing?” It’s a question that we hear posed almost weekly by Christians and non-Christians alike, news anchors and homemakers, car mechanics and nurses, teachers and first responders. It is certainly understandable why non-Christians would be surprised and amazed. Christians, however, should not be as shocked and confused by the often disturbed, outrageous, and irrational behavior of some individuals playing out in our current culture. A casual reading of the New Testament reveals some characters that were violent, inhumanely strong, and malevolent. 

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasene’s.And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped him; and crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”

Mark 5:1-8

When we read the Bible, we can find it interesting, informative, and useful for quoting in times of discussions or even arguments. We can miss the facts that there were violent lunatics then, and there are violent lunatics now; there were apostles then, and there are apostles now; there were healers then, and there are healers now; they had an enemy then, and we have an enemy now; there were real casualties then, and real casualties now.

In part one of this article, I hope to shed some light on spiritual warfare. By this name I mean both when the devil tempts or attacks us and the tactics or responses to his strategy. Most Christian teachers are hesitant to address spiritual warfare. We run the risk of seeing the devil everywhere. We also have the complication of running amok of modern psychology: it’s not so clear where mental health problems and spiritual problems intersect or overlap. Sometimes people with significant problems need professional help; sometimes they need deliverance; sometimes they need both. 

Human beings are capable of great evils on their own, but satanic forces (demons) usually are attracted to the party, and we often find ourselves dealing with some sort of a mix of the world, the flesh, and the devil, as well as biological and psychological influences. 

Because the distinctions of clinical and spiritual problems have become so blurred, many spiritual teachers have not adequately addressed the topic. Indeed, a complete syllabus of a discipleship course can be assembled with little mention of the devil or spiritual warfare! We don’t want to step on the toes of the professionals; we don’t want to seem old fashioned or superstitious. The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis was an exception to the rule when he wrote the Screwtape Letters in an attempt to reveal some of the devil’s tricks and strategies, and the human weaknesses that he preyed upon. 

Human Behavior

Human behavior can be seen as an equation involving quite a few factors: biology, life’s experiences, environment, social influences, addictions, etc. One very important, often overlooked influence is the spiritual reality of angels and demons. We can be inspired to say just the “right thing” or the “wrong thing”. Those of us who talk a lot probably have had both experiences. These are the simplest little nudges: 

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my father who is in heaven…” 

Matthew 16:15-17

And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a hinderance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”                                             

Matthew 16:22-23

From subtle suggestions to outrageous, uncontrollable atrocities, demons can and do play a major role in human behavior.                                             

And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.” So he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

Mark 5:9-13

Yet, we have become so therapeutic, so biased, that we do not recognize demonic behavior, even when it is obvious: I was part of a team that gave a “Life in the Spirit” seven-week course to a group of nuns who staffed a long-term care hospital. After the course was over, they invited me back to help with some difficulties that were causing division among the sisters. I was given a tour of the facilities by one of the sisters and she introduced me to some of the clients. One frail, older woman was in an adult restraining chair; she was probably in her late 80s. “Virginia, this is Mr. Tedesco who has come to visit,” she said. When I started to reach out my hand to greet Virginia, she lunged at me with a fork that stopped just short of my left eye. At that time in my life, I was an amateur athlete and played on organized sports teams. Virginia was faster than me! The sister then let me know that she liked to be called “Legion”, the sister making no connection between Mark 5:19 and her chosen name! If I had known her chosen name, I would not have gotten close enough to be in danger!

Any human behavioral equation that persistently ignores demonic influence or demonic potential, will in many cases be ignoring the major influence in that person’s life and behavior. If we deal with the hormonal, the psychological and all of the natural, while ignoring the spiritual, we will be unable to explain our failures, especially when the last state of a person is worse than the first. 

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. So shall it be also with this evil generation.”

Matthew 12: 43-45

This is often the case when a person is declared well and returns to normal life only to end up worse than before…the spiritual element has not been accounted for. 

A Model of Demonic Attack

Some of the confusion about spiritual warfare can come from a misreading or misunderstanding of New Testament events. Jesus dealt with several levels of demonic activity from possession (Legion) to strong influence/temptation (Peter). “Get behind me you Satan, for you are not on the side of God, but on the side of man.” Peter was not possessed but was probably hearing from the devil trying to thwart God’s plan. 

In his book on prayer (The Graces of Interior Prayer: A Treatise on Mystical Theology), A. J. Poulain dedicates significant attention to the work of the devil, and from that I developed a model for demonic activity which I’ll rely on for the remainder of the article.

  • Stage 1 Temptation (suggestions, influence, etc.)
  • Stage 2 Oppression (Our house is under persistent, strong attack.)
  • Stage 3 Obsession (Our house is seriously threatened and “partially” fallen…as in the case of an addiction to food or alcohol. Sin and failure seem frequent.)
  • Stage 4 Possession (The house is completely fallen, in the hands of the enemy and is capable of the worst crimes and sins.)

One of the main markers of possession is the loss of consciousness (blackout): it can be for twenty minutes, or it can be total. One day, while happily working at my engineering desk, I received a call from a woman. She informed me that she had gotten my number from the office of the Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh. She said she was fighting evil spirits and that she was only conscious for about twenty minutes each day and she used that time to call anyone and everyone who might be able to help. This was clearly a possession, and our deliverance team was about to encounter a level of demonic activity that we had not seen in prior cases. The woman was eventually set free!

For the sake of discussion, I want to make a distinction: possessions will require exorcism, but the first three stages require deliverance. I make that distinction since certain Christian traditions have an official exorcist and lay people are not to lead an official exorcism. In fact, all casting out or breaking of demonic power is deliverance, but exorcism is a special example of deliverance.  As Christians, we all can and need to be involved in deliverance… “deliver us from evil!” (I have yet to figure out why the diocese gave the woman the phone number of a research engineer!)


And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

Mark 9:26-29

There are several things that we can learn from this Scripture passage apart from the story itself. The word ‘kind’ means that there are different kinds of evil spirits and that a single approach to deliverance is unlikely to work. ‘Much’ or ‘nothing but’ tells us (obviously) that some demons are more powerful than others (the point of Jesus’ response). ‘Prayer’ tells us that prayer is going to be needed, and not just a spoken command. ‘Fasting tells us that it (some translations exclude fasting) really might cause us some pain in addition to the use of spoken commands and prayers. 

One main issue here is faith. Jesus is more than a little frustrated by the lack of faith; he demonstrates that by casting out the demon with neither prayer nor fasting, but with a simple command. Some disciples will be more (or less) gifted with spiritual authority.

Finally, here, just as there is a hierarchy of angels (angels, archangels, etc.), there is a hierarchy of fallen angels (Satan, powers, principalities). 

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6: 12

When opposing powerful demons, it is it is the work of more developed disciples who have been formed by “much prayer and fasting”. The effort is significantly supported by being part of a body. This is one of those activities where “spiritual lone rangers” do not do well.

Deliverance and Exorcism

For the purposes of this article, and referring to the model mentioned earlier, exorcism is a most serious form of deliverance, and deals with those who are possessed.  Most of us in renewal movements and communities deal with people who are oppressed or obsessed. On the other hand, most of the gospel stories involving Jesus and evil spirits are examples of possessions and exorcisms. For this reason, some of those stories are not immediately applicable to the kinds of spiritual warfare that we encounter personally or in the ministry of pastoral care. We can learn many things from these stories, but the practical tactics and strategies of spiritual warfare are more laid out in the pastoral letters. We will cover tactics and strategies in Part II. 

Many of the exorcisms in the Bible exposed kinds and types of evil spirits. One example beyond the gospel identified a “spirit of divination”, which Paul cast out with a spoken word of command (Acts 16:18). In modern times, the spirit of divination is quite popular and even Christians can get seduced by the desire to know and predict. 

This article has a few examples of exorcisms for teaching purposes, but the far and away bulk of spiritual warfare does not involve exorcism. However, in my lifetime, exorcism has gone from being almost not believed, to being studied by professional counselors, to having an official office of exorcist for one local church denomination. The charismatic renewal and Pentecostal movement have awakened a new awareness of the devil’s tactics and strategies; and have called us to take a stand in spiritual warfare. 

Can a Christian Be Possessed?

This question is a thorny one and has theological proponents on both sides. For the purposes of this article, I am taking the approach that when we are dealing with a possessed person, we are not dealing with a Christian. Consistent with the model presented earlier, a Christian can be tempted, oppressed, and even obsessed. I have regularly dealt with all three in Christian examples, but in my encounters with possessed people, I have never known one to be a Christian. One might question whether a Christian can be obsessed. The most common examples of this are when a person who is obsessed becomes a Christian and enters into the battle to get total freedom. Some examples include illicit drug use, sex, and alcohol addiction, which can involve environmental, genetic, biological, social, and spiritual bondages which will have to be recognized and dealt with. 

In the first deliverance team that I was a part of, we had a drug addict who converted to Christ and was miraculously delivered from her addiction! But we all seem to be sort of “spring-loaded” to our former lives and she eventually went back to her friends to “evangelize” them. Well, they, as a group, were more effective at evangelizing her and she tried drugs one more time…miracle of miracles, the drugs had no effect, and she was free indeed! To this day, I have never seen a deliverance quite so complete and dramatic. Addictions involve social, chemical, spiritual, and “brain mapping” elements that only God can overcome. 

Having said all of this, Christians can fall into the traps of the enemy and become addicted and obsessed. The sin happens in the early stages, but “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and the spiritual warfare to get free will certainly be intense. 

Should a “Regular” Christian Be Involved in Deliverance?

The answer is, “Yes!” The first time that we recite the Lord’s prayer could be our first step at personal deliverance. As mentioned earlier, many new Christians are already in a real battle with the enemy when they come to the Lord. They will have no choice but to FIGHT for personal deliverance.

The question also goes beyond personal deliverance to the ministry of deliverance for others. Jesus had three primary ministries: teaching, healing, and deliverance. Most disciples, as they grow, will probably find themselves engaged in one or more of these ministries. Moreover, the preaching of the gospels usually provides a necessity for one or all of these ministries. 

A few caveats: 1) we are speaking here of deliverance ministry in the sense of the 2nd and 3rd group of our model; 2) official exorcism more recently is not allowed for lay people by certain denominations; and 3) anyone experiencing personal oppression or obsession should be (at least) hesitant to engage in too many spiritual battles. I do realize that many of us with “besetting sins” (Hebrews 12:1) or nagging sins that we’re still dealing with might be called to support another brother or sister in their own battle. 

Finally, here, the landscape has changed. Seventy years ago, most possessed people were institutionalized. Because of the cost and the over-emphasis of personal freedoms, over 90% of those patients have been released into the general population; and we, now, are being exposed to a society that’s looking more like the time of Jesus.  I expect that exorcism will become more common in the Christian churches. It is my belief that no psychiatrist or modern drug therapy can set these people free. They can be anesthetized, but not freed. That takes the power of God. 

So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

John 8:36

A Liar

In a short section of Scripture (John 8:44 – John 10: 1, 10) Jesus reveals that Satan is a liar, a thief, and a murderer. Jesus identifies himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  (John 14:6). So, Jesus is TRUTH; Satan is a liar. In fact, he is the father of lies (John 8:44). In my mind, these characteristics of demons are progressive: they lie to you so they can steal from you (relationships, money, time, your family); and eventually they want to kill you (or someone else). 

So, lying is the foundation for most wrongdoing. You must be a “good” liar if you are going to succeed as a thief, an adulterer, a slanderer, etc. You really must be a polished liar if you are going to be a good murderer…especially if you get caught. 

Most oppression is an onslaught of lies; and much or most obsession is a habit or condition that reflects believing the lies early on and setting up a pattern that gets out of our control. Our mind gets “mapped” by pleasure and our soul gets besieged by sin. A reminder: his plan really is to kill you (or others), and it starts out with such small concessions to sin. Too many brothers and sisters have lost the Christian way of life to the devil. As Tom Mangan has said, “If the devil can’t get your salvation, he wants to get the JOY of your salvation.”

Not all lies have demons as their source, but a pattern of lying is a first marker of demonic activity. Remember, as the saying goes, “The truth is the truth, no matter how few believe it; and a lie is a lie no matter how many believe it!” Another way of saying it: “Jesus is the truth no matter how few believe in him; and Satan is a liar no matter how many follow him (or believe in?) him.”


The recent renewal of Christian (evangelical and Pentecostal) activity has generated some mottos. I’d like to develop two a little further.

  1. “God has no grand-children.”
    The meaning here is that no one gets to heaven on their parent’s coattails. Each person in heaven is there because of their own relationship with the Lord.
    The inverse is equally true: “The devil has no grandchildren.” If you end up in hell, you won’t be able to blame your parents or your spouse or your siblings. 
  2. “God has a plan for your life!” 
    Wonderful! Amazing! Encouraging!
    But the opposite is also true. “The devil has a plan for your life.” If you are unaware of that or choose to ignore it, you could more easily fall prey to his tricks.

In Part II, we will cover Roles, Tactics and Strategies.

In Part III, we will consider a set of Scripture passages with limited comments (a resource).

Top image of a team of people from Bigstock.com, © by gualtiero boffi, stock photo ID: 7864282. Scripture passage from Ephesians 6:12 added.

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