The Subtle Strategies of Satan


Teaching t07972


We complete a series on the subject of spiritual warfare. I have entitled it "the subtle strategies of Satan" in order to emphasize that although the Bible acknowledges that Satan occasionally operates in dramatic, overt ways, the vast majority of his activity is subtle and covert ("schemes;" "be on the alert'" GUERILLA WARFARE).

This series would not be complete without spending a week on one of his most common and effective strategies—division. Anyone versed in military tactics knows the maxim "divide and conquer." If you can get your enemies to break ranks, turn on themselves and fight each other, you can quickly rout them.

Of course, this attack presumes something about the essential nature of Christianity that Satan understands better than most western Christians—that it is corporate rather than individualistic. We spent several weeks exploring this issue this spring in our series on Christian community, so I refer you to those tapes if this concept is foreign to you. Before you can be divided, you have to be living in unity with other Christians.

Some of you have never experienced this form of attack because you live your Christian life in relational isolation from other Christians. And in isolation, you are easy pickings for his other strategies that we have already explored in this series. You need close relationships with some Christian friends in order to identify—let alone defeat his accusations, temptations, seductions, and persecutions. God isn't interested in equipping you to be a NINJA master; he wants to equip you as a Roman soldier in MANIPLE (Eph. 6). So your first step is to get involved in Christian community (HOME GROUPS).

Many of you are newly involved in Christian community. You are experiencing for the first time what a difference it makes to have close Christian friends to share with, pray with, learn with, serve with, etc. You need to understand that Satan will not let this state of affairs go unhindered. He is going to try to (perhaps he already is) divide you from your Christian brothers and sisters so he can isolate you again and neutralize you, and so that he can spread division through you to others. In order to overcome this form of attack, you need to know three things: what division is (and isn't), why it is so destructive, and the biblical means of repelling it.

What is division?

Division is not Christians belonging to different churches or denominations. When some lament the "divided state" of Christianity, this is what they're referring to. But this presumes an institutional definition of church unity—something that is foreign to the New Testament.

GOSPEL: Being a Christian has nothing to do with belonging to an institution. It is about forging a real, personal, spiritual relationship with the living God by asking his Son Jesus Christ to pay for your sins and indwell you through his Spirit to make you alive to God. This is why you can belong in an institutional sense to a church and not even be a Christian! On the other hand, you could become a Christian today, just as you are, without joining any institution—by simply receiving Christ.

And because our unity is spiritual, we can experience real unity with other Christians who belong to different churches or groups.

Division is not Christians in the same group disagreeing and vigorously debating over non-essential doctrinal or methodological issues—even to the point of starting new groups. This is called issues-oriented conflict, and it is inevitable and even desirable (within limits) in Christian ministry. Christians who care about ministry will disagree over how to get the job done most effectively. When this happens, someone always calls it “division.” But it is possible to disagree, debate, etc. without having a division.

Luke records an example of this kind of conflict between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41 (read). They disagreed over an important strategic issue—personnel on a hazardous mission. The word “sharp disagreement” (paroxusmos) means a vigorous debate! Is this a terrible defeat? There is no hint in Luke’s narrative that it was. They couldn’t agree on personnel, so they split into two mission teams, divided the mission, and went on. In his letters, Paul speaks favorably of both Barnabas and Mark in his later letters.

We have issues-oriented conflicts in this church. We have lots of committed leaders and workers who sometimes strongly disagree on how to best accomplish the work God has given us. Sometimes we have to defer to those in leadership over us. Sometimes we need to give each other some elbowroom to work in our chosen way. Sometimes we even need to go to another church that is better suited to what we are called to do. All of these things can happen without being divided in the biblical sense.

Division is personal alienation between Christians caused by sinful attitudes. It is rooted in attitudes like envy, pride, and selfish ambition (Jas. 3:14-16), and it manifests itself in relationships broken by unresolved anger, personal resentment, malice, bitterness, etc. (Eph. 4:26,27,31). This is what causes "demonic" disorder and "gives the devil opportunity" to set Christians against one another and ravage the church . . . 

Why is it so destructive?

If you have ever been through a nasty division (like the one we experienced in 1992-1994), then you know how destructive it is.

It destroys effective outreach, because a key to our witness is the love that we show toward each other (Jn. 13:34; 17:23). If people see the same kind of alienation between Christians that they see elsewhere, why should they listen to our message?

It demoralizes and demotivates all who are involved in it. It is terrifically draining to be in an environment of suspicion, resentment and hostility (LIKE A DIVORCE). Some often drop out of fellowship altogether, and then become isolated and neutralized. Even seasoned workers who persevere through it flag in their zeal, and may become unwilling to risk getting close to people again (ME IN 1993).

It prevents effective leadership. If a significant group becomes divided from the leadership of the church, or worse if the leadership itself becomes divided, the work of the church comes to a halt. Leaders must supply clear direction for the church, and the people must trust and respond to their leadership—or we are a rabble.

This is why Paul tells us to "be diligent" to preserve our unity and do whatever it takes to overcome division (Eph. 4:3). Hoe can we do this?

How can you overcome it?

Think of division as a spiritual cancer. We overcome it in much the same way we fight against cancer in our own bodies—in three ways (APPLIES TO MARITAL UNITY ALSO):

PREVENTION: "The best defense is a good offense." Good nutrition, exercise, etc. make us much less likely to develop cancer in the first place. In the same way, there are spiritual things we can do make us much less likely to become divided from one another.

You can consistently initiate love toward your Christian friends (Heb. 10:24,25). Division is almost always preceded by relational passivity and disengagement. It is difficult for the enemy to sow division between people who are consistently and consciously praying for, encouraging, and having fun with one another. How are you doing here? Are you making time for this? Are you focusing on initiating it yourself and giving freely instead of on how well others are doing this with you?

You can work together on reaching outward to others (Phil. 1:27; 2:2). When we are linking arms to reach out to those who don’t know Christ and to help new Christians learn how to walk with Christ, we will be largely immune to division. But if we selfishly become a "holy huddle," it won't be long before we begin to get offended by one another's idiosyncrasies and minor offenses. Leaders, are you setting an outward direction and tone for your groups? Members, are you taking ownership to play your part in reaching out to other people?

You can maintain a proper attitude toward your leaders (1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13). Satan works especially hard to divide people from their spiritual leaders because he knows that if he can alienate the sheep from their shepherds, he can ravage the flock. This is why the New Testament, while holding high moral standards for leaders and circumscribing their legitimate sphere of authority, also calls on non-leaders to respect them, be prepared to follow them, and reject accusations against them unless they are objective and serious. Do you have this attitude toward your leaders—or do you indulge the freedom to resist them and sabotage them and suspect them?

EARLY DETECTION: The statistics are overwhelming that early detection is often the difference between life and death. It is so much easier to "nip it in the bud" than to get rid of it once it has spread. The same thing is true with division in the church. Because our enemy is creatively active and because we are fallen, sinful people, we will not be able to prevent all division by the above steps. But we can nip it in the bud by taking the following steps:

Like all sin, it always starts in our thought-lives—so we need to develop the habit of monitoring our thoughts about others. Satan will insidiously slander your Christian friends and leaders to you, drawing your attention to and exaggerating their flaws and weaknesses, interpreting their offenses against you in the worst possible light, and judging their motives (1 Cor. 4:5 - that they don't really care about you or are out hold you back or even to get you; they are committed to self rather than to Christ, etc.). Do you practice suspicion toward your suspicions by judging them and rejecting them? Or do you pour gasoline on the fire by indulging them and speaking them to others ("Don't say behind their backs what you'd be embarrassed to say to their faces.")? Once you do this, you give Satan more room to operate . . . 

We also need to help one another in this area. When we see evidence that they are tolerating these kinds of groundless, slanderous thoughts, we need to speak an objective, corrective word and call on them to get before God about this!

AGGRESSIVE TREATMENT: Once cancer has begun to grow and spread, it is life threatening. Only immediate and aggressive treatment can catch it before it rages out of control. In the same way, the New Testament gives us strong directives to take aggressive action when division actually breaks out. This is not a formula, but the Holy Spirit will guide you on how to apply these directives.

You should try to talk out personal conflicts as soon as you become aware of them (Matt. 5:23-24). If you know you are divided from another Christian, don't withdraw and slander him to others—go and talk it out, and be ready to listen to his response instead of being dogmatic about your interpretation. What if you hear that he is divided from you? Sure, he should be coming to you—but there is a higher priority here than conflict etiquette! Go and ask what you have done to offend him.

You should apologize where appropriateeven if not reciprocated (Matt. 7:3-5). Instead of being defensive, ask God to show you your fault. And if he shows you, acknowledge it and ask forgiveness. If you have slandered him, go and correct it. What is more important to you—preserving unity or your own pride?

You should be willing to forbear and forgive—even of he does not reciprocate (Col. 3:13). Division thrives and grows when both parties are unwilling to do this. But when even one party chooses to do this, the damage is usually greatly reduced. This means committing yourself to pray for them and do good to them as the Lord shows you how to do this. Are you doing this—or are you reserving the right to withdraw and retaliate until they respond the way you insist on?

You should ask for help from others if necessary (Phil. 4:2,3). Sometimes we need the objectivity and wisdom of another mature Christian in order to resolve our issues and hurt feelings. I've seen stalemated parties break down in humility and tears and get reconciled when they have been willing to get this kind of help. Is this what you need to do (HOME GROUP WORKERS; COUNSELLORS; ARBITRATION BOARD)?

You should be willing to discipline divisive members (2 Tim. 2:26; Titus 3:10). In those few cases in which someone insists on spreading discord in the church, God calls on us to correct him, warn him, publicly expose his rumors—and even to remove him until he repents. Are you willing to practice this "tough love?"

Conclusion: This church has been blessed over the past six years with wonderful unity. Let's be diligent to preserve it!