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Equipped: How Role Playing Games Prepared Me for the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Equipped: How Role Playing Games Prepared Me for the Reality of Spiritual Warfare

I grew up in a normal home (albeit broken, like all of us), but was never equipped with anything beyond a naturalistic, or maybe vaguely dualistic, view of the world. I thought what I saw was all there was, until people died; then there was heaven. But who knew what that was about? It seemed no one knew. 

The primary formative experiences giving me any sense of transcendence, or spirituality then, as odd as it sounds, were playing fantasy games like Zelda, Warcraft, or Diablo with my friends. I forged weapons and armor, battled dark forces of evil, and rescued allies from fire and death.

We were children equipped with the imaginations to rule the world (or at least our front yard), enacting this RPG-instilled transcendence IRL (in real life). 

Eventually, I did what I thought I had to do: I gave up childish ways. I stopped playing “those games.” Not coincidentally, this is also when a more staunch naturalistic worldview began to settle upon my perception of the world.

 

The Living King

Then a sandal-wearing, unarmed, slain Jesus walks into my life who is also now and forever the victorious, living King (Revelation 5:5-6). He obliterated my mistaken sense of self and sense of the world, and spoke words into my heart which the Spirit wielded like a sword to divide up the mess inside me, clear away the debris, and gave me new life (Hebrews 4:12, John 3:3-6). Jesus came to live inside me to empower me from the inside out by his Spirit. He invaded the territory of my life and sent me out to proclaim the excellencies of his glorious reign (1 Peter 2:9). My naturalistic perception became spiritual: as I came to understand that reality is more than what is seen.

 

The King’s Victory Prize

The apostle of our King (1 Corinthians 15:8), Paul writes to us of King Jesus’ equipping of his “saints,” his people-made-holy (Ephesians 4:12). This equipping occurs as a result of Jesus’ ascension–what some scholars have called his “ascension gifting” to the church. His ascension declares Jesus’ utter, overpowering victory against the spiritual powers of evil: having taken them captive, he now leads the captive forces in procession before his people. Then he divides the spoils among them, among us (Ephesians 4:7-11). The gifts of victory that Jesus gives us are precisely those associated with the giving of his indwelling Spirit (see Ephesians 3:16). Pentecost was the King’s victory prize bestowed upon his people (Acts 2:33). 

The subject of Holy Spirit-equipped living can be traced all throughout the book of Ephesians and reaches its climax in chapter 6. We are caught up in a cosmic battle, “not…against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness…” And if you weren’t convinced that Paul is talking primarily about the influence of personal, spiritual, demonic evil rather than merely worldly, political power alone, he sums up our battle as “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12). These are the same spiritual entities over which Christ reigns supreme and to which the gathered people of God make known God’s manifold wisdom (Ephesians 1:21, 3:10).

 

The Unholy Trinity

Paul clearly states in Ephesians 2:1-3 that a biblically-formed and fully-orbed gospel includes within it this cosmic conflict. The reality of humanity becoming free from our sinful flesh is not about improving poor choices, but about defending against the influence of personal, spiritual evil on our minds and on the world around us. This passage is a quintessential example of the ancient framework of the unholy trinity, “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” which wages war against the Triune God and his image-bearers.

John Mark Comer has done fine work reinvigorating our understanding of this ancient framework in his book Live No Lies. While admitting the reality of paranormal, overtly charismatic experiences such as power encounters and exorcisms, Comer speaks of the reality of spiritual warfare, especially in the non-majority world, primarily taking place in the realm of evil ideas (the flesh), implanted by the lies of a personal Enemy (the devil, see John 8:44), that then become normalized in a sinful society (the world).

 

No Small Sins

We are at war with evil, but that war is more often a battle for the human imagination, as a primary route to the heart, than it is for the outward actions that flow from the heart. Capture our minds, covertly and “behind Enemy lines” as it were, convincing us to rationalize “small sins” as long as we’re not obviously engaging in rampant wickedness, and the enemy gains a stronghold in our hearts that’s frankly much harder to resist than an overt, all-out frontal assault (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

C.S. Lewis is in full accord in Screwtape Letters, his masterful imaginative account of an arch-demon’s advice to his underling tempter-apprentice:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

This safe road to hell is paved, not with good intentions (as the saying goes), but rather with captured imaginations, minds that have been vacated of the reality of the spiritual weightiness of thinking itself, of every thought, however minute a thought it may seem.

 

Stand Against the Darkness

How are we, then, to actually engage in this battle against the evil seeking to ensnare our minds and hearts, and thus our lives? In the face of this cosmic conflict, Paul’s heraldic conclusion to the church in Ephesus is to stand, he repeats three times. Then, recalling an Hebraic, prophetic formula, to be equipped, taking up the God-ordained instruments for spiritual battle (Epesians. 6:13-14, c.f. Isaiah 59:17). Having donned the necessary accoutrements, each encapsulating a necessary quality for, one might say, “defense against the dark arts” (Ephesians 6:14-17), we are then sent forth to… what? To vanquish our opponents? No; rather, Paul’s climactic commission into the fray is simply this: pray (Ephesians 6:18). This is how we stand firm together against the darkness. 

It is indeed a collective commission. Paul, as throughout Ephesians, is calling the church, the Body and Bride of Christ, to be thus equipped (Ephesians 1:22-23, 5:26-27). She is to become a veritable fortress of her God, clothed and crowned with her King’s gracious splendor (Revelation 12:1, 19:7-8, 21:2). Praying together is thus mission-critical, and all the more as the final Day draws nearer (Hebrews 10:25). Our charge is not to obtain victory–that has already been accomplished through the cross and empty tomb–but to stand firm by defending that victory for one another until its fullness comes rushing in on the hoofbeats of the King’s return (Revelation 19:11-16).

Prayer is essential. If we stand alone, without God’s supernatural strengthening and the combined power of our allies, we’re dead where we stand. Paul begins the whole section on God’s armor by calling us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of this might.” (Ephesians 6:10). The essential battle practice of prayer is confirmed by Graham Cole, former Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and professor of Systematic Theology: “Prayer rounds out the [armor], and in a way it returns the reader to the beginning, that is, to God, in whom the believer is to be strong. The practice of prayer is to suffuse the whole…The armor of God is not enough without the God of the armor, and prayer is the link.” (Against the Darkness, 169).

 

Fantasy-informed Reality

Beloved, we are in a spiritual battle. Spiritual warfare is very real indeed, much more real and substantial, that is, having a bearing on the substance of our daily lives, than many of the things we think of as real and substantial such as various religio-political ideals, socio-cultural norms, or gender stereotypes. That there is personal evil out there, influencing our minds and cultural systems and attempting to deceive and destroy us, is a radically non-postmodern notion. 

And yet, isn’t this much of the appeal of Tolkien’s legacy of high fantasy? There is a personal evil that seeks to “steal, kill, and destroy”–call it a “Dark Lord” and his forces (John 10:10). And there is the persevering banner of “the Light” that all peoples of good will gather under in an alliance against evil (Ephesians 5:8).

We are undoubtedly not formed to think in this way about our world today, excepting, I think, in the widespread popularity of RPGs. Role-playing fantasy games, when staying true to their Tolkien-formed, biblically-saturated roots, provide categories, affirmed in Scripture, with which to see the reality that, if we follow Christ as King, we have been drafted into the Son’s kingdom of light to ever resist Satan’s kingdom of darkness (Colossians 1:13, 1 Peter 5:8-9).

Let us therefore be unwavering to “take up the shield of faith…and the sword of Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:16-17) and to “keep alert with all perseverance” in prayerful fellowship with our Spirit-wrought allies, not hesitating to embrace the radical idea of a real, personal, yet immaterial battle of Light vs. Darkness (Ephesians 6:18). Let us skillfully handle the Word of Truth, embodied in Christ and revealed in Scripture, declaring it boldly as if our lives and the lives of others depended on it (2 Timothy 2:15, Ephesians 6:20). Because, in reality, they do (John 1:1-14).

 

 

We the Fallen People Includes You and Me

We the Fallen People Includes You and Me

I am a democrat [proponent of democracy] because I believe in the Fall of Humanity.

I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought humankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government.

The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true…I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost. Much less a nation….

The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Humankind is so fallen that no one can be trusted with unchecked power over his or her fellows.

“Equality” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses* by C.S. Lewis

 

Political Partisanship

If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you are frustrated and perplexed by the political partisanship that only seems to increase with each passing election cycle. Whether it be disagreements over abortion, inflation, student loan forgiveness, public school curriculum, or anything else, thoughtful and charitable debate is hard to find. In spite of these divisions, there is one thing almost all politicians, pundits, and activists agree on: “most Americans want what is right and good, and they agree with me.” Both sides of our political discourse will creatively redefine what “most Americans” means to make this statement true. You would be hard pressed to find a public persona who asserts “Most Americans disagree with me on this, but they are profoundly mistaken.” In our contemporary political culture, the voice of the people is considered the voice of God. 

 

Sin and American Democracy

I recently had the pleasure of reading We the Fallen People: The Founders and Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie, Professor of History at Wheaton College. In this deeply thought-provoking book, McKenzie explores the relationship between the Christian doctrine of sin and American democracy. He argues that the founders, who were by no means perfect, had a robust view of the brokenness of human nature that coheres with the biblical view. They designed our constitution with that view of human nature in mind and created built-in checks and balances to guard against the tyranny of the majority. However, within a generation, this view of fallen humanity fell out of favor with the function of American politics. The will of “We, the People” gained the moral high ground simply because it reflects the majority of people who consider themselves essentially good. 

Biblically, this is not true. Humans were created good but were broken and tainted by sin when Adam and Eve fell. God sees “that every intention of the thoughts of (humanity’s) heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The prophet Jeremiah locates this corruption deep within the human heart as it “is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). The apostle Paul, summarizing and combining much of the Old Testament, concludes that “none is righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). Even Jesus himself declares “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).

 

Fallen Image-Bearers

Now this does not mean every human being is as wicked and evil as they could possibly be. Each human still bears God’s image even after The Fall (Genesis 9:6), and God’s goodness and common grace prevents humans from being absolutely evil. Also, Christians are not completely exempt from brokenness and sin from the moment of their conversion. Though sin is defeated when Christ redeems us and gives us the Holy Spirit, sinful desires and inclinations still remain within us. This is why Paul commands believers not to allow sin to reign in our mortal bodies (Romans 6:12). Moreover, the reality and depth of human sinfulness should lead even saved Christians to maintain a posture of humility toward others because we are all broken (Ephesians 2:1-9). Gospel-centered Christians can’t divide the world neatly into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead, we confess we are all the “bad guys”, and our only hope of being made new is the one Good Guy who died in our place.

Does our broader political engagement and faith in democracy embody this view? McKenzie says no and details major events in Andrew Jackson’s presidency that are emblematic of the opposite shift that still persist today. Notably, Native Americans were removed from the southeast portion of the United States during the “Trail of Tears” in order to distribute more farmland to white settlers. Though there was dissent to this egregious violation of justice and disregard for ratified treaties, such opposition was labeled as ‘elitist’ and wrong because it went against the “populist” will of the people. Jackson would say “the great mass of the people cannot be corrupted” in defense of these policies. This perspective prevails in the present day with our democracy functioning as though humans are individually good and collectively wise.

What should faithful Christians consider in our democratic process in light of this? 

 

Bearing Witness to God’s Kingdom

McKenzie does not argue that returning to the founders’ style of democracy, where only white, property-owning males could vote, would solve our problems. A tyranny of the minority is no better since all are affected by The Fall. He does point to the C.S. Lewis quote noted above and claims our motivation for pursuing democracy must reckon with the reality of human depravity. We should be cautious of assuming a certain perspective or policy is right merely because “the majority” believes it to be so. We should take care to protect the rights of minorities, practice restraint when our preferred “team” is in power, and advocate for principles of justice to be followed, even if they are unpopular. This is because victory for Christian values over our culture should not be the church’s goal, but rather to be faithfully present in the midst of culture to bear witness to God’s kingdom, no matter if the majority accepts or opposes our view.

Our engagement in politics ought to flow out of our virtue formation. One of the most commonly repeated quotes during election season is “America is great because she is good.” McKenzie explains how this is falsely attributed to Alexis de Toqueville, a French author who wrote about American democracy when visiting Jacksonian America. De Toqueville’s actual perspective was the opposite. He said “I cannot regard you (Americans) as a virtuous people.” He recognized a profound individualism in American culture that is antithetical to virtue, in that true virtue seeks the good of the whole at the expense of one’s self. A democracy that elevates the will of the majority, when there are not sufficient structures in that culture to instill the character of self-sacrifice for the betterment of others, will inevitably lead to tyranny and oppression.

Where Is Our Dependence?

As we enter into another contentious election season, let’s keep this in mind. American Christians have been given an immense privilege to have a voice in how our government is run. Engaging politically is potentially one of the most powerful ways to love our neighbors, while simultaneously also being an avenue that can bring immense pain and suffering to them. Let’s use that privilege virtuously to serve others. Let’s engage those we disagree with in a posture of humility. Let’s ask God for guidance and wisdom because we are dependent on him. Let’s interrogate our own political ideals as much as we question the “other side”, knowing that “We the Fallen People” includes ourselves.

Further Reading

McKenzie, Robert Tracy. We the Fallen People : the Founders and the Future of American Democracy. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021.

Lewis, C. S. “Equality” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. First HarperCollins edition 2001 [revised]. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

*Lewis’ quote has been adjusted to reflect contemporary norms for gender-inclusive language for human beings.

The Message of Palm Sunday

The Message of Palm Sunday

It is impossible to overstate the dramatic change from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The typical Palm Sunday service is filled with kids waving palm branches, upbeat songs, and a vibe of joy. Good Friday, on the other hand, is a service in a dark room, marked by Scriptures read that describe brutal violence, ending in silence. 

That is a stark change in just five days, like driving a car on a new spring day then suddenly slamming into a wall. What happened in those five days? What happened between Palm Sunday and Good Friday?

The presence of Jesus is what happened.

The original Palm Sunday was a day long in coming for the people of God. It was first spoken of in Genesis 3, it was hinted at by God when He promised David an eternal line of kings through his descendants, it was described in full by Zechariah, and now at lastit was here. The Messiah was coming into Jerusalem to establish His reign. Everyone knew what that meant. Jesus was going to throw out the Roman oppressors and establish God’s world-wide reign of peace. 

Then Jesus showed up and ruined everything.

He confronted the people of God, not the Roman oppressors. He said to them “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:46) 

Now a decision had to be made. What to do with this confrontational Jesus?

This is where things turned tragic, how we get from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The religious leaders of the day determine they are not interested in what Jesus is offering, so they scheme, plan and devise a way to get rid of Him. Instead of instituting the reign of God from the hill of the Temple, Jesus was crucified on a hill called “place of the skull.” What a drastic, rapid fall.

What happened?

It is easy to believe that we want Jesus, but we must confront the fact that it only took five days for an entire city to go from revering Jesus to rejecting Him. Five days is all it took for Jerusalem to move from cherishing Him to crucifying Him. That is the message of Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday reveals how fast my reverence for Jesus can turn to rejection.

In the presence of Jesus, I am confronted with where I am broken, where I am hostile to the Kingdom of God, where God’s purposes are at odds with what I want to do in the world. As Barbara Brown Taylor wrote:

In the presence of his integrity, our own pretense is exposed. In the presence of his constancy, our cowardice is brought to light. In the presence of his fierce love for God and for us, our own hardness of heart is revealed….He is the light of the world. In his presence, people either fall down to worship him or do everything they can to extinguish his light.

Holy Week is an invitation for us to meditate on the ways in which our hearts move from welcoming the presence of Jesus to trying to extinguish His light. To let His integrity expose the false ways I live. To let His courage and constant commitment to others expose my selfishness. To let His love and devotion to the Father expose my own fickle commitment to the path God calls me to follow.

Meditate on those themes, and the weight is crushing. However, the irony of Holy Week is that while our pretenses are laid bare and exposed, Jesus’ commitment toward us is firm, resolute, and irreversible. The way we tried to extinguish His light became the very means by which He flooded this world with His light. Crucifixion. Death. Resurrection. The dramatic shift from Palm Sunday to Good Friday may reveal the darkness of our hearts but it also sheds light on the glory of Jesus.

My reverence for Jesus may quickly turn to rejection, but Jesus never responds that way to us. Whether we are waving palm branches, shouting for joy and worshiping Him as Messiah, or trying to go our own way, rejecting Him and blocking His light from our eyes, He continues on His way to the cross, committed to our salvation, our healing, our redemption.

Palm Sunday may reveal how quickly we turn on Him, but that is not the message of Palm Sunday. The message of Palm Sunday is that our heart toward Jesus will not affect His heart toward us. He is always working toward our healing, even while we are trying to snuff out His light.

Three Resources on Genesis 3

Three Resources on Genesis 3

Genesis 3 is a great hinge in the biblical story. It provides the answers to the questions:

What’s wrong with the world?

Why do things never seem to go as they ought?

Why does there always seem to be a problem?

The author of Genesis, guided under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has given us an incredibly rich account of what went wrong in the good world God made. Here are three resources that have helped me understand and appreciate just a bit more the richness of Genesis 3.

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Perelandra by C. S. Lewis

What would have happened if Adam and Eve had resisted the evil one instead of joining him? This is what Lewis explores in the second book of his science-fiction space trilogy.

In it Lewis imagines a human from Earth visiting a planet—Perelandra—that has not fallen into sin. Perelandra is still a new world in which there are only one man and one woman, the king and queen. But evil is seeking to invade this world too, and soon this human visitor is caught in an epic struggle to keep the queen of Perelandra from believing the lies of the evil one. Every time I read it, Lewis awakens in me a deep longing for the world as it ought to be and revives in me great hope for the world as it will one day be again.

With the exception of Till We Have Faces, Perelandra is probably my favorite of all of C. S. Lewis’ fiction writing. Even though it is the second book in a series, you can read it as a standalone story. But I highly recommend reading all three!

Bonus: The Screwtape Letters is also a fantastic fiction work by Lewis that explores how the evil one seeks to tempt, distract, and destroy humans.

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Spiritual Beings by The Bible Project

Another incredibly helpful resource for understanding Genesis 3 is the video series Spiritual Beings. This series of short, animated videos explores what the Bible teaches about the spiritual creatures that God made. The videos are especially helpful in understanding the origins of the evil one who enters the garden in the form of a snake.

Bonus: Also helpful from The Bible Project is the “Read Scripture” video on Genesis 1-11 and also the Torah Series video on Genesis 1-11.

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Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

In the introduction to this outstanding book on what sin is and how it works, Plantinga observes:

…even when it is familiar, sin is never normal. Sin is the destruction of created harmony and then resistance to divine restoration of that harmony. Above all, sin disrupts and resists the vital human relation to God, and it does all this disrupting and resisting a number of intertwined ways. Sinful life, as Geoffrey Bromiley observes, is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life.

He then goes on to trace out those intertwined ways in which sin has infected us and our world, vividly reminding us that this is not the way it’s supposed to be.

Yet, he also offers deep hope for the triumph over sin. For example, he concludes:

“Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still. Grace and creation are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers…. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way.”

In spending time reflecting deeply on the nature and results of sin, you will find yourself with a new deeper joy and gratitude for the rescue you have in and through Jesus!

Bonus:  Another great resource on how sin affects us as human beings is Curt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame. Bringing together insights from neurobiology and the biblical story, Thompson shows us how shame is the primary weapon of the enemy in our lives.


While these books and videos are not a substitute for deep reflection and meditation on the text of Genesis 3, hopefully, they will give you fresh insight and a new appreciation for this critical passage of Scripture.