Of the various lessons I’ve learnt during the three years I’ve been in Japan, the biggest one has been about spiritual warfare. In particular, I have been surprised by how real and how normal it is.
During my mission’s orientation, people who had worked in remote tribal villages in countries like Thailand and the Philippines shared stories of how real the spiritual battle can be. But the battle in Japan seemed much less obvious, much more behind the scenes, and much more vague—people saying they found the gospel difficult to believe or family pressure against those wanting to be baptised. I expected to encounter a general atmosphere of opposition in Japan rather than specific spiritual battles.
But after only a few years of missionary work in Japan, I am convinced spiritual warfare is as real here as it is in any shaman-led village in the jungle. By “real”, I mean there are specific battles, not just a general war. I can look back on some experiences and say, “That was a spiritual attack.” I’m not talking about apparitions or nightmares. I have felt the struggle against my spirit rather than my body.
The warfare is real, but it is also normal. Let me explain in terms of three domains: discouragement, distraction, and disunity.
By discouragement, I don’t just mean that disappointing things happen, but rather the way these events affect our hearts. The enemy can make us feel helplessly weak and so rob us of courage (i.e. dis-courage us). Sometimes when I’ve gathered with my team before an outreach event, we have all been uncharacteristically pessimistic about whether anyone would come to it. Though nobody dared say it, the unspoken consensus was that we shouldn’t expect too much to happen. In some prayer meetings, it is a struggle to gather the faith to ask God for anything more than that maybe someone might take just a small step towards knowing him more.
Things will always be occurring around us that can take our eyes off the goal, but the battle happens when we become side-tracked by things that are unimportant or are important but not the main task at hand. I know I’m facing spiritual opposition when I find myself unable to focus on a task that needs immediate attention because I’m overly concerned about something coming up—often something I have no control over. Similarly, spiritual attacks can come during times of prayer and devotion, which I know are crucial for my soul and ministry, through constant whispers of “I wonder what’s happened with . . .” or “Maybe I should check my email again, just in case . . .”
Perhaps disunity is the most overt indication of spiritual warfare. Of course, it is normal to disagree with teammates on various things. But we lose our unity when we succumb to the negative, accusatory thoughts that arise in our hearts such as “They did that on purpose” or “They always say that, but I know they mean. . .” In this way, Satan can use simple misunderstandings—or even just mishearing—to incite jealousy, bitterness, rivalry, or whatever he can use to set us against each other. He then feeds the self-righteousness in our hearts until both parties are convinced that there’s no point seeking reconciliation because they’re sure the other person is too proud to admit to being wrong.
The underlying connection
The common factor with all these attacks is their link to Satan’s character. He is the father of lies, who has been a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He lies and makes us believe our work is useless, and so he destroys our dreams. He lies and tells us that something else is more important, or that our work is so important we should leave it till tomorrow when we’re rested, and so he destroys our dreams again. He lies and makes us believe we are in competition with our co-workers, and so he destroys teams. In this normal spiritual warfare, demons aim to take from us what we need to get our work done: courage, traction, unity, and anything else we allow them to steal.
C. S. Lewis put it well in The Screwtape Letters when he showed that the work of demons is to make us believe the thoughts in our head originate with us. For we fight against these thoughts when we recognize they are from the enemy. Normal spiritual warfare can be the most powerful form of spiritual warfare, so we need to take a stand against it.
How do we fight? Of course, prayer is crucial. But I am learning that preaching is too—preaching the gospel to myself and allowing others to preach it to me. The gospel grants us true, unshakable courage, keeps us focused on the goal, and gives us unity with those who may even have become our enemies.
Levi Booth is a Brit working with OMF. His passion is to see Japanese men reached with the gospel of Christ. He also plays with Frisbees, hangs out in coffee shops, and reads manga.