14. The Sword of the Spirit
My dear Wormwood,
I hope my last letter has convinced you that the trough of dullness or “dryness” through which your patient is going at present will not, of itself, give you his soul, but needs to be properly exploited. What forms the exploitation should take I shall now consider.
In the first place I have always found that the Trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex.
…But there is an even better way of exploiting the Trough; I mean through the patient’s own thoughts about it. As always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind. Do not let him suspect the law of undulation. Let him assume that the first ardors of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition.
…Another possibility is that of direct attack on his faith. When you have caused him to assume that the trough is permanent, can you not persuade him that “his religious phase” is just going to die away like all his previous phases? …The mere word phase will very likely do the trick. …You see the idea? Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False. Nice shadowy expressions—“It was a phase”—“I’ve been through all that”—[and] don’t forget the blessed word “Adolescent.”
That, of course, is C. S. Lewis in his little book entitled, The Screwtape Letters, an imaginary correspondence between a more experienced demon named Screwtape and his younger protégé, Wormwood. One of the most remarkable things about the book, from Lewis’ perspective at least, is that he found it almost effortless to write. “…I had never written anything more easily,” he says in the Preface, “[though] I never wrote with less enjoyment.” “…it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, [but] it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a kind of spiritual cramp…. It would have smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.”
That tendency toward spiritual asphyxiation, I suppose, bears testimony to the reality of the spiritual conflict about which he was writing—the same spiritual war that the apostle Paul teaches us about in the text that we’ve read this morning. But far from giving him a spiritual cramp, it seems that the subject of spiritual warfare is one that fuels Paul’s pastoral zeal and concern. For instance, you can see that concern in the very first word of this section. The NIV translates it “Finally.” “Finally, be strong in the Lord….” But the Greek word could be translated, “for the rest,” or “from now on.” In other words Paul is not merely drawing his letter to a conclusion; he’s telling us how we must live from now on, until, as he said in the first chapter, God brings “all things in heaven and earth under one head, even Christ.”
And you can see his pastoral concern in the way that he repeats that word “stand.” “Stand your ground” he says in verse 13. “Stand firm, then,” he says in verse 14. But perhaps you can see Paul’s pastoral concern for his original readers and for us most clearly in the way he so is so insistent that we “put on the full armor of God.” Did you notice as we read through the text how he repeats himself? He says it first in verse 11 and then again in verse 13. “Put on the full armor of God,” he says. “Put on the full armor of God.”
Now, why does Paul repeat himself in these ways? Well, remember this military metaphor—the armor—is drawn from Paul’s own experience. As he writes this letter, he is imprisoned, chained to a Roman soldier. Paul had plenty of time to reflect on the similarities between the physical battles in which that soldier would have been engaged, and the cosmic struggle in which he and his fellow believers are engaged against the world, the flesh and the devil. In other words, he knows the critical nature of the battle.
More than that, Paul knows the law of undulation. He knows that human spirituality in general, and Christian spirituality in particular, is subject to unpredictable patterns of ebb and flow. Like waves on the sea, our love for God tends rise and fall, doesn’t it? Our devotion to Christ goes through periods of exhilarating progress followed by times of bewildering decay. Years ago Chuck Swindoll wrote a little book entitled Three Steps Forward Two Steps Back. That’s the law of undulation.
You can see it in the life of David, for instance, in the Old Testament. Once, when his faith was vital and his conscience was tender he snipped off a corner of Saul’s robe (apparently to prove that he could have killed Saul if he’d wanted to) only to be conscience-stricken about it later. “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed,” he said. But years later, after committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband in an effort to cover it up, he kept silent about his sin for perhaps as long as a year, until it was finally brought out by Nathan’s confrontation. David’s devotion to God had obviously decayed significantly, hadn’t it?
You can see the law of undulation at work in the lives of almost every patriarch and good king throughout the Old Testament. And in the New Testament you can see it at work in Peter’s experience, can’t you? Peter, who once was granted the extraordinary insight into the identity of Jesus as the Messiah (“You are the Christ,” he said, “the Son of the living God.) —Peter, who saw the divine glory of Jesus on the mount of transfiguration—Peter, whose name means “rock,” –Peter turned to mush when a servant girl accused him of being with Jesus. He denied Jesus three times. Certainly that has to be the low point of Peter’s relationship with Christ, isn’t it?
And if you and I are honest we’ll have to admit that the law of undulation is at work in our own lives, won’t we? I know that some of us here this morning have found ourselves in what the Puritans used to call ‘a declining state of grace.’ Not so long ago, perhaps, the gospel of grace seemed extraordinarily sweet and beautiful to you. Not so long ago, perhaps, you were filled with a joy and delight in God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Your safety, happiness and eternal enjoyment of God’s love seemed to you as unchangeable as God himself. Not so long ago, when you read texts like Romans chapter 5 verse 1 where Paul says, “…since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it made your heart soar.
But now something has happened. You find it difficult to taste the sweetness of the gospel now. Your past joy has been replaced by an immense heaviness. Your assurance of God’s love has become plagued by doubts and fears; and you wonder if this must be the state of your soul from this day forward. What has happened to all your joy? What has happened to your delight in the Lord—and in the gospel of grace?
O yes, Paul knows the law of spiritual undulation—certainly from Scripture as well as his own experience. And Paul knows that the devil seeks to exploit our periods of spiritual decay. The devil tries to persuade us that, when we find ourselves in the Slough of Despond, we will never be able to climb out and that our love for God was, after all, “just an adolescent religious phase.”
That, I want to suggest to you, is at least part of the reason that, like any responsible preacher, Paul repeats himself here. “Put on the full armor of God,” he says. “Put on the full armor of God.” It is because he knows that our hearts are subject to a kind of recurring spiritual decay. You and I must continually put on the armor of God. And when our armor is damaged in battle it needs to be repaired so that we can be ready for the next “evil day.”
If you are a professing Christian and you haven’t experienced this yet, then it’s because you’re either a very new Christian or, I’m afraid, a somewhat naïve one. C. S. Lewis is right; there is such a thing as the law of undulation. “Man is a giddy thing,” said Shakespeare; but in Christian experience that giddiness is not merely a principle of human nature; it is aggravated by the spiritual warfare in which you and I are inevitably engaged.
Now, what I’d like to do in the time that is left to us this morning is to help us to be prepared for the Lord’s Supper by exploring two questions: First, what are the signs of spiritual decay? In other words, what are the signs that your armor is in need of repair? How can you tell that the vitality of your relationship with Jesus Christ is in decline? And, secondly, how can you recover from that decline? How can you repair your armor and get back into the battle? And it’s my hope that, by the end of our study, some of us who are in the midst of spiritual decline may see that it is possible for your experience of vital communion with God to be restored.
What are the signs of spiritual decay or spiritual decline?
Well, before I tell you what the signs are, let me say something about what they are not. First, a stronger sense of your own sin is not necessarily a sign that you’re in spiritual decline. You shouldn’t think that, because you have a greater sense of your own personal moral failure that you are, therefore, in a state of spiritual decay. Perhaps you’ve recently begun to see your pride and self-righteousness and judgmental attitude more clearly than you had in the past. Perhaps you’ve recently begun to see the ways in which your bitterness and gossip and slander has broken relationships and harmed the church. Well, that’s not necessarily a sign that your relationship with Christ is falling apart. On the contrary, far from being a sign of spiritual decline, it may be a sign of spiritual growth. It may be a sign of God’s grace at work in your life, to help you see yourself more honestly and repent of your sin more sincerely. Do you think those things weren’t in you before you saw them? Of course they were! They were there all the time. And it is a sign of God’s grace that he has shown you your sin.
Suppose you’re traveling down the highway in a thick fog at night. Your headlights can barely penetrate the mist. And then, suddenly, you see the red brake lights of a truck that has stopped in the middle of the road. Suppose you hit the brakes and stop within a few inches of crashing into the back of the truck. And as you sit there with your heart pounding, your foot pressed hard against the brake pedal and your white-knuckled fingers gripping the wheel, you say to yourself, “Thank God! It’s a good thing that I saw those lights when I did. Otherwise I might be seriously injured or killed.” Well, similarly, it’s a good thing when God parts the fog in your soul to reveal your sin. It may make you uncomfortable to see it; but it keeps you from crashing. Sin cannot grow in someone who has a clear sense of the immanent danger it brings.
So, a strong sense of your sin is not necessarily a sign of spiritual decline. In fact, it may be a sign of spiritual growth.
Secondly, an increased struggle with temptations is not necessarily a sign of spiritual decline either. If you are a Christian, then sometimes you will experience the assault of the devil more intensely than at other times. Remember, we talked about that when we looked at the shield of faith. In the ancient world, it was when an army was besieging a city and the soldiers approached the wall that they were in the most heated part of the battle, because the enemy was standing on the wall launching fiery arrows and pouring down hot oil onto their heads. So, often it’s those who are in the vanguard of this spiritual battle who encounter the most resistance.
God permits Satan to bring trials and temptations into your life. In the opening chapter of the book of Job, we read that God allowed Satan to bring waves of enormous tragedy into Job’s life. Why? Why does God allow these kinds of things? Well, one of the clearest New Testament answers to that question is found in 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 7:
[Trials] have come, he says, so that your faith…may be proved genuine….
You see, Satan’s intention in bringing trials and temptations into your life may be to destroy you, but God’s intention is to refine you. So don’t think that you’re in a state of spiritual decline just because you are suffering trials or being tempted more intensely than you had been previously.
All right then, if a stronger sense of your own sin and increased temptations are not signs of spiritual decay, what are the signs? How do you know when your relationship with God is in a declining condition? Well, Philip Doddridge, in his little book entitled The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, summarizes it this way: He says that the state of a Christian who is declining in his or her personal devotion to Christ is one that…
“…chiefly consists in a forgetfulness of divine objects, and a remissness in those various duties to which we stand engaged by that solemn surrender which we have made of ourselves to the service of God.”
Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying that a Christian in a state of spiritual decay is someone who forgets God and is careless or negligent about living for him. Does that describe you perhaps? A Christian in a state of spiritual decline is one who is careless and lethargic about the one relationship that is supposed to be the most important in his or her life. Like someone in a coma, they actually may be alive; but in many ways they look dead.
Usually it begins with…
A Neglect of Private Prayer
Perhaps you can recall a time when, like David in Psalm 27, God came to you in your conscience and said, “Seek my face,” and your heart immediately and spontaneously echoed back, “Your face, Lord, I will seek.” But now that voice of conscience has become muffled by a thousand other anxious voices that demand your attention. Martin Luther, in his little book entitled A Simple Way to Pray put it this way: He says,
It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.
Of course, carelessness in prayer doesn’t happen all at once, does it? Maybe you just decide to spend a few more minutes in bed in the morning instead of getting up early enough to spend unhurried time in prayer. Maybe you sit in front of the TV in the evening until you feel too sleepy to do anything but drop into bed.
Or perhaps, when you get up to pray in the morning, you notice the newspaper headlines or the unopened mail on the kitchen table or that book that you’ve been meaning to get to; and before you know it, the time you had intended to spend in communion with God has been filled instead with the anxious concerns of this present world. So you apologetically hurry through a cold and formal prayer before you rush out the door.
Perhaps you tell yourself, “Oh, it’s not so bad; it’s just this once.” But after you’ve made the same excuse to yourself the second and third and fourth time, the only one who really believes it is you. It seems that a habit of cold and formal prayer (if not complete neglect of prayer) has become firmly entrenched in your life. And when that happens you are well on your way to spiritual decline, in which love for God is eclipsed by love for the world.
The second sign of spiritual decay is similar; it is…
A Neglect of God’s Word
When I was growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, I was actively discouraged from reading the Bible. (This was before the effects of Vatican II had taken hold.) “You don’t want to read the Bible,” said the nuns, “because it is so complex it will only confuse you. Leave it to the priests to read it and interpret it for you.” So I never read the Bible while I was in the Roman Catholic Church. It remained an enigmatic book mounted on the pulpit behind an altar I was not allowed to go across.
But after I became a Christian I discovered that, though Protestants have the Bible available, nevertheless a great number of them neglect to read it or study it with any kind of regularity. Oh, we can quote 2 Timothy 3:16 in defense of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness….” Oh yes, we get all worked up about the doctrine of inspiration; but I wonder how many of us have declined to the point where we read the Bible as we pray—in a cold and formal way, dutifully passing our eyes over the text in the daily devotional while our minds are rushing through the events of the coming day.
Why does this happen? How do we come to neglect the spiritual food that is so necessary to our communion with God? I can only suppose that it is because our hearts have become dangerously similar to the person that Jesus described in the parable of the sower.
The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns, [said Jesus] is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.
Do you see? Here is a man or woman whose heart is so filled with the things of this world that it has suffocated the message of the gospel. Whatever residual influence the Word of God may have in shaping this person’s morality or character, any real love for God and dependence on God just dies on the vine—snuffed out by the far more fundamental conviction of his own self-sufficiency.
And when prayer and Scripture are neglected in private, this spiritual decay will invariably lead to…
A Neglect of Public Worship
Why? Well, when love for God has begun to fade from your heart—when communion with God through his Word and prayer has become a burden rather than a delight to you, it is only a matter of time before public worship seems like an empty ceremony. While singing familiar hymns you will perhaps become more conscious of the sound of your own voice than the God to whom you offer praise. During the congregational prayer your mind will perhaps ramble off to Sunday dinner. And heaven only knows where the wandering heart will take a soul in spiritual decline when it comes time for the sermon!
More than that, when your love to God has begun to fail in these ways, it will almost certainly lead to…
A Lack of Love for Other People
You can always tell when a man or woman is in spiritual decline, because they withdraw from other people—particularly other Christians. Sin, you see, is essentially selfish. It loves itself so much that there is no room for anyone else. Though he was not a Christian, Jean-Paul Sartre understood this. In his play, No Exit, a man and two women are locked in a hotel room together; and as the play progresses, both the characters and the audience begin to realize that this is Sartre’s portrait of hell. At the moment of their awakening, this is what the male character says:
“So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is—other people!”
And of course, in a certain sense, Sartre is exactly right. Hell is other people. Because human beings are made in the image of God, you and I are born to love and worship God. But because we are fallen human beings, it is our natural tendency to hate God. (We talked about this when we were looking at the ‘gospel of peace.’) Nevertheless, we must be devoted to something. We cannot NOT love something. Ultimately, the objects of our devotion can be only God or ourselves. To the degree that we love God and are devoted to him, we will naturally be drawn to love those who are made in his image. But, to the degree that we love ourselves (are devoted to ourselves), we will invariably view other people as competition or as a threat. In that case, hell is other people.
Do you see? A soul in spiritual decay is someone whose communion with God has become a mere duty, a cold and formal religious exercise. Their love for God has grown cold; and it is evident in a neglect of private prayer, a neglect of the reading and meditation and study of God’s Word, a neglect of public worship, and lack of love for other people—especially other Christians. Does any of this describe your experience perhaps?
Spiritual decay is a rather joyless experience for a Christian; but it is important to remember that this is still Christian experience. The patient may have slipped into a coma, but he is not dead yet. It is possible to recover from such spiritual decline. The question is, How?
How can you recover from spiritual decline?
How can you repair your armor and get back into the battle? Well, we will talk more about this next week, but let me at least give you the basic answer. The first part of the answer is that, first, you need to…
Remember the ‘Law of Undulation’
Earlier I mentioned David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his plot to cover up her consequent pregnancy, which included murdering her husband, Uriah. The Bible never minimizes those sins; but it does show us that there was hope for David’s return. You find it in Psalm 51, a psalm of repentance, which begins,
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Do you see what he’s doing? He’s saying, “God, I know that my love for you has perilously decayed. I know my devotion to you ebbs and flows. But I repent of my sin and I plead for your mercy and grace, not on the basis of my worthiness—not on the basis of my love for you—but on the basis of your love for me—your unfailing love.”
And that brings us to the second answer to that question, How can you recover from spiritual decay? You must begin to fight the disease where it began—in the solitude and seclusion of your own heart. You must begin where the neglect began. You must begin where Paul urges us to begin when he repeats that vital imperative in verses 11 and 13:
Put on the full armor of God
What does the armor represent? Do you remember what I told you in our earlier studies? It represents all the benefits and privileges of the gospel. When you become a Christian, you receive all kinds of good things from God. Paul has listed several of them for us in the first chapter of this letter.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Notice, he says that these blessings are already ours. He has blessed us. And notice too that he tells us that we lack nothing. We have every spiritual blessing in Christ. And then he goes on to list several of them: adoption into the family of God for a start. We are given all the rights and privileges of God’s own children! Then he mentions redemption. That’s a word that would have reminded his original readers of the slave auctions in the marketplace. He’s telling us that, when we had degraded ourselves by making ourselves slaves to sin, God bought us back—and at no small price either. It cost him the life of his Son, Jesus Christ. “We have redemption through his blood,” he says, “the forgiveness of sins.”
And Paul goes on, in that first chapter, to list other blessings; but the point is that, if you’re a Christian, in the gospel you have everything you need in order to face the battles of life. Nevertheless, you must put those benefits and privileges and resources to use, if you are going to face those battles successfully. Use what you’ve been given; that’s what he’s telling us here when he tells us to put on the whole armor of God. That’s the way to recover from your spiritual decay.
If you’ve neglected prayer and God’s Word, then you need to put on the belt of truth again. Read the Bible with greater diligence and examine your heart and life in light of its teaching. Pour out your heart to God, asking him to incline your heart to him and his Word. Open your heart to every lesson that the Word of God has to teach you. Come to him again and say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
If your love for God has become grotesquely mutated into an egotistic self-centeredness, then you need to put on the breastplate of righteousness again. You need to remember that a Christian is not someone who is accepted by God on the basis of his or her own love for God. No; a Christian is someone who stands before the bar of divine justice dressed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and has been pronounced “Not guilty,” because “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
If your joy has been swamped by a quagmire of self-condemnation, you need to have your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace—the gospel that assures you that, “…since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ….”
Have you recognized this morning just how indifferent your heart has become towards God? Do you want your love for him to be restored? Do you ant to enjoy the sweetness of communion with him again? Well, let me assure you that Jesus welcomes repentant believers. In fact, it was to just such a congregation of lukewarm believers in Laodicea that he said,
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
Will you open the door of your heart to him again?
 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (Collier: New York, 1961), 41-44.
 Ibid., xiii.
 Ibid., xiv.
 Ephesians 1:10
 1 Samuel 24:5-6
 Language taken from the Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards recording the experience of Mrs. Edwards in Hickman, v. 1, lxiii.
 Doddridge, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, (Baker: Grand Rapids, 1977), 194.
 Psalm 27:8
 Matthew 13:22
 Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit and three other plays, (Vintage International: New York, 1989), 45.
 Ephesians 1:3
 Ephesians 1:7
 Psalm 139:23-24
 2 Corinthians 5:21
 Revelation 3:19-20