The Spiritual Conflict of the Age
Fr Gregory CSWG
Most people are aware of the world being in a state of conflict, and recent acts of terrorism have heightened this awareness. As Scripture puts it, we see ‘men fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world’ (Luke 21.26). People are also aware of conflicting thoughts and feelings within themselves. Which comes first? Is it a world situation which gets under my skin so as to upset me; or, is it my inner conflict which is written large in the world?
For Christian believers who look to God for insight into such ultimate questions there is much to be learnt about this conflict from the Bible and the spiritual masters of the Church. The source of this conflict is neither in the world, nor in the individual, though both become the arena in which the conflict is experienced and expressed. Rather, it is in the spiritual realm, and it has gained entrance into this world through human sin. Likewise, the final resolution of the conflict is from God, through the incarnation of the Son of God, who suffers in his own flesh all the consequences of this conflict, so that the rest of us might be set free from being dominated by it.
The Book of Revelation goes to the spiritual heart of the matter where it tells us of war in heaven: ‘Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.’ Significantly, Michael and his host ‘conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’ The fruit of their victory is eternal rejoicing in heaven; ‘but woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short’ (Revelation 12.11–12). Indeed, his time is short because, through the saving mercy of God and the faithfulness of his saints, the kingdom of God is now established on earth as well as in heaven. The imagery of Revelation is vivid, and we must hold back from superficial interpretations. We need to wait upon God so as to share in the prophetic tradition of the Church in which the Book of Revelation is fundamental. Nevertheless, there is enough here to warn us against reducing the spiritual conflict to merely psychological, political, or economic categories, though it will project itself into these and other areas of human life.
We need what Genesis has to say about the creation and fall of man, and the New Testament about redemption, in order to arrive at an understanding of how we continue to be caught up into the spiritual conflict in our own day and personal situations, as well as how we are called to enter into Christ’s overcoming of this conflict. Genesis tells us how Satan sowed seeds of doubt in Eve and back onto Adam, so as to damage their faith relationship with God and with one another. God commanded that they should not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil lest they should die. Clearly, this commandment did not imply that they should reject such knowledge as would be required to further their God-given task of filling the earth and having dominion over the other creatures. Rather, it meant that in every quest for knowledge they should remain dependant upon him so as to grow at the same time in their understanding of the purpose of their existence in the world. To set up their own standards of what would be good or evil for themselves, in relation to the other creatures and to the God-given circumstances of their life in time, would cut them off from God the source of their life, and would result in the final death of separation from him.
The nature of this sin into which the whole human family has subsequently fallen becomes more apparent, and its effects more acute, with the development of modern science and the techniques of life which derive from it. Man has been endowed by God with the capacity to explore the nature of created things and their relationship to one another; and things do work according to their nature. Science is a God-given possibility, rightly to be explored; but always with the open heart of faith, which looks humbly to the author of creation to perceive his purpose for it; and likewise to discern the purposes for which particular things, including modern technical equipment, might be used to reveal and show forth the holiness and glory of the Creator.
The Heart of the Matter
And here we come to the heart of the spiritual conflict as experienced in daily life. God is holy: though in his being he utterly transcends the nature of all his creatures, yet he is entirely present within them, sustaining their existence and directing their purpose. Furthermore he has willed that all of creation should remain transparent to his holiness, in such a way that it shines forth as the primal revelation of his divine nature to his spiritual creatures, men and angels (cf. Romans 1.18–23).
In this context – this vision of the holy glory of the Creator shining forth upon his creatures to enlighten the hearts of those who turn to him in faith — we can perceive also the deadly seriousness of the sin of Adam and Eve, and can trace the transmission of that sin through the successive cultures of world history to our own time. St Paul pounces upon this sin in order to expose it where he says, ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them … claiming to be wise, they become fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles’ (Romans 1.18–19, 22–23).
The temptation suggested by Satan remains the same. He wants to maintain the succession of time, cut off from God’s eternity by the sin of man’s unbelief, so as to feed upon the disordered passions of the dead and dying. Christ has come to draw mankind back into his royal priesthood, for offering creation to God by, with, and in his own sacrifice of perfect obedience to the Father. Therefore, when Christ comes again, there will be no hiding place for the tempter, and he and his crew will be banished to the place of the second death.
Meanwhile, the conflict between Satan, the liar and accuser, and the Spirit of truth and forgiveness, must continue until all things have bee put under Christ’s feet. Why does it take so long to resolve this conflict when we are assured that by his saving death and resurrection Christ has sent forth the Holy Spirit from the Father to ‘convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged’ (John 16.8–11)?
The test of freedom
It seems to me that God is testing human freedom, so that we might grow up ‘to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may be no longer children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine’ (Ephesians 4.13–14). The original temptation is being re-presented in new and more subtle guises. In St Paul’s day a significant minority were eager to be set free by the gospel from attributing the powers of nature to ‘images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles’.
In recent centuries, however, those same powers of nature, now more rationally understood, have regained a solidarity, independent from their Creator, in the concepts and mathematical formulae of modern science. Here we have a new form of idolatry, creating a world order which is magical rather than God-dependent, in which man proposes his own future in denial of the revealed purposes of God. Compared with the old paganism it appears to be more secure, because of its rational structure and its capacity to produce the goods which most people want for life in this world. However, since our God is truly the all-ruling Creator and a consuming fire to expose and purify all that deforms his creation, we should expect to see apparent signs of inner dissolution within a world which chooses to ignore his purposes and ascribes power and glory to what is not God.
Forces of self-destruction are bound to emerge — including the ‘wars and rumours of wars’ predicted in the Gospel – because of the tensions which are generated within the order of creation and human life by the spiritual conflict. How many people complain of stress! And much of our contemporary culture is directed towards relieving stress:
anything from flopping before the television, to substance abuse, and the violence of terrorism; not to mention obsessive nibbling, driving too fast (sorry, Lord, for the three points on my licence), and you name it.
A sense of dependency
God’s way of relieving this tension is that we should deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow Christ in his return to the Father. Disorder within the life of the Church is inevitable wherever the Gospel is not being set clearly before the people of God as a way of repentance so as to live by the grace of his kingdom. The peace of Christ is to be secured in the Church for the sake of the world by standing with him where he has overcome the conflict, and banished Satan and death, in his holy Cross. Alas, the liberal agenda, as with all deviant religion, is proposing ways of relieving the stress of the spiritual conflict without passing through the death and resurrection of Christ. And St Paul himself spares none of us when he names the various passions which can take root in the human heart when anyone tries to manage his own life apart from Christ. He wants us to accept in humility that God in his wisdom has consigned all to disobedience, so that we might repent and realize our absolute dependence upon his saving mercy (cf Romans 1.26–27; 11.32–33).
Granted then that we have perceived something of the spiritual conflict around us, and our need to respond faithfully to God as he is faithful to us, what can we do so as to co-operate more fully with the Holy Spirit? The angel of Revelation puts the matter neatly where he proclaims, ‘Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment is come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water’ (Rev. 14.7).
Have you heard a sermon recently or even a retreat address on the frequently occurring text of Scripture, ‘The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’? Probably not; and the explanation for this omission is likely to be that what should be a normal perception of the holiness of God present in the things that he has made – of which things our own body is the nearest to us – has from the point of view of the prince of this world now been successfully obscured. We live within a culture which purports to explain and manage every detail of life from conception to crematorium without any reference to God whatever. It happened gradually without hardly anyone seeming to notice, because it seemed reasonable, more manageable, and in the short term even more comfortable to look at life in that way. But it is nevertheless a real suppression of the truth which St Paul calls ‘ungodliness and wickedness’; and it has had the tragic effect of cutting people off from the immediate perception of the holiness of God, and from the sacramental or revelatory nature of all existing things.
What then should be done about it? We need to start with repentance, aiming at a radical change in our mentality about life, and the presence and power of Christ within every aspect of life. It is of course important to work at setting up a basic structure of Divine Office, morning and evening, as well as frequent Mass and regular Confession. However, these basic elements of Christian life, which feed mind and body with the word of God and the sacraments, cannot be fully effective apart from the precept, ‘Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Colossians 3.17). For the command of the Lord to ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ needs to be carried forward in the prayer of the name of Jesus. It can be used either in the well-known form of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, take pity on me a sinner’, or more briefly as in ‘Jesus, mercy’, or just the ongoing breathing of the holy Name itself. This prayer continues the saving presence and power of Christ which is revealed communally in the Mass.
This discipline of repeated prayer draws anyone who perseveres in it into that fundamental realization of God present in all of life, overcoming the original sin of Adam and Eve by revealing what is good and acceptable in his sight. This repentance, or renewal in the spirit of the mind, to which we are called aims to unite our whole being with Christ in the sacrifice of his death and resurrection. Again, as St Paul puts it:
‘I appeal to you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual (rational) worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12.1–2)
With this disposition every part of life can be restored to God, and life as a whole can become an on-going offering to be harvested for his kingdom. How important it is then, in spite of the hindrances, to restore the communal and family life of the Church: corporate Offices, family prayers, meals taken together with thanksgiving to restore the close connection of the family table and the altar in church as complementary means of grace.
The final remedy for stress is to discover how the Holy Spirit enables us to rest in the will of God, to do our work in his name so as to accomplish his purposes, and at the close of the day to surrender ourselves into the Father’s care, as though we were about to breathe our last and to awake in the glorious peace of the resurrection.
What more should one say to anyone who perceives the reality of the spiritual conflict of the age? The will of God is peace, not conflict; and we need to re-unite ourselves constantly with Christ who has already won our peace. Nevertheless, we do have to pass through this spiritual conflict, and to do that we shall need to reduce the use of the media to a minimum and increase prayer and hearing of the word of God to a maximum. We shall need the guidance of others who have passed that way, and to realize the support of the saints in heaven and on earth, and especially the motherly care of the all-pure and blessed Virgin Mary, who points us always to her Son and the hearing of his word. In our worship we aim to share in the perfect unity of the holy angels and to join in the reverence of their thrice-holy song.
Truly, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; for it is through the presumption of man riding forth as the first horseman of the Apocalypse, ‘conquering and to conquer’ which causes war, famine, death and Hades to follow. The servants of God have been sealed with the sign of the cross that they might remain reverent in the awesome presence of his love, and share in the sufferings of their time without falling away.
That is why we must keep the faith of Jesus, while persevering in the work of repentance and prayer, for ‘there remains a Sabbath rest for the children of God; for whoever enters God’s rest ceases from his labours as God did from his’ (Hebrews 4.9).
Father Gregory CSWG is Superior of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God, Crawley Down.
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