Spiritual Conflict

I just finished up an assignment for a seminary course that had the class examine the topic of spiritual conflict in Mark’s Gospel. This, combined with a recent conversation with a friend whose nephew is struggling with what sounds like a legitimate dark spiritual force, has caused me to think more than usual about spiritual conflict. Is spiritual conflict real? How should we handle spiritual conflict if and when it presents itself? How—if at all—can it contribute to our encouragement and growth as disciples of the Lord Jesus?

Looking to Mark’s Gospel, we see that Jesus is no stranger to spiritual conflict. Early in his ministry, Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). Jesus responds by silencing the spirit and commanding it to come out of the man.

In Mark 3, Jesus speaks of Satan himself, responding to accusations that he is possessed by a demon and saying, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:23-24), thus highlighting his opposition to Satan. Jesus’ words also illustrate the broader conflict between two spiritual kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.

In another account from Mark 9, we observe Jesus’ disciples being unable to cast a demon out of a tormented boy. Upon hearing the news, Jesus laments the faithlessness of the present generation and has a fascinating exchange with the boy’s father: And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood… But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24) Spiritual conflict in Mark’s Gospel also expands beyond Jesus’ experiences with Satan, demons and unclean spirits. He came up against the hard-heartedness of the scribes and Pharisees. He regularly battled people’s unbelief. He even navigated the conflict between all of rebellious, sinful humanity and God himself.

What do these experiences of spiritual conflict teach us about the Christian life? How can we grow through them?

First, Mark’s gospel affirms for us that spiritual conflict is very real. Satan and his minions are real, spiritual forces that interact with the created world. While there is a danger in overemphasizing the presence and activity of demons, there is an equal danger in ignoring or downplaying their presence.

Second, as followers of Jesus, we too can exercise spiritual authority against dark spiritual forces. This doesn’t mean that we should go looking to pick spiritual fights; Satan and demons are not to be trifled with. However, if presented with a situation where spiritual conflict arises, Christians have the ability to exercise authority in Jesus’ name. This power comes not by our own strength, but by the presence and power of Christ in us.

This leads to an all-important third application: namely, faith is an essential aspect to overcoming spiritual conflict. Faith is the confession of our own inability and, conversely, the declaration of trust in Christ and his power to save and set free. Moreover, faith unites us to Jesus, his merits and his power over dark spiritual forces. In a helpful commentary on Mark 9:14-29, where the disciples are unable to cast out a demon, Donald English notes, “The emphasis then is not on the quality of our faith but on the power of the Master with whom we are joined by faith”. We might even say that spiritual conflict confirms our need to reaffirm our faith in Christ.

This leads to a final takeaway from the spiritual conflict we observe in Mark’s Gospel: that is, Jesus Christ is the supreme victor in the contest of spiritual conflict. This doesn’t mean that Jesus or his followers are exempt from struggles and suffering. These accounts of Jesus overcoming spiritual powers and darkness are all part of Mark’s character sketch of Jesus as the suffering Messiah. In fact, Christ wins the ultimate victory by his death on the cross. Just when it looked as though spiritual darkness had gained the upper hand, Jesus erupted from the grave in glorious victory. He has overcome the darkness, even the darkness in every one of us. What a wonderful encouragement this is, especially as we face various types of spiritual conflict in our lives today.

By Chris Drombetta

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