COLOSSIANS #17: THE PROBLEM OF RELIGION.

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This is the sort of thing that gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into the “religion” trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we do this, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. We’re just trying to use God to get what we want. This is not the way of Christ.

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Colossians #17  Colossians 2:8-10

Be warned: don’t be carried away through philosophy, or empty lies, along with traditions that come only from human beings. These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ. In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.(Colossians 2:8-10 my translation/paraphrase)

There are all sorts of different philosophies and lies and human traditions that might lead us away from Jesus. I have mentioned two of them before. One is the lie that Jesus is just one of many ways. “You can’t be so exclusive,” say those who advocate this. “Jesus may very well work for you, but how can you expect everyone in the world to believe in what is after all, a religion of Western culture? People in other parts of the world are very different from us, and we need to accept that Jesus just might not ‘work’ for those people.”

This attitude, though it sounds enlightened, is actually very ignorant. Though Western culture was shaped by Christianity, the Christian faith was not produced by Western culture. In fact, today, most Christians in the world do not live in Western countries anymore. There are more Christians outside the United States and Europe than in. Christianity “works” in Nepal, New Guinea, Malaysia and Madagascar. People follow Jesus in the huge cities of Asia and the savannas of Africa and the mountains of South America. South Korea sends missionaries around the world, as does Brazil and even Bermuda. To say that Jesus “doesn’t work” for other cultures is to ignore the fact that there are Christians from virtually every culture and country in the world.

Another big lie we recently considered is that human sexuality is all about our own personal preferences, and God doesn’t care about it. But God gives the commands about sexuality to protect us, and allow us to thrive. The thought that these commands are “outdated” is the lie that is currently destroying Western culture. When sex is disconnected from loving marriages, the result is millions of children who are either not really wanted, or who are raised in chaotic, unstable homes, and they become profoundly damaged emotionally (and sometimes physically). The backbone of any stable civilization is the family, and our current attitudes toward sex are destroying it. In addition, women become more vulnerable, and more likely to be seen as sex-objects than people. We also damage our own emotional wellbeing when we have multiple casual sex partners.

But we have considered those before. I want to add another lie that has sometimes tempted me. I am an intellectual person, and I have great respect for modern science. But some scientists (certainly not all) have little or no respect for Christianity, and they claim that you cannot believe both the Bible and modern science.

This is a lie. It is not a choice between the two. God speaks most clearly through the Bible, and nothing he says or does will contradict that. Everything we need to know for spiritual life and truth is in the Bible. And contrary to the popular belief, there is nothing in the Bible that contradicts science. God also uses even those who are not believers to accomplish his purposes and reveal some of his more “general” truth.

For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about electricity. We don’t need to know about it for the healing and salvation of our souls. People lived without using electricity for thousands of years. But the Bible does tell us that God made everything there is. Therefore, we know that God made electricity, and it is not wrong to find out about how it works, and how to use it. God has given some people the ability to that, for the benefit of all people. The truths about electricity are God’s truths (since he created it) but we don’t need the Bible to discover them. On the other hand, we don’t need to know anything about electricity to be saved by Jesus Christ.

Modern science was made possible only by the worldview of Christianity, which taught people to believe that the world was orderly, and that human thinking is rational and can be used to discover the world around us. It is no random occurrence that modern science arose from the only culture that was shaped by a Christian worldview.

In addition to the lies of those who are not religious, it seems like Paul might be warning particularly about people who are insisting on certain kinds of religious practices. He talks about external circumcision (a religious practice of the Jews) as opposed to “circumcision of the heart.” He talks about “the written code, which was against us.” And he concludes in verse 16:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17, ESV)

We will cover all of that later on, but for now, we should understand that it possible to be led astray even by people who call themselves religious. Elsewhere, Jesus warns us about “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” (Matt 5:17) and Paul says to Timothy:

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth.(1 Timothy 4:1-3, NLT)

Timothy was in Ephesus at the time Paul wrote that, and Ephesus was relatively close to Colossae, the place to which this letter is addressed. So I think now Paul is talking about not only lies of an ungodly culture, but also lies that come from those who claim to be Christians.

I want us to pay close attention to something from verse 8:

These are according to the basic principles of the world, but they are not the way of Christ.

There is a gigantic difference between “the basic principles of the world” and “the way of Christ.” The Greek phrase “basic principles” was used in ancient Greece in three related ways. One meaning is that of “elemental spiritual forces.” This would refer to pagan religious practices and or demonic forces. Another way is it used to mean the elements of which the earth is made. A third way in which this phrase is used to describe a sequence of events. In this last meaning it would be something like this idea: “If you do A, you will get B.”

I think Paul intends two parts of the meaning here: both the idea of demonic spiritual forces, and also the idea that the way to practice religion is to: “Do A, so that God must give you B.” He uses the same Greek word in verse 20:

20 If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: 21 “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? 22 All these regulations refer to what is destined to perish by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines. (Colossians 2:20-22, CSB)

There (in verse 20) the “elements of this world” lead people to say “Do this, and don’t do that, in order get what you are after.” In verse 8, he calls this “human traditions” and in verse 20 he calls them “regulations,” and, “human commands and doctrines.”

So, I think what he is saying is this: “Be careful not to be deceived by religious traditions, and religious talk that sounds good, but is not the way of Christ.’ What sorts of things is Paul talking about? Remember that phrase “elemental principles” or “elements of this world” refers to the idea that if you do A, you get B. Now, this is a powerful lie because it has elements of the truth. If you get drunk at night, you’ll most likely have a headache in the morning. If you treat people badly all the time, most likely those people won’t help you when you need it. If you spend more than you make, you will end up in financial trouble. So, in some instances, it is true that if you do A, you will get B.

But Paul is talking about this idea being used to more or less manipulate God into blessing you. For example, many people think that if you live a good life, then God has to bless you. Many religious people – people who claim to be Christians – say this.

Another example of this idea is that if you pray hard enough, or you pray in exactly the correct way, God must answer your request more or less exactly as you presented it. People who fall into this sort of deception treat the Bible as if it is some sort of legal document that we can use to argue our case in a spiritual court to force God to keep up what we think of as his end of the bargain. Or, some folks think it is some sort of code that must be unlocked; if we can just figure out the right way to do things we can manipulate God into doing what we want. In other words: if we do A, then God must do B.

This is the sort of thing gives religion, and religious people a bad name. When we fall into this trap, we treat religion as a system that we manipulate in order to get what we want. When we treat religion this way, we get very rigid and judgmental, because ultimately, religion become selfish and self-centered. It ceases to be about loving God and loving our neighbor, and becomes a means to achieve our goals, rather than God’s. Though many would not consciously say it, those who operate this way are not God’s people, put on this earth for His purposes; instead they become servants of our own desires, and God/religion is just a way for them to achieve those desires. One of the reasons this is so dangerous is because on the surface, we can look like good, religious people. We can do and say mostly the right things. But we are doing things the way of the world; we are trying to get what we want in the time and in the way we want it.

But Paul says this thinking is the way the world operates. We humans want to control our own destiny, and often our religious efforts are just one way that we use to try and control our own lives. Paul says this is not the way of Christ. What is the way of Christ? Paul tells us:

In Christ dwells all the fullness of God in a human body, and in the same way you have been made full of Christ, who is the head over all rulers and authorities.

Christ is the fulness of God in a human body; and we have the fulness of  Christ in us. Therefore, in Christ, we already have everything we need. We don’t need to manipulate. It is pointless to do A in order to get B, because we already have all the “B” we need. It has been freely given to us in Christ.

Paul is going to return to this theme again and again in Colossians. He’s already said that we are holy and blameless in Christ. Now, he says we are filled with Christ, just like Christ is filled with God. That’s a huge statement. I think a lot of the time, it is very difficult for us to believe. I understand the problem, of course. The problem is that we don’t feel like we are filled with the fulness of Christ. We don’t feel like we have everything we need.

This feeling arises, I think, from three things. In the first place, we don’t always recognize that our feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. Feelings do always correspond to truth. You can feel worried when there is absolutely nothing to worry about. You can feel fearful when you are perfectly safe. You can feel a very deep desire for things that will ultimately be bad for you, and hurt you. You can feel like Christ is absent when in fact, the scripture right here says he is filling you.

A second problem is that we often don’t truly know the difference between what we need and what we want. I think human nature has a way of accumulating habits and little luxuries, and becoming so used to them that we think of them as needs, rather than what they really are, which is strong preferences or very useful conveniences. Even when something is useful, that doesn’t automatically make it a need. For instance, a microwave is very useful and convenient. Many people might think of it as a basic need, but I didn’t actually have the regular use of a microwave until I was almost thirty years old, and I didn’t die. I didn’t even suffer. If you can live without it, it isn’t actually a need.

The same thing is true with spiritual and emotional things. We aren’t good at distinguishing our needs from our wants, so we think we don’t have what we need from Jesus, when the truth is, as long as we have Jesus, we can get along without many of the things that we want, the things that comfort us.

I have found both fasting, and my experience of intense chronic pain, to helpful in distinguishing between wants and needs. When we abstain from food for the sake of prayer, we are learning in a very concrete way that we need Jesus more than we need anything else, even more than food (or whatever you may be fasting from). Suffering teaches us the same sorts of things. When you suffer, you realize that you can actually get along in conditions that you might have previously thought intolerable. And when you realize that, you recognize that we don’t actually need many of the things we thought we did. Suffering clarifies things for us. It sharpens our need for Jesus above all else.

The third issue is this: we are complete, without need in Jesus…in our spirits. This “being filled with the fulness of Christ” is a spiritual reality. But our flesh is not in sync with our spirit. Imagine you are driving in your car, listening to the radio. The station that you want to hear is broadcasting. Every bit of the music and talk that the station is producing is crystal clear, and is available to anyone who wants to tune in. But your radio doesn’t work right. The music and talk sort of comes and goes, and gets fuzzy and blurred with static. It’s not the problem of the people putting on the radio program. It’s not even a problem with the radio station. The problem is with your particular radio receiver. The program is totally available, but you can’t always get it loud and clear.

That’s how we are spiritually. We are filled with the fulness of Christ in spirit. But our flesh is like that faulty car radio. Even though the whole program is available to us, we can’t always tune in, and sometimes, things seem a little fuzzy and full of static, and we don’t get it loud and clear.

Unfortunately, this will be at least partially true until we die. When Jesus gives us our new resurrected bodies, they will be totally in sync with spiritual reality. But for now, we can do some things to help us tune in, to help us live in the reality that all the fulness of Christ has been given to us. There’s nothing new here: pray, read your Bible and “do life” with other Christians. I know I keep saying those things over and over. I’ll keep on saying them until I’m convinced that everyone who reads these message is doing these things on a regular basis.

When Spiritual things are not loud and clear, we can still trust that they are there, and God is delivering us grace and life, even when we can’t hear it well. We don’t need to control things by doing certain rituals, or saying certain things in exactly the right way. In Christ, we already have all that we need. Let us trust it to be true, and begin by thanking him for it.

  • What are some of the lies you are tempted to believe? What reminds you of the truth?
  • What are some ways that you are tempted to “manipulate God” into giving you what you want?
  • How can we live in the fulness of what we have in Christ? What does this even look like?

REVELATION #27. THE BATTLE FOR OUR MINDS. (12:7-13)

Battle for the mind

Whether we choose to believe it or not, we Christians are in the middle of a spiritual war. Often, following Jesus is hard, and the reason we find it so is because we have enemies in the spiritual realm. They will attack whether we believe in them or not. The primary weapon used against us is lies. Often we think these lies are our own thoughts. We need to be aware of this, and learn how to fight those lies with the truth of scripture.

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 Revelation #27. Revelation 12:13-17

I want to reiterate something I’ve said before: I approach this book with a great deal of humility. I don’t think that I have the one true understanding of Revelation. But for each message, I study the scripture carefully, without regard to what others have said about it. I pray and ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say through the scripture this time. After I have heard, I do check my interpretations against those of others. So, my main goal with each message is to hear what the Spirit wants to say in this moment. There may be many points in a text that we pass by to focus on the main thing I’m hearing for this particular time. If we come back to the text another time, we might find a different aspect to focus on. This is why we call the Bible “living and active.” The Spirit can reveal many different shades of meaning from one text, though, if the meanings are legitimate, they won’t contradict each other.

Last time, John presented us with crucial information about the spiritual war: Satan has already been defeated. He is like Hitler, fighting on from late 1944 until May 1945. No one could possibly deny by November of 1944 that Germany was going to lose the war. Even the Battle of the Bulge, which cost so many lives, and set back the Allied victory by a few months, never stood a chance of actually stopping the Allies. So it is with Satan. He can still wreak havoc in the lives of individual human beings, but he has already lost the war.

With that firmly in mind, the next few chunks of Revelation describe the spiritual war as it is before it is finally over. I think one of the purposes of it is to warn Christians. We need not fear the final outcome, but we can, and should be, aware of the schemes of the devil, which can still cost us dearly before the end finally comes.

I think that verses 13-14 are talking about exactly the same thing as verse 6.

Verse 6: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.”

Verses 13-14: But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”

John is going back, and repeating what happened earlier in the passage. “A time, times, and half a time,” is the same as 3 ½ (years) or 1,260 days. Once more, this is a reminder that there are periods in the battle with the devil when the church is protected and nourished in complete dependence upon God.

There are some interpreters who believe that the woman is not the church, but God’s people Israel. In this interpretation, the “1,260 days” might represent the time of their exile from the Holy Land. Or, perhaps it means a time when they will be kept apart, after which, they will convert to Jesus in large numbers. This interpretation may be correct; I want to remain humble about my own understanding of Revelation. However, this interpretation does not leave us with much help for following Jesus in our ordinary lives. It seems much more helpful to consider that there are times when God seems to set people “in the wilderness” where all we can depend upon is him alone. That might happen when you move, and you don’t know anyone around you. It could occur if you lose a special relationship with someone. It might happen through financial hardship, or health issues. In that “wilderness-place” God takes care of us, if we depend completely upon Him. The time frame reminds us that it will not last forever. Of course, we should always depend completely on God, but the wilderness seems to indicate that there is some hardship or difficulty during this period.

While the woman is taken to the wilderness, the dragon spewed water out of his mouth, hoping to destroy her. I believe that this represents, in general, what we call “spiritual warfare;” that is, the schemes of the devil and his demons to destroy Christians. I want to spend the rest of our time on that subject.

Many people think the idea of spiritual warfare is kind of weird, and that maybe we can be Christians without “getting into all that.” But consider this: Prior to September 11, 2001, very few people had heard of an organization called Al Qaeda. Millions of Americans went through their daily lives, vaguely aware that America was somewhat unpopular in places like the Middle East, but not terribly concerned about it. All that changed – at least for a while – on that fateful September morning in 2001. The terrorist hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center and parts of the Pentagon, the loss of almost 3,000 lives all woke us up to the fact that whether or not we believed it, we were at war. “9/11” jarred us loose from our daily patterns. We suddenly realized that though we hadn’t taken the Islamic radical threats seriously, they certainly meant them seriously.

Before 9/11, I think most Americans felt pretty much invulnerable. In the weeks and months following it, we felt anything but that. Belatedly, we became aware that we had enemies – enemies who were dedicated, implacable and had the ability to do us great harm.

Sometimes I think that we Christians are dangerously complacent about the fact that we have enemies: deadly implacable enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy us. We go around, vaguely aware that there is something in the Bible about the devil and demons, but it doesn’t have much relevance to our daily lives. Unfortunately, striking unfairly and without warning, the spiritual terrorist network often takes out unsuspecting, complacent folks who might otherwise have faithfully served and followed Jesus. Even if we don’t take the threat seriously, the devil and his demons are serious about getting to us.

The fact is, the Bible (mostly the New Testament) refers to, teaches on, or mentions that we are in a spiritual war over 110 times. The Bible mentions demons or refers to demonic possession almost 100 times. The devil is mentioned 33 times. The name Satan is mentioned 54 times. Now, obviously there is some overlap among some of these verses, but even so the point is clear: Spiritual Warfare is in fact a major theme in scripture. It starts in Genesis 3:15, when God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between your offspring and hers…”. It doesn’t end until Revelation chapter 20 when the Devil and all his angels (demons) are thrown into the lake of fire – and that time has not yet come in history.

If we choose to be followers of Jesus, then we have entered a spiritual combat zone. Our enemies don’t care whether or not we believe it – but we are in a battle. They strike without warning, and if we are unprepared, great damage can be done. But now, pay attention – we can do great damage to them if we are aware and make use of the tools God has given us.

Consider what the Bible has to say about this: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We are urged to participate in that war: We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a Jesus-follower because…it’s just hard. But why is it hard? There is a definite reason: Because we have enemies who make it hard for us. These enemies are not flesh and blood. Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (Ephesians 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of demons. Satan and all his demons are our enemies. At times they use other people, but we ought to keep in mind that those people are usually used unwittingly. The real enemy is the devil and his cohorts.

Two questions seem important to address: (1) How does the enemy wage war against us? How do we know when we are being attacked? And (2) How do we wage war against the enemy?

I don’t have time or space to lay out all of the different possible ways you can be attacked by the devil and his ilk. But here is the most common one:

The devil most often attacks us through lies. I believe this is why John pictures it as something spewed out of the mouth of the dragon. And the place where these lies take hold is in our thoughts. Demons have a way of planting thoughts in our heads, and then trying to get us to agree with them. They might do this through the insensitive words of others. Or, You might hear: “Tom, you are so stupid! What basis do you have for thinking you can help these people?” (but only if your name is Tom…). Or you might hear, “look at that hot babe! (or, guy!) You want her (or him)!” The devil wants you to agree with these kinds of thoughts. The minute you do, he’ll condemn you for it, and use it to beat you up all day long. Often we think it is us talking to ourselves, because the devil wants to trick us into thinking we have sinned before we actually have. He is, after all, “the accuser of the believers” (Revelation 12:10).

The point is that our sinful flesh (or a demon) is saying something that is not true, something that God does not say. The moment we accept that thought and agree with it, we have given the devil a foothold from which he can abuse us. He can use it to bring about scandal, problems in your relationships, to make you feel worthless and to paralyze you from really being a disciple. We may have a weakness in certain areas because of our backgrounds and experiences. The enemy will exploit that if he can!

To refute these attacks, we must learn to recognize the difference between God’s voice and every other voice. The scripture says God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31-34). These same verses (and others) also tell us that, because of Jesus, God does not condemn us. We know also that God does not sin. So, if a thought condemns us, separates us from God, results in something clearly negative, or leads us into sin, we know it is not the voice of God. The best way for us to tell the difference between God’s voice and every other voice is to read the Bible regularly.

Now, it is true that the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin as he needs to (John 16:8). But when the Lord convicts us, it doesn’t condemn us — it motivates us to take action. When the Holy Spirit brings conviction, you find you want to repent, to make things right. It’s a good clean feeling, even if not completely pleasant – like a dip in a mountain stream that is really too cold – but also is beautiful and refreshing. On the other hand, when the enemy tries to tempt you with false condemnation, you will feel condemned, guilty and completely unmotivated. You will simply want to wallow helplessly in the guilt. That is not the voice of God. Once we recognize that the thought is not from God,

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

You might simply pray something like this:

Jesus be with me as I battle the enemy. In the name of Jesus, I come against that (the thought or idea). I reject it utterly and refuse to believe it. I take the thought captive and demolish it, in the name of Jesus.

It helps at this point if you know scripture well enough to bring to mind a verse or passage in the Bible that will directly contradict the attack in your mind.

But do we have the power to just throw Satan (or a demon) out like that? Yes! We covered it last time. Here are some other scriptures:

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20)

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

What all this means is that the devil has already been defeated. His fate is sealed. We don’t have to be afraid – we can defeat the evil one, because the Holy Spirit is in us, and he has already done it (Colossians 2:15). We talked about that extensively last week. The outcome of this spiritual battle has already been decided, and disciples of Jesus Christ are on the winning side. But the fighting isn’t over yet. We are still in the battle, and we need to keep our weapons loaded and ourselves alert.

In the 1970’s, the United States withdrew from Vietnam in disgrace. Vietnam is known as the only war which our country has ever lost. The interesting thing about Vietnam is that the war would never have been lost on military grounds. Our military at the time was far superior to anything the North Vietnamese could muster against us. And so the North Vietnamese used terrorist-style tactics, hit-and-run attacks and guerilla warfare. But our military, hampered by political considerations and public opinion, conducted very few major campaigns and did very little to make use of our tremendous advantages in equipment, resources and firepower. The reason we lost the war is because our country did not have the political will to commit to winning the war. The country didn’t really believe in the war, and so, naturally, we were defeated.

Too many Christians don’t really believe in this spiritual war. We don’t understand, we aren’t committed, and so the cost of fighting doesn’t seem worth it. We may feel sort of silly, or like it takes too much energy to do battle in our minds like that. Or, like the war on terror, we don’t recognize that many of the things we experience regularly are a war. As disciples, we must recognize that we are still fighting a war, and though the outcome isn’t in doubt, the enemy will still take out as many individuals as he can.

Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is helpful, as we consider how to conduct ourselves in this spiritual war:

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:15-21 (ESV)

We need to be wise about spiritual warfare, “because the days are evil.” We need to understand God’s will – we need to know what the Bible says, so we can refute the competing messages we are getting every day. We should avoid dulling our senses, or coping, by abusing substances. We should, whenever possible, not give the devil any foothold through sin. We need each other in this battle: fellow Christians can encourage each other, and speak the words of scripture to one another. Finally, praise and thanksgiving are powerful weapons against the devil and his demons. Truly giving thanks to God helps us take hold of his promises, and causes Satan to flee.