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I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about spiritual warfare. It’s not that I don’t believe that spiritual warfare is real, I most definitely do. The Bible is full of references to angels and demons, to our “adversary the devil [who] prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8), and to the spiritual forces of evil that are waging an invisible battle for the Kingdom and for our souls. I acknowledge the existence of these forces without giving them much brain space in the same way that I know the cells and organs of my body are constantly at work despite my infrequent mental check-ins.

A few weeks ago it became more difficult to politely ignore the realities of spiritual warfare when the subject began making repeated appearances. The pastor and worship leader at our summer family camp both referenced ongoing spiritual warfare in back-to-back church sessions. My Bible reading plan had me digging into the life of Jesus and his numerous instances of casting out demons. Spiritual warfare came up in two separate books I was reading, it was discussed in a handful of podcasts, it was the subject of a sermon at church, and later that week it was the topic of discussion in our community group.

It was our community group discussion that really drove the subject home. Our leader, Josh, began the evening with a story from the book of Judges in which God winnowed Gideon’s army of 22,000 Israelite soldiers down to a contingent of just 300 men who would wage battle against the Midianites. The process of selecting the final 300, as described in Judges 7:5-7, was unconventional:

“So he brought his [10,000] soldiers down to the water, and the Lord told Gideon, ‘You are to cull out everyone who laps up water with his tongue like a dog from everyone who kneels to drink.’  The contingent of soldiers who lapped water with their hands to their mouths numbered 300 men, but everyone else kneeled to drink water. Then the Lord told Gideon, ‘I’m going to deliver you with the 300 soldiers who lapped by giving the Midianites into your control. Send everyone else back to their own homes.'”

We can’t know God’s reasoning behind this particular method of selection, but I found Josh’s hypothesis compelling: perhaps the men who lapped water with their hands were the best candidates because they were most alert to their environment. Surrounded by soldiers who buried their faces in a stream and lapped to their hearts’ content, the conscientious soldiers satisfied their thirst in a way that kept their eyes open to potential danger. These hand-drinkers were not so overwhelmed by their physical desires that they neglected their soldierly duties; they remained vigilant and ready for battle, persistently alert to the likelihood of an encroaching enemy.

Josh was quick to acknowledge that this was merely his own takeaway from the story and cautioned us against cavalierly drawing parallels between Old Testament narration and our modern-day spiritual lives. But I think he’s on to something. God knew that a small army of watchful and obedient soldiers was Gideon’s best strategy for defeating the Midianites. In the same way, we—as members of God’s spiritual army—are called to remain alert to the physical and spiritual happenings all around us. Not haphazardly or as an afterthought, but with a permeating and pervasive vigilance that sets us apart from those who are too busy “lapping up water” to register their surroundings.

In the verse I’m meditating on this month, Paul encourages his readers to always be “on guard.” Other versions say “be watchful” or “be on the alert” or simply “watch!” These words carry many implications: we are to be alert to the needs of those around us, so that we may show God’s love to our neighbors; we are to be alert to the manifest beauty and goodness of our Lord, which prompts our humility and compels us to worship; we are to pay attention to the ways God is working in our own lives and the lives of those around us so that we might become active participants in His Kingdom work.

Paul’s words are more than a kind reminder. There is a forcefulness in his exhortation that recognizes how much is at stake. One commentary describes Paul’s insistence on watchfulness as being “over themselves, over their hearts, thoughts, affections, words, actions, and their whole conversations; and over one another, that they go not into bad principles, and evil practices; and also against sin in general, every appearance, and the first motions of it, and particularly unbelief; and against Satan, and his temptations, who is an indefatigable enemy, and whose wiles, devices, and stratagems are many and cunning; and against the world, its charms and snares; and likewise against false teachers, who lie in wait to deceive, and therefore to be guarded against; many of which were among these Corinthians, and made this exhortation very necessary.”

Such comprehensive vigilance will not come easily, which explains Paul’s follow-up encouragement to stand firm in the faith with courage and strength. We cannot remain alert on will-power alone; such attentiveness requires divine empowerment, rooted in God’s strength and grounded in love. Our eyes are not opened by fear but by love for our Lord and a desire to walk in holiness and in communion with Him.

Heavenly Father, give us eyes to see all that you are doing—the physical and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible. Awaken us to your nearness, and fortify us with wisdom and strength in the presence of our enemies. Thank you for inviting us to be soldiers in a battle against the enemy and his schemes, and thank you for empowering us towards victory.

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