Embracing Lifelong War

“When will it end?” This question pours endlessly into my email inbox. Struggling saints, wearied by the constant, haunting whispers of their sinful nature, long to know how much longer they must fight before the evil thing is beaten into lifeless silence. Are they doing something wrong? Are their flesh-combatting strategies ineffective? Are they not reading Scripture or praying long enough? Are they even saved? Every time they get some level of victory over a specific sinful disposition or habit, it seems a new (or previously unrealized) manifestation of the flesh surfaces in its place. The endless activity of their indwelling sin sends them spiraling into skepticism—even skepticism about the truthfulness of this great salvation in Christ Jesus. How can the powerful redemption the Scriptures speak of be real when the sin within still feels so powerfully alive?

These doubt-laced arrows of the enemy have penetrated my own heart. I have at times found myself considering the possibility that Christianity might just be a set of pleasant but fictional ideas that produce a sense of peace and hopefulness that are merely psychologically induced. As the activity of my flesh persists, I have wondered if the seeming lack of sin-silencing power in my life evidences the non-reality of the “faith” I profess and “grace” in which I think I stand (Romans 5:2). If God has really sprinkled the divine blood of his only Son over my soul and implanted his own Spirit into my heart, shouldn’t I be freer from the presence and influence of sin than I am?

I tend to think so. However, though I might intuitively assume my flesh should be a bit more docile, the Bible tells a slightly different story—one in which the normative Christian experience is characterized not only by the joy, peace, and power of God, but also by unceasing war. The Holy Spirit has created within us believers a new nature that is inclined to God and suited for holiness. But our old nature—weakened yet still quite lively—declares war on this supernatural redirection of desires (Galatians 5:17). Though the Spirit is always about his illuminating and quickening work within us, the flesh likewise works double-time to entice us back to the idolatrous altars at which we formerly bowed. And until our cursed bodies are swallowed up by glorious immortality, this inner tension will persist. Some seasons will be less intense than others, but the remaining sin within us will never cease in its God-hating and faith-opposing activity.

I have to constantly remind myself that my flesh will not end its warfare until the Lord of War lays utter waste to it at his return. My sanity very literally hinges on my remembrance of and belief in this truth! If I expect to sojourn as a foreigner through this world without its native inhabitants (Satan and the flesh) constantly assailing me, I am always going to question my security in Christ’s salvation—or even the very reality of it! Peace and joy will be hidden from my sight, shrouded by the dark haze of my false expectations and subsequent doubts and fears. I must continually and consciously embrace the reality that as long as my soul inhabits this body of death, sin’s presence and influence are unavoidable. I will be confronted with various temptations every day. I must accept and expect this.

But what does “accepting and expecting this” look like? I have witnessed some professing Christians “accept” the reality of their persisting temptations by giving up—they stopped resisting, laid down their weapons, and just settled into their sins. However, acceptance is not equivalent to surrender. Accepting the fact that the flesh will not cease from its evil activities does not mean raising any white flags. God permits no such passivity in the Christian life. Rather, he calls us to brutalize the flesh with every ounce of spiritual energy his grace provides to us! When we accept and expect continual conflict, we aren’t shrinking back from battle. We are simply protecting ourselves from unbiblical expectations of struggle-free ease and the paralyzing doubts that will surely accompany those expectations—as well as embracing a mindset that is prepared for war and thus more capable of waging it!

When we keep ourselves awake to the reality of Satan and the flesh’s long-term resolve to destroy our faith, we are much more apt to take up long-term strategies of resisting and overcoming that opposition. We won’t just pick up the Bible and put on God’s armor (Ephesians 6:10-20) every morning for a couple of months in order to get victory over one particular manifestation of the flesh. We will resolve to pick up the Bible and put on God’s armor every morning until Jesus returns or takes us home, knowing that another manifestation of the flesh is sure to come running in on the heels of this current one, and another one after that, and another one after that.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, if we expect lifelong war, we won’t seek to find our joy and peace in the absence of it. Many of us are looking with weary eyes and dry souls to the cessation of this conflict to bring us joy and peace when there is a deep well of joy and peace available to us in the midst of the conflict. And that well is the Person who has secured our sure victory in his life, death, and resurrection. As we lay siege to our flesh every day, we do so in 1) the peace of knowing that Jesus has already ensured our ultimate triumph, 2) the joy of being in a satisfying relationship with Jesus now, and 3) the power of Jesus’ Spirit who presently indwells us. We aren’t going into these daily battles alone—he has gone ahead of us; he goes with us; and he is quickly coming behind us. It is in Christ and all that he has done and is doing and will do that we find both rest and the strength we need to wage the lifelong war to which he has called us.

  • Thank you Matt, for this post! I need this encouragement as I enter my twelfth year of celibacy from my desires. I has been a long hard road, and I pray every day that I will not falter (came close a couple of times). It is only through God’s power and His grace that I can continue.

  • Lyle Nelson

    Thank-you so much for this much-needed encouragement, Matt! For me, it feels like battles are more difficult because I tend to be very conflict-averse and to want everything to be nice and peaceful and calm. Also, I’m older (60’s) and simply feel very battle-weary much of the time. But God provides no exemptions for these or any other reasons, and in fact tells us in advance that in this life we WILL have troubles. No exceptions. Everybody reading this post is fighting with something, unless they’ve simply given up, and that’s not the right solution either.

  • Andrea E S

    I honestly think this is why we have a term called “backsliding”. When the going gets tough, we either cling tighter or tell ourselves it’s not worth it and go back to old ways. A few days ago, I was wrestling with Anxiety over all the bad news on our planet earth. I felt so alone. I begged God for the “feeling” of his presence. I don’t think this is wrong to ask for that feeling, but God won’t always give us that emotional feeling, because he wants us to start with faith and keep seeking him out. This particular moment, I had a brief vision of Christians all over the earth praying. These incredible connections haven’t happened often, but I felt so thankful that God was reminding me that I am not alone and he’s listening to our prayers!!! Which was also a reminder….”Go back to church community and be with brothers and sisters.” Bad habit…missing church and community fellowship is one of the most damaging things I do to myself.

    • Betty

      So well said, Andrea. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They really resonated with me this morning.

  • Betty

    Great reminder, Matt, that this is a lifelong earthly battle, and to not give up. I sure needed to hear this right now. Thanks.

  • Christina Snow Grace

    I have been following Matt on and off ever since I saw his testimony on youtube several years ago. I appreciate his honesty and love for the Lord. If this article really touches a nerve with you, please listen to Mike Pearl’s commentary on Romans (available free online at nogreaterjoy.org). He also has a very good sermon series entitled “Sin No More” that really touches on this ‘lifelong war’ subject. God bless!

  • James VanAlstine

    Great post. I can relate! Thanks for sharing!

  • Daniel Brigham

    Good post. As much as I would like to be forever immune to sexual desires as a Christian, I know it is wishful thinking. That is not to say that one has to be constantly struggling with sinful desires 24/7. Desires are just charged thoughts like emotions are. When I experience sexual thoughts and desires I confess my weakness and inability in myself to overcome them and express my confidence in the indwelling Christ to be my power over sin in the moment. Taking my mind off the tempting thoughts and desires and putting them on Christ and the freedom and purity that is in Him has always helped me get experience victory. This is the abiding life in Christ found in John 15.