Device 7. By casting in a multitude of vain thoughts, while the soul is in seeking of God, or in waiting on God; and by this device he has cooled some men’s spirits in heavenly services, and taken off, at least for a time, many precious souls from religious performances.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding around spiritual warfare. Despite what you see in movies and read in some Christian novels, for the average believer spiritual warfare is not cosmic death matches and flaming swords. It’s a battle of the mind against discouragement and wrong thinking.
Right living and right believing depends on right thinking. And when you’re trying to devote yourself to God, Satan will try to distract you with what Thomas Brooks calls “vain thoughts.” These are worries, worldly cares, discouragements, and arguments against Christ and his kingdom. They can wear you down and “put you off” from serving the Lord.
Winning this battle is about engaging this wrong thinking, taking hold of it, and countering it with a healthy dose of truth. In Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, Brooks explains seven ways to do this.
Remedy 1: Prepare for discouragement
What is Costco Wholesale’s number-one selling item? Their Kirkland Signature bathroom tissue. Where do they locate it? At the farthest possible point from the entrance. Why? They want you to see and smell as much of their goods as possible before you get there.
Why does your favorite grocery store place milk and eggs against the back wall? The same reason. They expect you’ll fill your cart with other items on the way to get your gallon of 2-percent. Even if you’re just running in quickly for milk, it’s likely something else will catch your eye or nose, something you’ll remember you needed anyway.
One technique for filling your grocery basket with better things: Shop produce first. It’s usually near the entrance. Just make a quick turn and start loading up on fresh vegetables and fruits, leafy greens and brightly-colored peppers and tomatoes.
Then, shop the perimeter, where you’ll usually find the deli, dairy section, and maybe even some health foods and organics. By the time you reach the center aisles full of packaged and processed foods a good part of your food budget will already be accounted for.
Why am I going on about groceries in a blog post about spiritual discipline? The principles are the same. Just like we should fill our carts with nourishing foods instead of junk, we should fill our minds with choice thoughts about God and his goodness instead of the “junk” thoughts our enemy offers us.
Satan will always lob his prepackaged discouragement grenades in our direction. But we decide what occupies our minds while we worship and serve the Lord. Regular time in God’s Word is the primary source from which we can fill our thoughts and hearts with what Thomas Brooks would call “choice goods.”
The apostle Paul provides clear advice in this area of discipline.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1–3, ESV).
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8, ESV).
Remedy 2: Press on through discouragement
Jesus’s well-known admonition in his Sermon on the Mount – “ask, seek, knock” (Mt. 7:7; Lk. 11:9) – is excellent advice here. But the way you have likely read this passage may not be the best translation.
The HCSB has it well: “Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” The three imperative verbs in the original Greek demand continuous action, not one-time obedience. They insist on persistence. They expect diligence. They anticipate unrelenting effort.
Pushing past a previous personal recored can make an athlete stronger. Studying and analyzing beyond a perceived mental capacity can help a student ace a test. Choosing to worship and pray despite creeping doubt and futility can lead to undiscovered riches of joy and peace.
Picture the beautiful, iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco’s bay. Now imagine a single, small segment of its span missing. Despite the billions of dollars it would take to build that bridge today, the entire thing would be worthless without that missing piece.
Satan will whisper his lies and deceit when you draw near to God. Use his intimidation to fuel your devotion onward. Doing so may lay that final stretch of road that leads to a sweetness of fellowship you have never known.
Remedy 3: Confess your discouragement
I wrote in an earlier post about minimalism and tiny houses. Some people take extreme measures to declutter their lives and be free from materialism.
There’s a simple principle at work there: The less space you have, the less room there is for junk.
Now, I’m not suggesting a secret technique for reducing space in your mind for what Thomas Brooks calls “vain thoughts” (ahh … wouldn’t that be nice, though?). What I propose is actively denying room to the thoughts Satan proposes that inhibit and discourage us from devotion.
Note that Brooks recommends actively bringing these thoughts to God in prayer. Acknowledge them, confess them. He already knows you have them! If a child gives his friend a dangerous object, isn’t it wiser for the friend to immediately let his parents know than hide it away somewhere?
So, when the enemy tries to derail your devotion with discouragement or doubt, make that part of your prayers instead of pretending you aren’t experiencing the struggle. Your heavenly Father has greater resources to combat such evil than you can imagine.
Remedy 4: Rejoice in discouragement
It’s being called one of the greatest bits of nature documentary work ever filmed. Narrated by David Attenborough and scored by film composer Hans Zimmer, the first episode of Blue Planet II features a heart-racing chase sequence that rivals any action movie.
Only in this case, the “actors” are wild animals, there was no script, and the stakes were real.
Watch this and try not to be moved.
It truly appeared that the baby iguana was not going to survive. And yet, its efforts won in the end. At least, as far as that day was concerned.
Living things struggle to survive. It is a sign of life. In the same way, Christians filled with the new life Christ has given them struggle against the schemes of the enemy who comes to kill, steal, and destroy.
When wicked thoughts trouble you, be encouraged that the troubling is evidence you are safe in God’s hands.
Remedy 5: Be filled with the Spirit
Brooks’ fifth point is similar to his others. We must keep in mind two questions: What are we holding in our minds, and what are we excluding? But this point has more to do with a general spiritual attitude, which is about being filled with the Holy Spirit.
For years I misunderstood what being filled with the Spirit means, because I had the wrong mental picture. I had long thought of this as being like a vessel, a cup or glass. Just let the Spirit fill you up, and then try not to tip over or spill any. It’s a silly notion that doesn’t capture this principle’s essence.
Paul admonishes the churches in Ephesus:
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart … (Ephesians 5:18–19, ESV).
The Greek verb translated “be filled” is not a one-time occurrence, but a continual, never-ending filling. That doesn’t work well with the vessel motif at all. If you continue to “fill” a glass, you’ll make a mess and waste quite a lot of whatever it is you were planning to drink.
So, instead of a cup, think of a sail.
A sailor knows how to point a ship’s sails to catch the wind, to move the ship in the desired direction. A full sail is continually filled with air. And yet, it also never stops being filled as long as it is pointed correctly.
That’s the idea with the Holy Spirit. Point yourself in the direction He moves, which is always toward Christ. Being continually filled with Him makes it less likely you’ll be filled with the enemy’s vain and discouraging thoughts.
Remedy 6: Stay committed during discouragement
Marriage counselors work with couples struggling to relate when the passion and warmth of love has cooled. Sometimes their advice is to love each other through the down times, to press on despite waning desire. The principle is that feelings follow function.
It’s easy to love a person when they inspire feelings of love in you. It’s much more difficult when they don’t. But a good marriage counselor knows that if two people can hang on and devote themselves to the relationship when they would rather give up, the marriage will survive. And the wonderful surprise is that those newlywed feelings often return as a result of the victory.
There was a time when arranged marriages were the norm. How do you suppose persons in those marriages ever leaned to love each other if their relationships were not based on choice or attraction? They operated out of duty. Then, the feelings followed.
An Asian man whose arranged marriage lasted his lifetime remarked: “In the West, your marriages start like a bonfire and end in ashes. In the East, our marriages start like a candle flame and end like a bonfire.” That kind of passion is the fruit of faithful devotion, the result of consistency in practice.
“Duty” is seen as a four-letter word in modern Christianity. But Christ is due devotion. Yes, we should desire to serve him in response to his first-love for us. Sometimes, however, when Satan’s flaming darts are flying around us, “keeping up holy and spiritual affections” is what will return us to the passion we lack.
Remedy 7: Don’t be distracted when discouraged
What Thomas Brooks calls a “multiplicity of worldly business” is what we might call multitasking today. It’s more a seeing Christianity as an additive than the core of your being. Business isn’t bad. Busyness isn’t either. The problem begins when worldly cares crowd Jesus out of your life.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:57–62, ESV).
Jesus’ admonishment seems harsh at first, apart from this passage’s context. But our Lord requires immediate obedience. Compare these three reactions to his calling with those of his disciples, especially as the Gospel of Mark recounts them. They “immediately” left their boats, nets, tax-collecting booths, and everything else to follow him.
And those disciples said as much to him.
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28–30, ESV).
We can love our families, neighbors, and friends while loving Jesus. We can address our responsibilities, do our jobs, and serve our communities while serving Jesus. His Lordship must inform all these good things. They must never supersede his authority.
Put your hand to the plow. Don’t look back. God will plant fruitful seed in the rich earth of your obedience.