“But doubt is wily and cunning and never, as it is sometimes said to be, loud or defiant. It is unassuming and sly, not bold or assertive—and the more unassuming, the more dangerous.”SØREN KIERKEGAARD
I once heard an eerie story about a lady who became concerned for her pet snake. Pet and snake are two words that should never be used together. I hate snakes. If you think Indiana Jones loathed them, I do even more. Anyway, we’re not talking about a dinky garter snake. No, it was a big, long python. And why was she so disturbed? Apparently, the poor snake wasn’t eating, so she sought out her veterinarian for a little advice.
“By any chance does your snake sleep with you?” the vet asked.
“Funny you should ask,” the lady said. “Yes, my snake does sleep with me.” (Are you believing this?)“
The reason your snake doesn’t eat,” her veterinarian said, “is because it’s sizing you up as it purposely starves itself, waiting for the opportune moment to consume you.”
Talk about sleeping with the enemy.
Whether this story is really true or not, like that snake, Satan also studies us and knows us better than we know ourselves. He wants nothing more than to consume us and our faith. That’s exactly why Peter encourages us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
As Christians we are in the midst of a war. A spiritual war. And this war can be tricky to detect. That’s because it’s a war that takes place in an unseen world. The apostle Paul wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”2
That means we must treat our doubts as front line attacks from the enemy. Far from the caricatures of Satan that look like Gene Simmons dressed up in a red suit and holding a pitchfork, Satan and his demonic host are powerful spirit beings. They deceptively align around a common goal: to destroy our faith. I can’t stress this enough. The evil one wants to stretch our doubts until at last they snap, resulting in unbelief.
When dealing with Satan, we should neither overestimate him nor take him too lightly. In the preface of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis reminds his readers to avoid two errors regarding the demonic world,
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our fallen race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
How true this is. For some people there’s a demon behind every bush. For others there’s no such thing as the demonic world. It’s purely superstition. Instead of these extremes, our goal should be to properly estimate Satan. And this starts by becoming familiar with him.
The Bible depicts Satan as a created angelic being who rebelled against God along with a third of the angelic realm. Since that time, Satan and the fallen angels (aka demons) have remained in complete opposition to God and are on an all-out mission to usurp everything God represents. Satan is not an all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present being. He’s not equal to God in any way. Rather, he is a created being with limitations. Nevertheless, he is far more powerful and knowledgeable and aware than we can possibly imagine. He’s a force to be reckoned with, and we should not make light of him.
Take a look at depictions of him in Scripture and you’ll quickly discover that he is dark. Evil. Nefarious. And criminal. Paul refers to him as “the god of this world” who “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Jesus referred to Satan as “a liar and the father of lies.” Matthew calls him “the tempter.” He’s even called “the deceiver of the whole world.”
Fortunately, his end is written in ink. Literally. The Bible tells us that Satan’s destiny has already been determined, and at the end of the age he will be cast into the eternal lake of fire. In the meantime, he plans to wreak havoc in the church and in you and in me. So listen up.
“Has God Said?”
Satan’s deep hatred toward the human race began with humanity’s first pair: Adam and Eve. It’s there, in the Garden of Eden, where we encounter the serpent seeking to unravel Eve’s faith with his doubt-shaped question, “Indeed, has God said…?”
Now, if you’re a doubter, you may have a hard time getting past a talking snake. I get it. It’s weird. And there are lots of helpful commentaries you can delve into on this topic. This is not the place. For now, let’s not miss the bigger picture of what’s happening. A dreadful drama is unfolding and Satan is enticing Eve to doubt toward unbelief. In her conversation with the serpent, she’s encountered the epitome of anti-god. Read these verses for yourself because it’s here that you’ll discover the root of doubt. In Genesis 3 we read:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
These verses are tragic and devastating beyond our imagination. Don’t be fooled into thinking the entire human race was forever hosed just because the first woman did a little fruit tasting. That’s what we call missing the forest for the trees. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s not about the fruit. It’s about a heart that rebelled against God and sided with Satan. It’s a tale about doubting toward unbelief. About being deceived. About putting our desires before God’s. It’s about rejecting God’s Word in order to go our own way.
Satan’s Tactics to Devour Us
So with that in mind, lets excavate several nuggets from this ancient narrative—some real-life lessons to help us battle doubt. Let’s begin by becoming familiar with the tactics Satan uses to unravel our faith. To devour us.
First, Satan is crafty in the way he distorts God’s Word. As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke puts it, “Satan’s craftiness is seen in his cunning distortion of God’s words. With subtle guise, the adversary speaks as a winsome angelic theologian.” Paul the apostle doubly attests to Satan’s craftiness saying, “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” He doesn’t show his cards. He didn’t show up to Eve and say, “Hey, I hate God and everything about Him, and I’m on a mission to trump His ways. Wanna join me?” No, he’s much more calculated. He’s not reactive but rehearsed. He’s not impulsive but intentional. He knows his game plan, and he’ll gladly recruit you—deceit and all. He’s wise as a serpent but far from being harmless as a dove.
Richard Baxter, the seventeenth-century English Puritan church leader, writes,
The devil is a greater scholar than you, and a nimbler disputant: he can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive: he will get within you, and trip up your heels before you are aware: he will play the juggler with you un-discerned, and cheat you of your faith or innocence… You shall see neither hook nor line, much less the subtle angler himself, while he is offering you his bait. And his bait shall be so fitted to your temper and disposition, that he will be sure to find advantages within you, and make your own principles and inclinations betray you; and whenever he ruineth you, he will make you the instruments of ruin to others.
That’s haunting. And calculated. But that’s how Satan rolls. And that’s why we must stay alert.
Second, temptations to doubt can come when we least expect them. Eve wasn’t searching for doubt. But perhaps she was experiencing a strong case of the curiosities, contending, “Why can’t I have a little snack off the old Tree?” We can’t know for sure. But we do know that Eve is enchanted upon encountering this unexpected intruder in her Garden home. In hindsight, I’m sure she thought, How did this happen so fast? How could I have been so blind? So deceived? So hoodwinked?
It’s the same for us. One moment we’re enjoying a little paradise and the next we’re questioning God’s Word. Life can be that way. And it’s exhausting. Satan plants the “Has God said?” question into our mind, and it quickly takes root. And before we know it we’re doused with doubt. These “Has God said?” moments can come out of the blue, so as believers, we can’t drop our spiritual guard.
I’ve experienced my share of “Has God said?” moments. Recently I was driving my son Dawson to school. It was just another day in paradise. But when we passed an old graveyard, I suddenly sensed the ancient serpent whisper, “Do you really believe the dead are going to come out of those graves someday?” At once, I found myself trying to visualize what that would look like, only to find myself thinking, That is weird, isn’t it? It just seems so foreign to my modern mind. And out of nowhere this thought disrupted my emotional state. Intellectual doubt turned to emotional doubt. I went from paradise to the pits just like that.
I had to go back to the Scriptures and concede that though I don’t fully understand, I still believe. Sure, I wish everything in Scripture made perfect sense to me, but this side of heaven it won’t. So I reason that if God created our bodies to begin with, then He can certainly re-create them anew in the resurrection.
But this is how Satan can unwind us. And before we know it we’re all tangled up in doubt. Twisted up in intellectual anxiety. One glance at a graveyard and the next thing we know we’ve gone from serenity to emotional suffering. And it’s in that moment when our doubt will head one direction or the other. Toward belief or unbelief. That’s another reason why we must stay on guard.
Third, Satan persuades us to doubt God’s goodness. He wants us to think that God is holding out on us, cheating us out of the good stuff in life. That’s exactly what he did with Eve, saying, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Satan completely flips God’s Word. Adam and Eve were to avoid the tree of the knowledge of good and evil not because God was holding out, but because God was protecting them.
Satan dresses himself up like the good guy, and Eve’s about to fall for it. Adam too. According to Scripture, during this temptation scene Adam was right there with Eve, passively standing by. He wasn’t reminding Eve of what God actually said. He wasn’t protecting her, leading her or fighting for her.
Humanity’s fall was a joint decision. A team choice. Adam was all in. Both caved in to temptation mouth first. Eve and her husband were lured by the lust of knowledge and personal fulfillment. It’s as if Adam was saying “ladies first,” only it wasn’t out of gentlemanly chivalry but out of deceitful cowardice. They couldn’t stand the mystery of not knowing. They wanted a little eye-opener, and that’s exactly what they got. They wanted to be like God, to experience certainty like Him. Obeying God’s restrictive ways seemed silly, so they took the bite, which became history’s most horrific moment. It’s been graphic ever since.
Fourth, realize that spiritual doubt is not the result of our environment; it comes from within. Think about it. Adam and Eve were living in a perfect context when all this transpired. We may think, If only I had a better life or I lived in a better setting, that would fix all my problems. But doubts, sin, and rebellion are not the products of a bad environment. We can live in the Mojave Desert, on a beach in Tahiti, in the Swiss Alps, or in the city of our choice, and we’ll quickly discover that we can’t avoid our doubts. That’s because our enemy is a traveling salesman, going wherever we go to peddle his lies. Here’s something worth chewing on. If Adam and Eve could doubt in paradise, how much more are we susceptible to doubt in paradise lost?
By subverting God’s Word, Satan triggered doubt in Eve, causing her to wonder if God was holding out on her. She became convinced that God was limiting her life. And once intoxicated with an appetite for rebellion, she was right where Satan wanted her. Like a master hypnotist, the great serpent also yearns to undermine our confidence in God’s Word. He wants to tweak and twist our theology, painting God in a negative light. Ultimately, he’d like to massacre our love for God by suffocating us with doubts.
Fifth, Satan never shows us the consequences, only the short-term fleshly “benefits.” He keeps our attention on the present, revealing only the short-term satisfaction we’ll receive.
After Eve became convinced that God was holding out on her, she took another look at the tree: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”
What just happened here? Adam and Eve lost sight of keeping God’s Word and instead caved into their cravings, going for what was a “delight to the eyes” and reaching for what would “make one wise.” Little did they realize that in doing so, they played the fool and failed to see the consequences coming their way. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”
I’m convinced that in their post-fall existence, Adam and Eve were the most miserable people to ever live. They knew they could never get back to the Garden. They went from perfection to imperfection, and through the rearview mirror, they would always lament the choice they had made. That one choice changed everything.
But for us, we move from imperfection toward perfection, and as we look back to our pre-Jesus days, we can see progress from then to now. Growth. Life-change. We say, “Thank God, I’m not what I once was.” Through the reflective mirror of our personal history, our progress gives us hope. Adam and Eve experienced perfection, only to lose it. We started off in imperfection and look to gain perfection in our eventual glorification.
Sixth, when faced with the choice between doubting God’s Word and believing it, we should always choose belief. I can hear Adam and Eve’s justifications: “But this doesn’t make sense. What a silly little command. What’s wrong with a little appetizer off the branch? I mean, it’s just a bite.” And little by little they grew wise in their own eyes. To them, God’s ways seemed absurd.
But when we take a bite of the forbidden fruit—when we diminish God’s Word in order to justify our tastes—it also takes a bite of us. Choosing to believe God’s Word, even if it seems petty, is the action we must choose. We can’t bend His Word to make it more palatable. Instead, we receive all of His truth, even the parts that are hard to digest.
Eve had a choice to make that day. A choice between belief and unbelief.
In his beautiful yet gut-wrenching book, A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken writes how he comes to the end of himself before looking to God with daring belief. In a letter to C.S. Lewis, he writes,
I choose to believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—in Christ, my lord and my God. Christianity has the ring, the feel, of unique truth. Of essential truth. By it, life is made full instead of empty, meaningful instead of meaningless. Cosmos becomes beautiful at the Center, instead of chillingly ugly beneath the lovely pathos of spring. But the emptiness, the meaninglessness, and the ugliness can only be seen, I think, when one has glimpsed the fullness, the meaning, and the beauty. It is when heaven and hell have both been glimpsed that going back is impossible. But to go on seemed impossible, also. A glimpse is not a vision. A choice was necessary: and there is no certainty. One can only choose a side. So I—I now choose my side: I choose beauty; I choose what I love. But choosing to believe is believing. It’s all I can do: choose. I confess my doubts and ask my Lord Christ to enter my life… I do not affirm that I am without doubt, I do but ask for help, having chosen, to overcome it. I do but say: Lord, I believe—help Thou mine unbelief.
Wrestling through his own doubts, Sheldon chose belief. Belief in God. Belief in His Word.
Seventh, we need to straighten out twisted truth by combating it with total truth. We can’t protect ourselves with God’s Word until we first know God’s Word. Instead of being deceived by Satan, both Adam and Eve should’ve reminded him of what God had really said. Instead, their lusts blinded them, and they believed a lie rather than the truth.
This is exactly how Satan tried to bring Jesus down in the wilderness. He approached Him with twisted truth, but Jesus countered Satan’s lies with total truth. Three different times Satan tried to tempt Jesus, and each time the Lord replied, “It is written… It is written… It is written.”
Have you ever played Whac-A-Mole? Once the game starts, you wait eagerly for the moles to pop up so you can hammer them back into their holes with your mallet. The more moles you whack, the higher your score. Fighting off doubts can feel a bit like playing Whac-A-Mole. Once you knock one doubt down, another doubt pops up.
This wearisome process has sapped countless doubters. We need to become so familiar with the aroma of God’s truth that we can sniff out error when it’s presented to us. Satan wants to give us a customized version of the Bible. He uses Scripture all the time, but he fashions it to fit his own likings and purposes. And if we hear a voice that says “Has God said?” we should realize we’re about to be duped. Let’s prepare ourselves well, combating twisted truth with total truth.
Eighth, we shouldn’t dismiss the reality of the unseen world. It’s real, present, and powerful.
Before I went into full-time ministry, I experienced an unforgettable season of spiritual warfare. It was as if I were being dragged through the horror of the unseen world in order to never forget that it exists.
After losing my appetite and several pounds, I also lost hope of ever feeling normal again. I booked an appointment with a medical clinic to find out what was wrong with me. I remember telling God before the appointment that I didn’t care what the problem was, I just wanted it detected so I could start treatment that would help me feel normal again. I was surprised when they gave me a clean bill of health. The only issue was my slightly elevated blood pressure. It was as if nothing but God’s power could fix this trial. My emotions seemed to be utterly inflamed as I anguished through this hopeless suffering. This all occurred in my early twenties.
Allow me to rewind a moment and give you a little context. Just a few years prior to this I heard the gospel for the first time. I was nineteen years old. Soon after that I placed my saving faith in Jesus Christ. The first year and a half as a believer was a difficult season as I struggled to abandon my old party lifestyle. But all this would change on October 9, 1994, when I attended my first AA meeting. I went on to attend over four hundred meetings in my first year of sobriety. Yes, at times more than one a day. I wasn’t the skid row kind of drinker, but I was a young, hard partier, and as a result I created painful consequences for myself. And for whatever reason, I simply couldn’t give up drinking on my own. I needed help. I could see where that life was going to take me if I didn’t act fast.
After I got clean, my life took on new meaning. I began channeling my addictive personality Godward. I was sold out. I was in God’s army sharing my faith with everything that moved. And the enemy didn’t like it. The more I lived for God, the more intense the warfare became. I sensed that Satan’s minions were on an all-out assault to bring me down.
At a loss for how to navigate my way through this intense spiritual warfare, I spoke to an elderly Christian woman I worked with at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Dana Point, California. After hearing my symptoms, she said, “Bobby, I think you’re going through spiritual warfare.” I had never heard that term before, but after she explained what it was, things started to make sense.
About a week later she showed up at work with a cassette tape in her hand (now you know this was a long time ago), handed me the tape, and said, “I believe this is for you.” She told me the tape showed up in her mailbox after our conversation. She hadn’t ordered it and she couldn’t figure out why it came to her house. That is, until she opened it and saw that it was titled “Spiritual Warfare” by Brian Broderson (who is now at Calvary Chapel, Costa Mesa, California). As a newbie to the faith I devoured Broderson’s exposition of Ephesians 6. He drew on other scriptural examples to show how Satan seeks to cripple believers through fear, worry, depression, condemnation, and doubt. During this season, I experienced all the above. That’s why this was such a difficult time of my life. Nevertheless, this would become one of the most important sermons I ever heard in my life. I must have listened to that tape a dozen times or more.
There’s so much more we could discuss here, but over time, through simply becoming aware of Satan’s ways, I was able to engage the battle and not remain spiritually blinded to what was happening around me. I learned in a deep way that the unseen world is real and it’s powerful. Now, anytime I struggle with doubts about the unseen world, all I need is a little reflection time. As a pastor, I couldn’t afford to do ministry unaware of this. I guess the Lord wanted me to experience a little bit of it myself. I still do at times. But now there’s hope. And that makes all the difference.
As you can see, Satan and his minions exist to sabotage every ounce of our faith and weigh us down in the false assurance of unbelief. We must not let that happen. Do you remember Jesus’s words to Peter? “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.” And what exactly was it that Satan wanted to sift? Peter’s faith. And how do we know that? By noticing what Jesus said next. He comforts Peter with these words: “But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”
Is it any surprise that Satan wanted to dismantle Peter’s faith? Of course not. And tragically, Peter, engulfed by fear, denied Jesus three times. Unbelievably, his denial happened just hours after he had emphatically told Jesus in the upper room that he’d never deny Him, even saying, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Satan wants our faith to fail too. He longs to grind our doubts down until we’re left in the dust of unbelief.
That’s why Paul wrote, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” This is a full-time battle. There’s no time to drop our guard even if we think we’re off the frontlines. There’s no guaranteed break from this battle. Satan doesn’t care if we’re tired, hurting, confused, or fed up. That’s why we must stay suited up in the armor of God.
After reminding us that we are in a spiritual battle, Paul admonishes us, “Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day.” Paul then lists the Christian weaponry the believer must be armed with, stressing our need for truth, righteousness, prayer, and in particular faith. Paul writes, “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.” Among Satan’s weapons are doubt darts aimed at destroying our faith. So we need to keep our shield up because Satan is a cruel master. He will use doubts, fears, anger, lust, gossip, or even overconfidence to extinguish our faith. Like Peter, we desperately need to be covered in Jesus’s prayers. And fortunately, Jesus is all in as it relates to praying for His followers. In fact, the Bible calls Him our great intercessor.
Several years ago I heard about a missionary couple who lived in a hut in some obscure village. One day they entered their home, only to encounter a massive viper. Of course, they got out of there as fast as they could. When their neighbor heard about it, he grabbed his machete and, while the couple waited outside, entered the hut. The couple grew worried when they heard lots of noise, as if all hell were breaking loose inside their hut. At last, their neighbor came out, but the racket inside continued. Seeing their confused faces, the tribesman told the couple, “Don’t worry, the snake is dead. He just doesn’t realize it yet.” Apparently, the snake had been decapitated and was swinging its body in all directions, slapping things all over the place. I guess you could say it was wreaking a little havoc before its time expired.
That reminds me of the garden story in Genesis 3 and the words of Scripture,
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
As God laid out the consequences of the fall to Satan and to Adam and Eve, we learn that Satan’s head would eventually be crushed. And in time that’s exactly what happened. On the cross Jesus crushed the head of the serpent, meting out a deathblow. Satan is finished. Decapitated. The hourglass is emptying and he knows it. In the meantime, he’s just wreaking a little havoc. Until then, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Don’t let that old serpent bully you around with doubt any longer. And never forget that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
Excerpt from the book : Doubting Towards Faith by Bobby Conway, HARVEST HOUSE PUBLISHERS
This was really good. I went through some severe spiritual warfare myself and found this very interesting. Made total sense to me.
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Excellent insights! Timely article
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