Six Signs of a Spiritual Attack
“I just want to be teachable,” I said in a hollow, measured voice.
“What did he say?” she asked – getting ready to rise up in my defense.
What did he say, indeed? The scene happened during my first pastorate. Our church had grown quickly and had experienced changes, which is never an easy thing. Now we were trying to establish our annual budget and define our biggest priorities. And a man I’ll call Joe wanted to know if he could meet with me.
When we got together, the first words out of Joe’s mouth were, “It is obvious that you aren’t here to help our church grow, but to make a name for yourself.”
I listened mostly (although I did tell him I didn’t appreciate him judging my motives). I listened as he talked about church’s former days. I listened as he talked about troublesome people. I listened as he offered his version of a solution to our problems. I listened (and stared, frankly) as he “led” us in prayer – weeping all the while.
And I went home, still listening.
I Hate Criticism.
For years I hollered to whoever would listen that “there’s no such thing as constructive criticism.”
I was wrong.
That said, nobody gets up in the morning hoping somebody will catch them red-handed being human. But if hearing what you don’t want to hear is the only way to help you get where you truly want to go, then it’s worth it in the long run.
Being attacked is another story, however.
“Attacked” is a word you’ll often hear to describe what’s taking place behind the scenes in somebody’s Christian experience.
“I’ve been under some real attacks lately.”
“Sounds like you’re being attacked by the enemy.”
In describing a recent experience that produced a lot of pain and anxiety, three different people said that to me. “This is warfare. You’re under attack.”
Was I? How could I know for sure? How could I know that this wasn’t “iron sharpening iron” or somebody “speaking the truth in love?” What if what one person called Satan was really God?
Same goes for my encounter with Joe back in the day. Was it a call from the Lord to be teachable, or an underhanded attack by the devil, using a church member as his tool?
The World of Wordfare
Like knives in a drawer, words can be used as a constructive tool or a destructive weapon. For example, Christian maturity and kingdom growth are the result of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). One word from an empowered believer can “sustain the weary” (Isaiah 50:4). Words, though painful at times, are like prods that cause others to spring to action (Ecclesiastes 12:11).
On the other hand, followers of Jesus are engaged in an epic battle with the evil forces. Paul says that “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, NLT).
Their weapon of choice? Words.
In the hands of the enemy, words are arrows aimed at your heart (Psalm 64:3). Words of a gossip, while enticing, go deeply into your soul (Proverbs 18:8). Job said that the words of his fake friends were “like a mighty wind” (Job 8:2).
No wonder Proverbs 18:21 says that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” But it isn’t always easy to tell which – death or life – are contained in the words you hear. In the World of Wordfare, sometimes your friend appears to be your enemy and your enemy appears to be your friend.
Discerning the Source
How do you know the difference? How can you tell if the words of others are an arrow aimed at the soul or just an uncomfortable prod to get you moving? Here are some ways you can recognize an attack for what it is.
1. Look for the lie.
Good words aren’t always easy to hear; sometimes they hurt because the truth hurts!
Attacks are different. Attacks are either outright lies, or they feed into lies. Remember, Satan is the father of lies and a false accuser. He kicks the guilty when they’re down, accuses the innocent, and treats the forgiven as if they’re still under judgment.
2. Trace the target.
When someone needs to coach or correct, their words are often aimed at weaknesses – often weaknesses you are already aware of. The aim, of course, is to encourage improvement in those areas of weakness.
The enemy, on the other hand attacks at your point of confidence because that’s where your greatest reward comes from (Hebrews 10:35). Example: If you believe yourself to be a person of integrity, Satan will attack your integrity in a way that will cause you or others to question it. Remember, you don’t have to lose your integrity to lose confidence in it.
3. Inspect the fruit.
Gracious words, even when dealing with sensitive subjects, are intended to build up. When someone encourages you to grow or change, it can be uncomfortable or even distressing. But the end result is sure to be something you are grateful for.
Attacks, on the other hand, are meant to tear down. Do you know people who can only seem to feel good about themselves when they’re putting others down? Whatever else they may be, they are tools of Satan. Respond accordingly.
4. Identify the focus.
Healthy conviction is aimed at behavior. If someone criticizes something you did or should have done, you should take a hard look at it. Even if their communication is clumsy, you could be on the receiving end of some truly constructive criticism.
Attacks are aimed at you. At the kind of person you are. They question or presume upon your motives. They use words like “always” and “never” to define you. Attacks are greased by labels aimed at cheapening your value. Pick one – fool, idiot, lazy, slob, whore, thief, incompetent, any word containing “ass” – all these and more are weapons formed against you.
5. Sniff out jealousy.
Love fuels corrective words; attacks are fueled by jealousy. Of course, nobody ever admits they’re jealous. But remember, Satan’s fall grew out of jealous ambition to have what God alone had – the authority and glory of heaven. And now he’s jealous of what you have – the unmerited favor and unconditional love of God. He can’t steal that from you. But he can and will use people’s words to cause you to question it.
6. Take the torment test.
Godly rebuke, however painful at first, produces growth, reconciliation, and peace. Attacks produce fear and anxiety. That’s why John says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18, NIV).
Though sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, there is a difference between honest conflict and spiritual attacks – between tension and terror. Tension may produce frustration and pain, but it almost always has some form of possible resolution. But when you find yourself worried over imagined outcomes, or paralyzed by fear from moving forward with your life, this is not a people problem. Recognize who the real enemy – the ultimate terrorist – is.
Responding to Attacks
The reason it’s so important to discern between criticism and spiritual attacks is that the responses are completely different. The godly response to criticism is to humble yourself, apologize if needed, get teachable, and often change course.
The response to attacks is to stay the course, and let God do your fighting for you. Whipping the devil is not in your job description. Standing against him, however, and resisting him, is.
And what of those people who are his tools? Love them. Forgive them. Pray for them. Speak well of them. And remember who the real enemy is.
Remember Joe? I went to the Lord and asked, “What do I do with this?” And He led me to this scripture:
Behold, I Myself have created the smith who blows the fire of coals
And brings out a weapon for its work;
And I have created the destroyer to ruin.
No weapon that is formed against you will prosper;
And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
And their vindication is from Me,” declares the Lord (Isaiah 54:16-17).
“Andy,” He said. “It was of me that he came. But what he had to say was not.”
Through that experience, the Lord taught me two things. First, HE sovereignly creates the fire that forms the weapons aimed against me. That builds character.
Second, HE makes sure that the weapons formed against me (specifically the “tongue that accuses me in judgment”) wont prosper. That, He said, is your heritage. And your vindication is from Me.
That was true back then. It’s still true today. For me. And for you.
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