Spiritual Warfare in Real Life
I grew up knowing my best was not good enough, that I was a dreadfully insignificant girl at the end of a long line of overachieving, brilliant, highly educated people I called family. My grandfather was an Italian immigrant who, at the age of six, took the long boat ride with his family to Ellis Island in New York City, hoping for a better life. He shined shoes as a boy and worked his way up to being a successful attorney, a five-term US congressman, and eventually a Supreme Court justice in New York State.
The same drive to succeed was deeply embedded in his highly motivated sons, who migrated to the West Coast after giving their lives to Christ and beginning new chapters of their lives in pursuit of Jesus. Even with their change of scenery and occupation, success followed close behind. They started evangelistic movements and ministries that reached a large part of the church nationwide. They even made strides into the Christian music industry. And this excellence didn't stop at the next generation. I remember conversations during my childhood about the colleges my cousins aspired to attend. It was never a question of if but when they would succeed.
I, on the other hand, grew up with learning disabilities. I was not good at reading or writing, and I was always terribly embarrassed about it. In fact, I spent most of my time trying to hide my struggle. I became super social to cover up my inability to perform academically and my subsequent humiliation.
Heightening my sense of inferiority, I had an identical twin who was excellent in all the areas where I was subpar.
I would go to school and feel inadequate, and then I would go to church and feel the exact same way. I had been raised in the church, but I always felt pretty lost there. Actually, I felt a little lost in general. I did not have a natural, unique leadership gifting. I wasn't the person who was asked to do a lot in my community. I was the girl who flew under the radar, always overlooked and always dreaming, hoping I would one day be exceptional at something. I often thought that I just needed one big win — a triumph to confirm my value. Something that would make the struggle within me worth it. Maybe I thought success would make life easier and give me the inner confidence I so lacked. Little did I know that my internal battle — which I so hoped to throw off — would shape and influence my purpose and direction in life.
We all have moments we want to forget. For me, it was my season in Yuba City. Don't get me wrong; it's a lovely, simple spot in Northern California, nestled between national forests and surrounded by farmlands. Yuba City was where my mom grew up, on a farm just outside of town. When my sister and I were fourteen, my parents made the decision to return, moving our family from Los Angeles to this small town so we could take care of my mom's ailing parents. In hindsight, the move also got us out of high school in LA and back to a simpler life.
I wasn't resistant to moving, but the pleasure and relief that might have come from suddenly slowing down and living a life that almost stood still was wasted on the teenage girl that I was. I felt lost. I was a sophomore in high school and, in my mind, we had left everything that seemed reasonable and comfortable behind in LA.
My learning issues didn't help, and I became obsessed with hiding them. Each year my lack of abilities became more apparent. My peers seemed to be running past me at warp speed, and I stood still. Paused in time. When someone would ask me what I was planning to do after high school, I would jokingly say, "My sister is preparing to go to nursing school, and I'm going to live off my parents." I was only halfway kidding because I didn't see success in my future. I was just surviving my daily battle.
So when we started over in a new place, I struggled even more to find my footing. I wasn't a popular girl at school. I held my own with advanced social skills, but my beauty didn't hold the room's attention, and I could easily slip through the halls unnoticed. For some reason, though, a group of guys made it their mission to get my sister's and my attention that year. Each weekend we would wake up to toilet paper in our front yard — that strange American tradition of creating a winter wonderland by throwing toilet paper as high as you can into someone's trees. The guys at school relentlessly pursued us, and it felt good to be noticed. Eventually we came around and began hanging out with them on the weekends — until one particular night.
I can't remember exactly when this happened. All I know is that it was dark in the car that evening, and I could feel the inside of my body moving to the beat of the music that was playing so loudly I could hardly think. Nothing could make me lose my mind like nineties R&B, and the gold 1973 Mustang convertible the guys had picked us up in wasn't helping. The windows were fogged up from the new rain, which had fallen a few minutes earlier, and the lack of airflow. I felt as if I belonged there, like the lyrics of the Tracy Chapman song "Fast Car": "I had a feeling that I belonged."
In some ways, it felt like any other night. We had been doing the exact same thing every weekend for months. If you had told me that this night would change my whole life, I wouldn't have believed you. But, in the darkness of that car, in the nauseating normal, something life changing happened.
My heart began to pound. In fact, the pounding was so hard my mind began to race, and the whole moment paused in time. I sensed something shifting in the car, which I can now say was the Holy Spirit. He immediately had my attention, and I began to hear him speaking to me in my heart.
He said, "Havilah, what are you doing? I've called you to more than living for the weekend. You cannot live like this anymore. You have a destiny and a calling. You've got to be courageous! Fight for your life! Get out of here!"
As my heart beat wildly, I felt I couldn't be silent any longer. I asked the guys to turn down the music so I could speak. Then I exclaimed, "I have a call of God on my life!"
I wish I could convey how awkward this moment was. There was no piano player or pastor in the background. No one nodding in affirmation as I made this life-changing proclamation. Quite the opposite. An uncomfortable silence filled the car, and the dark silhouettes of the two guys in the front seat didn't move. Nothing about it felt spiritual.
At this point, I burst into tears, overcome with the emotions I was feeling. As tears streamed down my face, I glanced at my sister. I wondered if she was going to act as if I were a crazy person who had lost her mind. But as I looked over at her, she was crying too. Something was happening in this car. She was experiencing the same thing I was.
In the middle of this awkward and holy moment, I blurted out to the guys, "You are welcome to come with me if you like, but even if you don't, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to follow God's calling." My final words were met with utter silence. No one said a thing, and as I continued to cry in the backseat, I felt an overwhelming peace and resolve settling inside of me.
Something had dramatically changed. Before, the approval of others had mattered to me deeply — but now, for the first time, I was free from that. I wasn't thinking about the guys. In fact, I didn't care anymore. No more hiding in the backseat of the car. No more feeling invisible in a very visible family. No more feeling left behind in my spiritual community.
Only one opinion mattered at that moment: God's! Even though I was not sure what the Holy Spirit's prompting would require going forward, I knew I had just made one of the most important decisions in my life: a wholehearted surrender to follow Jesus.
The Great Divide
Oswald Chambers called this point of decision in our lives the "Great Divide": "To get there is a question of will, not of debate nor of reasoning, but a surrender of will, an absolute and irrevocable surrender on that point."
My "Great Divide" moment, my place of no return and complete surrender, happened in the backseat of a car. The guys didn't say anything after my proclamation, and I still laugh about it today. They took us home without saying a word. Later that night, as my sister and I knelt by our beds, I said this simple prayer out loud: "Lord, I am not much. I am young. I am a girl. I have absolutely no special gifts or graces in my life, but if you can use anyone, you can use me."
In that moment, I so wished the heavens would open and angels would appear. I wished for something supernatural to solidify the moment. But it didn't happen. Couldn't God have spared one angel? Just one? No. Not because he is mean or selective, but because he was trying to teach me a powerful lesson that I would remember to this day.
Simply put, he wanted me to understand that everything counts. No matter what we feel, what is happening around us, or how grand or quiet the moment is, the Lord hears what we say to him every single time. When you are praying and it seems as though you're not being heard, God is listening and taking you seriously. He hears that cry in your voice, in the deepest longing of your heart.
Perhaps we expect that once we've made the decision to surrender our lives to God, the heavens will open and things will automatically become easier — but that's not the case. In fact, some things get harder, and we struggle to see God in the middle of it all. Yet, as his children, we can be sure that on the battlefield of life, regardless of our current circumstances, he hears us. Faith is what matters to God, and if we reach out in faith, he will respond.
It's Not What You Think
The battles you face in life are not what you think they are.
The battles involve more than you and your life. In fact, the war began long before your feet ever touched the soil of this planet.
Let's take a moment to go back to the beginning of the story.
Our enemy, the Devil, once lived in heaven (Rev. 12:9; 20:2). He was a created being. The Bible says he was an angel, and his body contained musical instruments (Ezek. 28:13). He was beautiful and more glorious than all the other angels, but pride, jealousy, and self-exaltation contaminated his heart. He didn't want to be merely a reflection of God; he wanted to dethrone God. He wanted the other angels' worship all to himself. He wanted the glory.
But God does not share his glory — not because he is selfish, but because he is wise and all-knowing. He knows the weight of his glory will destroy anyone who covets it. No one but God is capable of carrying such a high honor.
Still, Satan rallied one-third of the angels to join him in his doomed rebellion, and a war broke out in heaven. In the end, Satan and the fallen angels, now called demons, were cast out of heaven as punishment.
But the struggle continues on earth. This is where we come in.
Humans are God's most precious creation; we alone have been given the opportunity to become his sons and daughters. Satan knows this, and his revenge — his plan to get back at God — is to destroy our souls. As my friend Chris Durso once said, "Satan has already experienced heaven and knows he'll never be able to go back. So like a child, if he can't go, he doesn't want you to go." The enemy is on a suicide mission. His destiny and eternal damnation are already set. His only goal now is to take as many people with him as he can. He wants people to worship him, which robs God of sons and daughters.
What does this look like in our everyday lives? Let's take a look at Eve and how Satan approached her all those years ago.
Most of us know the story of Adam and Eve, the first humans God created, and how he placed them in the paradise called the garden of Eden. There they lived peacefully and happily and walked closely with God. In fact, Genesis 3:8 tells us that God walked "in the garden in the cool of the day" (NKJV). What a joy it must have been to be in such close relationship with their maker! Then something happened to change everything. Enter Satan in the form of a serpent.
Genesis 3 tells us that the serpent approached Eve with a lie wrapped in truth. He posed a question about God, asking her if what he had heard was true:
The serpent was clever, more clever than any wild animal God had made. He spoke to the Woman: "Do I understand that God told you not to eat from any tree in the garden?" (Gen. 3:1)
What a case of "fibs in a blanket"! Yes, God had told Adam and Eve earlier not to eat from one of the trees in the garden — but not all of them.
God commanded the Man, "You can eat from any tree in the garden, except from the Tree-of-Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil. Don't eat from it. The moment you eat from that tree, you're dead." (Gen. 2:16–17)
Here we see the formation of a tactic the enemy commonly uses. The first thing he did, at the beginning of all beginnings, was to turn a statement into a question. We can assume the enemy wasn't confused, that he wasn't seeking clarity by asking that question. He was seeking engagement. Instead of clarity he wanted to bring confusion. He wanted Eve to become curious, because he knew her curiosity would lead to confusion — and confusion would result in the corruption of God's words to her.
Why was it so important to the enemy to distort God's words? He was trying to misrepresent God's intentions. He knew that if he could get Eve to grow curious, and eventually doubt God's intentions toward her, he could confuse her and contaminate what God had said. Distorting God's intentions was an entryway into Eve's heart — the entry point he needed.
I remember recognizing this strategy of the enemy years ago when I was having a heart-to-heart talk with God. I was sharing my sincere desire to live in a way that demonstrated my full trust in him. I asked him what a lifestyle of true trust looked like, and he said, "Havilah, true trust is believing my intentions toward you are always good."
I was speechless. I knew I didn't live with this reality.
Instantly, my eyes filled with tears, and my heart became heavy as I realized I didn't fully trust God. I had judged his intentions. I didn't believe him, or at least not as deeply as I could. He was asking me to return to the place my heart was created to live — a place of complete confidence.
Days and weeks after this realization, I would find myself in times of conflict and would hear him say to my heart, "Havilah, do you trust me? Do you believe my intentions toward you are only good?" Then I would feel the struggle inside. I resolved to listen to the Holy Spirit, knowing his voice would grow stronger in my heart if I focused on him. I was sure his love could overcome my greatest fear, so I would spend a moment releasing my fear and worry and leaning into trust, whispering under my breath, "Lord, I trust you. I believe you only have right motives toward me." In these moments of spiritual sobriety, peace would flood over my spirit and soul. I was gaining strength over the struggle.
One of my favorite verses that helps during the battle in our hearts over the truth of God's intentions goes like this: " 'For I know the plans I have for you,' says the Lord" (Jer. 29:11 NLT). Another translation says, "I know what I'm doing. I have it all planned out — plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for."
The word plans in Hebrew is machashabah, which means "thoughts" and "purpose" but also "intentions." When I first learned this, it only confirmed the word God had given me the day of our heart-to-heart, and several other scriptures that do the same.
Psalm 40 says,
Many, O Lord my God, are the wonderful works which You have done, And Your thoughts toward us; There is none to compare with You. If I would declare and speak of your wonders, They would be too many to count. (v. 5 AMP)
The word thoughts here is the same Hebrew word as the one translated as plans in Jeremiah. David was saying, "Your intentions toward us are wonderful and too many to count."
The enemy loves to prey on the places in our hearts where we don't trust God, where we don't believe his motive is good. He uses the parts of our stories where pain, abandonment, or rejection became our daily bread and then reminds us of those memories, of how we felt in those times, leading us to the conclusion that God is not who he says he is. Unlike God, Satan doesn't have our best interests in mind.
But the truth is, God would never tell us to do something without the best intentions. It's outside of his character to do or be anything but good.
Most of the time, when God tells us what to do, the enemy will ask questions that undermine what God has already clearly said. "God told you to do what ?" the Devil asks. "Why would he do that? Is it that important?" His suggestions are meant to confuse us. The enemy will always try to change God's periods into question marks. He turns God's loving boundaries and instruction into a question of intention. I wonder how many of us start out taking God at his word but begin questioning him when the enemy comes inquiring.