Asymmetric Spiritual Warfare

March 8, 2006 | Ray Pritchard

Are you familiar with term asymmetric warfare? It’s a concept that has received lots of news coverage in the recent years as a result of the war on terrorism. The word asymmetric refers to something that is out of balance. In warfare it describes a situation where the combatants are not equal. Here’s a working definition:

Asymmetric warfare is a military term to describe warfare in which the two belligerents are mismatched in their military capabilities or accustomed methods of engagement such that the militarily disadvantaged power must press its special advantages or effectively exploit its enemy’s particular weaknesses if they are to have any hope of prevailing.

Asymmetric warfare happens when a large army goes to war against a much smaller force. From the American point of view, most of our wars have been examples of symmetric warfare. In World War II you had the Allied armies on one side and the German, Italian and Japanese armies on the other side. They fought traditional battles for territory across the islands of the Pacific and across North Africa and Europe.

In the 21st century, a new sort of warfare has come to the forefront in which conventional armies face loosely-organized terrorist cells. Here are three clear examples of asymmetric warfare. On October 3, 2000, the USS Cole, an American battleship equipped with the latest and most sophisticated technology, came to the harbor of Aden, Yemen, for what was meant to a routine fuel stop. At 11:18 AM two men in a rubber boat approached the ship. They blew a 40-by-40 foot hole in the side of the ship, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39 others. The irony was that this battleship, designed to protect a carrier battle group against all threats, was powerless to stop two men in a rubber boat.

Let us suppose that you are Osama bin Laden, and you wish to strike a blow against the heart of what you regard as the visible symbol of corrupt Western capitalism. Let us further suppose that you have a handful of men at your disposal. How will you attack the World Trade Center? You could launch some sort of frontal assault, but a few armed men would never make it very far. It just can’t be done. So what do you do? You train the men to commandeer commercial aircraft and fly them into the Twin Towers. And you even plan it so that the attacks are staggered, with the shock of the first tower being hit guaranteeing that the whole world will be watching when the second tower is struck. It worked even better than Osama bin Laden could have dreamed. And almost 3000 people died that day.

We saw another example this week when ABC anchorman Bob Woodruff and his cameraman were seriously injured in Iraq by an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device. These deadly homemade roadside bombs have accounted for nearly one-third of all US battlefield deaths in Iraq.

Asymmetric warfare comes in many varieties. Here are a few examples:

Hit and run attacks

Suicide bombing

Guerrilla warfare

Fighting selectively



Radiological/biological/chemical attacks

“Dirty” nuclear weapons

Cyber-attacks on computer networks

It should be noted that today’s terrorists operate in small, loosely-organized cells that spread across many nations. They may be “sleeper cells” that spring into action after years of dormancy.

Osama bin Laden has grasped the vulnerabilities of free and open societies today. Their technological networks are very complex, highly integrated, and easy to disrupt with precise acts of violence. Tall buildings like the skyscrapers of New York are manifestly vulnerable. The same is true of great suspension bridges, nuclear power plants, water reservoirs, communications hubs, even the virus-prone internet. (Michael Novak, Global Liberty)

Michael Novak goes on to say that Osama bin Laden “demonstrated how relatively easy it is for a small, disciplined, highly trained cadre of warriors willing to die in the attempt to wreak horrific damage, and to terrorize entire nations (as in Spain recently).”

The Enemy’s Goal: Divide and Discourage

When the president reminds us that “the terrorists cannot defeat us,” he is certainly correct in the traditional military sense of the world. We saw what happened in 1991 and again in 2003 in the two gulf wars. No nation on earth can match the US in sheer military might. And yet capturing Baghdad was not like capturing Berlin in 1945. Asymmetric warfare continues, and the end is not yet in sight.

In all of this, it helps to remember that the goal of the lesser power is not to utterly defeat the larger power. Rarely will that happen. Instead, the lesser power intends to harass the larger power until, wearied by an opponent he cannot seem to find, the greater power gives up the struggle. Time in that sense is on the side of the lesser power. Few of us have the stomach for a war that never seems to end. If the lesser power can wreak enough havoc to divide and dishearten the greater power, the lesser power can win even though he is badly outnumbered. One writer summarized the matter this way:

The ideal war is one which no one realizes war is being waged, which is mostly invisible, not because its actions are camouflaged, but because they look like something else. War need never be declared again because we are always at war.

I thought of all these things and realized that this is a true picture of our everyday spiritual warfare. Satan rarely attacks us head-on because we are ready for such things. But he comes at us from unusual angles, playing on our minds, slowing us down, throwing one roadblock after another in our way, causing us to doubt and then to fear and finally to give in to discouragement. There are seasons in life for all of us when nothing comes easy. During these periods, even the tiniest routines of life don’t work as well they ought to. The dishwasher breaks, the car won’t start, our expenses mount up, our friends seem suddenly too busy to talk to us, a project at work misfires, a cherished friend grows distant, our children frustrate us, and our spouse seems impatient and uncaring. In those moments we are facing true asymmetric spiritual warfare because we are being hit in many places at once, and as things pile up, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain our spiritual equilibrium.

Satan Doesn’t Fight Fair

Most of the battles we face will not present us with enormous, life-changing choices, or at least they won’t seem that way at the time. Either we get angry or we don’t. You stay up late to finish your homework or you make up a creative excuse. When you visit the department store you pay cash or you break your promise not to use your credit card. You repeat the unkind story you heard or you decide to keep it to yourself. You pass by the magazine rack in the airport terminal or you stop and begin to browse. You get up early to exercise or you roll over for another 30 minutes of sleep.

No one will know whether you exercised or not. And no one will know (at least not till the end of the month) if you used your credit card or not. And no one will know (unless you are audited) whether or not you lied on your tax return. God has ordained that our spiritual progress should be measured not by huge battles won or lost but by a thousand daily skirmishes no one else knows about. We can say it another way. You wouldn’t commit adultery, but you don’t mind looking at certain Internet sites. You wouldn’t lie but you do make excuses. You wouldn’t steal but you use your credit card foolishly. You wouldn’t deliberately hurt someone, but you do pass along gossip because it seems harmful. The whole point of asymmetric warfare (from Satan’s point of view) is to discourage us to the point that we feel hopeless about our own spiritual progress. When that happens, he has won the battle even though all the resources of heaven are on our side.

In thinking about spiritual warfare from this perspective, keep two things in mind:

1) Satan’s goal is to discourage you so that you feel like giving up.

2) Satan doesn’t fight fair.

He does not observe the traditional rules of warfare. He uses anything and everything that he can to bring us down. This is part of what Paul meant when he spoke about the “schemes of the devil” in Ephesians 6:11. The word “schemes” might also be translated as “traps” or “tricks” or “tactics.” I am reminded of a certain Texas politician who was asked by a certain candidate had lost an election. “It happened because he forgot the first rule of knife fighting. There are no rules.” Satan doesn’t fight fair. He’s not going to give you an even break. He is a liar, a deceiver, a diabolical “angel of light” who comes to you in a thousand guises, tempting you to disobey the Lord. And he’s a lot smarter than you are. He knows your weak points better than you do. And because he is invisible, he can attack you any time of the day or night.

How can we fight back against the devil as he wages asymmetric warfare against us? Here are five practical suggestions.

1) Adopt a Warfare Mentality.

No picture of the Christian life is more frequently cited than that of a soldier engaging in mortal combat. The idea of Christians standing clothed in full armor has captured the mind and heart of every generation. All believers instinctively understand that they are called to fight–to be good soldiers, to put on their armor, to take up their weapons of righteousness, to enter the fray unafraid, to stand against the fierce assault of evil, and having done all, to stand victorious at the end of the day.

Adopting a warfare mentality means understanding that we are always at war, that a battle is raging all around us, and that we ourselves are frontline soldiers. In the old days soldiers saw the enemy. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.” But in modern warfare you rarely see the person on the other side. In the spiritual battle we fight a foe that is invisible to us, and for that reason it is easy to forget that there is a battle at all until the attack suddenly comes.

2) Raise the Spiritual Alert Level.

Since 9/11 those of us living in the United States have become very familiar with the color-coded terror alert system. For a long time, whenever there was a new threat, the level was raised from yellow to orange. Now it seems to be more or less permanently stuck on yellow. Of course, the problem with an alert level that never changes is like asking about the weather in Tahiti–sunny and mild, with a chance of afternoon showers, high temperature in the low 80s. If you get the same forecast for forty years in a row, you stop asking about the weather eventually. In the case of Tahiti, that’s alright because the weather is almost always beautiful. But that’s no good when we’re talking about potential threats to our national security. Mao Tse-Tung remarked that the guerilla “swims like a fish in the sea of the people.” Thus the suicide bomber seems like a normal traveler until he detonates himself.

The same thing is true in the spiritual realm. We’re not safe just because we think we are. Anything can become a weapon. An ashtray becomes a blackjack. A natural gas pipeline becomes a weapon of mass destruction. The ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote a classic treatise called The Art of War. In it he advised warriors never to go to battle unless the battle was already won in the mind of the enemy. Overconfidence leads us to many crushing mistakes, something Peter found out the hard way when he denied Christ less than five hours after he had pledged that his loyalty (Luke 22:31-34). Beware of thinking that you have conquered some sin or that you are beyond certain temptations. Red flag! You never know what you might do under pressure. According to J. C. Ryle, the great Anglican theologian: “He who would make great strides in holiness must first consider the greatness of sin.” Anselm of Canterbury famously remarked that, “You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.” Scotch Presbyterian Robert Murray McCheyne said it even more pointedly, “I have begun to realize that the seeds of every known sin still linger in my heart.” This is a point of great spiritual advance. Beware of spiritual presumption. The traditional reading of 1 Corinthians 10:12 offers this warning: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Here is a more colorful rendering of the same verse: “Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else. Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence” (The Message).

3) Practice Forward-Leaning Defense.

This means building up your spiritual defenses so you are ready when an attack suddenly comes. This in part involves the traditional spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, meditation, worship and Scripture memory. It also demands a thorough self-reflection so that you identify the weak areas in your own life. Such self-reflection ought to lead you to habits of life and patterns of behavior that expose you to unnecessary temptation. It may be as simple as being willing to say, “I have a temper,” something most men don’t want to say, or “I get easily irritated,” or “I’m struggling with internal sexual temptation and I don’t know what to do about it.” It could be as specific as realizing that some friendships are not good for you, some books won’t help you, and there are some places you personally shouldn’t go because they play on your weakness. I am not here supposing that rule-keeping will prevent Satan’s attacks, but I do believe that knowing your weaknesses makes it possible to forestall some attacks before they ever come.

As a corollary, we’re learning in the international arena that since terrorists work across traditional national boundaries, nations must work together to coordinate their intelligence-gathering and their military responses. You can’t go it alone and hope to win against the elusive terror cells that spread across many countries. In the same way, you face a spiritual foe whom you will not defeat on your own. You need the support of close friends who can stand with you, and if necessary, fight with you. That leads me to the fourth point.

4) Present a United Front.

This is always important, but never more so than when we face asymmetric spiritual warfare. We are stronger together than we are alone. We can stand strong when we stand together. The Greeks understood this principle when they developed the phalanx in 700 BC. By massing armed soldiers closely together, they multiplied their effectiveness as a fighting force. Standing shoulder to shoulder with shields raised provided protection from enemy attack. Yet if one of those soldiers was separated from the phalanx, he became an easy target.

Solomon reminds us of this truth in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (The Message):

It’s better to have a partner than go it alone.

Share the work, share the wealth.

And if one falls down, the other helps,

But if there’s no one to help, tough!

Two in a bed warm each other.

Alone, you shiver all night.

By yourself you’re unprotected.

With a friend you can face the worst.

Can you round up a third?

We need each other more than we know. When we are suddenly attacked, if we are alone, it is easy to be discouraged and feel like giving up. But if we know that others are cheering for us and are there to help us, we can find the strength to keep on going even in the worst of times.

We need to pray for one another. As we pray together, we find strength in shared sorrows and joys. As we pray for each other, God sends his angels to help those for whom we pray. Our words uttered in secret move the heart of God, and friends in the battle are made strong once again.

5) Settle in for the Long Haul.

This may be the most important principle of all. Shortly after 9/11, the president told us that the war against terror would not be won easily or quickly. It would take years of determination and the willingness to endure setbacks and further attacks. So far those words have proven 100% true. A few days ago the terrorist organization Hamas came to power in Palestine, and Osama bin Laden remains at large. Iran looms as an even larger threat than Iraq. It happens that at this moment, I am listening to President Bush deliver the State of the Union message. He just uttered these words: “We are engaged in a long war against a determined foe.” It may take ten more years or twenty years or even longer to win the war against terror. Perhaps it will never totally be won. There aren’t many final victories in asymmetric warfare.

This is equally true in the spiritual realm. We are told that our enemies cannot defeat us. But they can discourage so much that we put down our weapons and leave the battlefield. Satan is a defeated foe, yet he is also a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). Because we are joined to Jesus Christ, he cannot finally defeat us, and eventually he himself will be vanquished once and for all. But that day has not yet come. Between now and then there will be more battles, more struggles, some bitter defeats and some stupendous victories. But mostly the spiritual struggle will rage on a thousand fronts at once. Therefore, we must not be surprised at sudden attacks, or discouraging events, or personal disappointments, or financial setbacks, or friends who let us down, or days when nothing seems to go right. And there will be some days when things truly seem to fall apart. All of this is part and parcel of asymmetric spiritual warfare. That does not mean that we should understand that everything bad that happens to us is caused by Satan directly. But it is certainly true that Satan uses all the adversities of life to discourage us and to tempt us to turn away from the Lord.

Life is tough. Life is hard. I personally am skeptical of any theory of the spiritual life that promises victory without struggle. If you think about it, victory without struggle is self-contradictory. Victory implies a triumph reached in the face of unrelenting difficulties. Football coaches like to say, “No pain, no gain,” but that is equally true of the spiritual life.

One Little Word

As I thought about this concept of asymmetric spiritual warfare, it occurred to me that Martin Luther understood the concept even though he never heard the term. Think about these famous words from the hymn A Mighty Fortress:

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:

The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

The whole truth can found in those words. This world is indeed “with devils filled” who would undo us if they could. We are attacked on every side by spiritual forces that strike us in our weak points and come to us in unexpected ways. Though they cannot utterly defeat us, they can wear us down until we feel like giving up. None of this should surprise us or discourage us. “The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battleground” (Warren Wiersbe).

The power of Christ is more than enough to defeat the devil, but victory will not come easily or without or without a heavy cost. When faced with temptation, we must take the “way of escape” God provides for us (1 Corinthians 10:13) which includes fleeing sinful situations (2 Timothy 2:22), confessing Christ openly (Matthew 10:32, Hebrews 10:32, Revelation 12:11), putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8:13), yielding our bodies to God (Romans 6:13), relying on the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and choosing the path of costly obedience (Luke 9:52).

Luther says that when we face the devil, “one little word” will fell him. Jesus is that “one little word.” The cross proved that our Lord is the victor over the devil for time and eternity. That’s where our study of asymmetric warfare comes to an end–on a note of triumphant victory. We’re in a battle whose outcome has been determined since the beginning of the universe. From our standpoint we fight against an enemy who attacks without warning. Sometimes we fall under the crushing blows of the enemy. More often Satan attacks in smaller ways in order to cause us to despair. We stumble in the battle – not from direct hits or large mortar fire – but from strategically placed boulders. We stumble again and again until we leave the battle field, weary and discouraged.

Satan is already defeated! God has promised victory against the crushing blows of the enemy and the indirect hits that discourage us and cause us to despair.

Here is a prayer taken from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions by Arthur Bennett. I offer it as the conclusion of the sermon and with the hope that this prayer will bring the truth home to your heart. I encourage you to say the prayer out loud so its words will be tattooed on your soul.

O Lord,

I bless thee that the issue of the battle between thyself and Satan

has never been uncertain,

and will end in victory.

Calvary broke the dragon’s head,

and I contend with a vanquished foe,

who with all his subtlety and strength

has already been overcome.

When I feel the serpent at my heel

may I remember him whose heel was bruised,

but who, when bruised, broke the devil’s head.

My soul with inward joy extols the mighty conqueror.

Heal me of any wounds received in the great conflict;

if I have gathered defilement,

if my faith has suffered damage,

if my hope is less than bright,

if my love is not fervent,

if some creature-comfort occupies my heart,

if my soul sinks under the pressure of the fight.

O thou whose every promise is balm,

every touch life,

draw near to thy weary warrior,

refresh me, that I may rise again to wage the strife,

and never tire until my enemy is trodden down.

Give me such fellowship with thee that I may defy Satan,

unbelief, the flesh, the world,

with delight that comes not from a creature,

and which a creature cannot mar.

Give me a draught of the eternal fountain

that lieth in thy immutable, everlasting love and decree.

Then shall my hand never weaken,

my feet never stumble,

my sword never rest,

my shield never rust,

my helmet never shatter,

my breastplate never fall,

As my strength rests in the power of thy might. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?