bronze statue of a renaissance era eastern european soldier on horseback
Reading Time: 9 minutes A proper spiritual warrior waging spiritual warfare. (Juvnsky Anton Maksimov.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! As we checked out various supposed spiritual warriors recently, I couldn’t help but notice again how much obfuscating language they use. Of course, that observation didn’t surprise me. After all, spiritual warfare itself is a Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game for Christian adults. With their grandiose language, spiritual warriors certainly sound impressive. Ah, but if you lift the hood of this Jesus-built hot rod, you’ll find nothing more under it than a pokey little jalopy engine. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the utter banality that spiritual warriors mask with over-the-top Christianese.

bronze statue of a renaissance era eastern european soldier on horseback
A proper spiritual warrior waging spiritual warfare. (Juvnsky Anton Maksimov.)

What Spiritual Warfare Is.

Officially, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ wage spiritual warfare against the demonic forces of evil opposing their god. The Christians doing it think they are just like real live soldiers in real live armor with real live weapons on a real live battlefield, fighting a real live battle in a real live war against real live opponents for real-world stakes. But they’re doing it in the spiritual world for Jesus!

Baffling? Oh no, I assure you: everything about spiritual warfare is perfectly understandable.

The Christians who get into spiritual warfare get their information about it from eccentric interpretations of the Bible and a lot of folklore they’ve developed over the past few decades. Their favorite verse about spiritual warfare is invariably Ephesians 6:12:

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.

Every single word after the “but” in that verse refers to something completely imaginary. (Also, yes, that’s where the book title This Present Darkness comes from.)

What these Christianese concepts look like in reality:

  • Spiritual: imaginary; based entirely in the mind
  • Spiritual warfare: thinking angrily at the ceiling; stomping around angrily while thinking angry thoughts; directing threats and chest-thumping proclamations at the ceiling
  • Principalities and powers: imaginary realms that correspond roughly to the maps at the beginning of fantasy novels, except they tend to be free-floating, context-less points in Christians’ imaginations; about all these Christians tend to be certain about is that Heaven is in the sky while Hell is beneath the ground

Why It’s Performed.

Just as real-world wars get fought over territory, spiritual wars get fought over people’s souls — which are sort of like territory to these Christians. Clearly, this means that Jesus controls territory that could be taken by his demonic opponents. (I suddenly wonder where about the source of those “streets of gold.”)

For some unfathomable reason, Jesus apparently can’t fight his own battles, however, not even with legions of angels at his beck and call. He wants his little ant farm denizens to help him out. In fact, he needs them to step in! If they don’t, he .. well, he won’t lose, and nothing can defy his will anyway so it’s not like anything could provoke any change he doesn’t desire, but Christians still gotta do it for Jesus Reasons. Quick! Look over there! A squirrel’s giving a massage to another squirrel!

my distraction technique works like a charm

Ahem. Yes. Obligatory. Totally. Necessary. Absolutely. Moving on.

What these Christianese concepts look like in reality:

  • Demons: invisible boogeymen, which manifest as bad or ominous/anxious/unapproved feelings
  • Angels: also invisible and imaginary, but on the spiritual warriors’ side; might as well not even exist, however, because Jesus wants his new bestest friends to play with him this time
  • Jesus: the ultimate imaginary friend; demands to be your BFF or he’ll hate you forever and tell all his friends to hate you too AND THEY WILL, oh they WILL

Who Performs It.

We can’t stop here. This is wingnut country.

Very occasionally, mainline churches (like this one) use the language of spiritual warfare. However, they obviously don’t mean the same thing by it at all. In their minds, a spiritual warrior is just a Christian who prays a lot for others.

However, that is not the sense of the phrase as we’re using it today. If that was all Christian wingnuts were doing, nobody’d have any problems with them. No, to find classic spiritual warriors we must turn to that crowd of right-wing conspiracy theorists who live in a reality-free bubble and think chemtrails are demonic skidmarks.

Spiritual warriors (in the sense we’re using it) tend overwhelmingly to be male right-wing evangelicals. Sometimes, I find right-wing male Catholics involved, but let’s face it: the two types are identical in every practical way anyway, which is unsurprising as they’re both very authoritarian. We’re talking about the kind of guys with a real boner for the military. They end up sliding into these subgroups instead to justify their negative feelings and aggressive urges. (It’s okay to be angry and violent when demons are involved, right? Right?)

uptight catholic dad gets roasted by veterans
(Source: eBaum’s World.) Now I’ll tell you this numnuts is a hardline Catholic wingnut, and all will make sense. Bet this guy loves him some SPEERCHUL WARFARE Y’ALL.

Women do participate in this kind of spiritual warfare sometimes. One can find copious essays and even real-life workshops exhorting women to get involved. That said, the imagery used by spiritual warriors centers almost exclusively around big strong buff men.

Notably, spiritual warriors rarely seem in person like they could reliably carry a large sack of potatoes across a football field or stand up to a 15-year-old parking-lot attendant.

In their dreams, they are free indeed.

What these Christianese concepts look like in reality:

  • Spiritual warriors: angry yell-y Christians who conduct imaginary fights with imaginary opponents that often splash out onto very real bystanders who didn’t ask to be part of a pretendy game

Where the Magic Happens.

Most Christian resources about spiritual warfare insist that these battles occur in a place they call the spiritual realm. That means it’s entirely imaginary and happens all in their minds.

Since the spiritual realm is purely imaginary, the person performing spiritual warfare can do it literally anywhere they like. Moreover, most spiritual warriors belong to flavors of Christianity that believe that their god is literally everywhere in the universe at once and forever. So you wouldn’t guess that there’d be preferred locations at all for this stuff. But there are, and the rewards vary accordingly.

The amount of admiration and praise these Christians receive from their tribe increases according to how much side-eye they get during their battle. Mostly, spiritual warriors wage their battles in friendly spaces: their own homes or churches. These venues provide decent rewards. Sometimes, though, they go into public spaces to conduct an imaginary battle. On rare occasions, they gain entry to unfriendly spaces full of people who thoroughly disapprove of what they’re doing. That’s where the real rewards start pouring into their hands.

One constant: Spiritual warriors don’t like waging their battles purely in private. Nobody can see them doing it that way. Someone, if only a family member, must hear or see it happening for it to count.

What these Christianese concepts look like in reality:

  • Spiritual realm: nowhere and everywhere; often, spiritual warriors decide that a particular place will stand in just fine and head there, or they’ll just think about the real-life place involved while they get angry at their ceilings
  • Enemy territory: anywhere the spiritual warrior will get side-eye for acting like a weirdo; whatever happens to them there is always 100% because of their Jesus Auras, not ever because they’re acting weird
  • Matthew 6:5doesn’t count here for um, totally for reasons; because shut up, that’s why

How to Wage Spiritual Warfare.

This part varies enormously. Ideally, spiritual warriors try to purify themselves through prayer. Then, they put on the whole armor of God as described by Ephesians 6:13-17.

Having donned this armor, our spiritual warriors begin to pray out loud, sometimes marching around in circles in their chosen real-world stand-in for the spiritual battleground in question. This might look like very martial-looking, with aggressive hand and arm gestures, shouting and yelling, and various exhortations to imaginary beings. One popular method of waging spiritual warfare involves rebuking demons in the name of Jesus.

What these Christianese concepts look like in reality:

  • Purification through prayer: psychically apologizing to Jesus for offending him
  • The whole armor of god: an imaginary set of plate-mail-style armor and an ancient Roman-style sword; sometimes taken to extremes by spiritual warriors who construct or purchase such real-life suits to wear (Biff? Oh hell to the yes, he did); often, spiritual warriors give their kids jammies or play sets of such suits to get them thinking in the correct directions
  • Putting on the whole armor of God: vividly imagining oneself putting on each piece of the described set (see this link), sometimes with vocalizations about which piece is going on next, like the least sexy phone-sex call ever
  • Rebuke: a show of great disapproval of the target and a demand the target stop doing whatever earned the rebuke; this is supposed to have a great impact on demons when worded correctly (see next item)
  • In the name of Jesus: a magical ending formula indicating that the warrior issuing the rebuke acts under the direct authority of Jesus Christ; a proper rebuke must include this bit, or it doesn’t take and the demon just laughs
south park spiritual warfare
In practice, spiritual warfare looks almost exactly like this scene from South Park.

Interpreting the Results: When Feeling is First.

Naturally, no battle can last forever, not even imaginary one. Eventually, an exhausted warrior must seek rest and recuperation from injuries taken, while the army’s commanders must figure out who won the day and who lost it, then plan ahead for the next engagement.

Spiritual warfare works no differently.

Often, spiritual warriors gauge their success by how they feel when they’ve finally petered out. Interestingly, the feelings generated by demonic attacks tend to look exactly-and-precisely like the symptoms of an oncoming anxiety attack, which is pretty much how my own post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) went undiagnosed until well after my deconversion.

However, the movement involved in spiritual warfare can be emotionally cathartic in nature (as well as physically strenuous, what with all the hand-waving and marching). So can the intense performances, which recast a normal human being in the role of a big powerful warrior fighting a battle they can’t possibly lose.

So after waging a spiritual battle, participants often feel relief and a serious improvement in their mood. This is considered a victory condition. Most Christians who get into spiritual warfare, like those who get into speaking in tongues and dancing in the Spirit, learn quickly how to work themselves up into that catharsis.

If the spiritual warriors do not achieve that catharsis, of course, that means that they haven’t won yet. They must return — and Jesus even harder this time.

Second Method: Divination.

A second method of interpreting the results of spiritual warfare involves waiting to see if a desired outcome takes place or not.

Often, spiritual warfare takes place to ensure that real-world events play out the way the warrior wants. If the event comes to pass as desired, then the warfare was successful. If not, the warrior must return to the battle.

One sees this gauge used often by especially-politicized Christians. They wage spiritual warfare to ensure that their favorite candidates get elected, their favorite laws get passed, and their favorite pseudoscience gets snuck into taxpayer-funded schools’ science classrooms.

When you hear the term spiritual warfare thrown around in these senses, be aware that the Christian using it is asserting that nothing less than the god of the entire universe super-duper wants this thing to happen — and that any opponents of theirs align themselves with literal demons. Nothing in the previous sentence is ironic, exaggerated, or accidental.

Also of note, the same Christians who happily shackle themselves to God’s will and swear they adore God’s perfect plan seem like the first to deny both when they’ve lost any of their dust-ups.

(I mean, not one of them has ever wondered if maybe their god actually wants women to have access to legal, safe, easily-obtained abortion care.)

Easy Peasy Spiritual Warfare!

As Christianity continues to decline, winnowing out its more moderate and compassionate members, we’ll only see more spiritual warfare, I’m afraid. In a world where simply identifying as a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ no longer provides returns, the people in that tribe must work harder to stand out from the crowd and get their jollies stroked.

And what better way than to begin throwing one’s weight around as a SPEERCHUL WARRIOR?

Nobody will ever insist you take a test of mental or physical fitness to enter a real army, or do a background check on you or talk to your relatives or whatever. There aren’t any educational requirements — or even any age requirements. (And officially, no gender or orientation requirements either!) No matter how much or how little you can do as a spiritual warrior, the need is great, even cosmically so. And you cannot possibly lose or mess up, not really, because the final ending was written on stone eons before the universe even came into existence.

Of course, spiritual warfare isn’t real. Nothing about it is real. Nothing about it changes anything in reality, except for perhaps the opinions of the people witnessing these warriors going about their warfare. (Like my sister!)

Ah well. I guess even spiritual warriors can’t have everything!

Today, Lord Snow Presides over these legends in their own minds — and all the imaginary battlefields they visit.

NEXT UP: How the Satanic Panic readied evangelicals for QAnon.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...