The Spiritual Warfare of Skiing
The balancing act of confronting evil
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 • Psalm 111 • 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 • Mark 1:21-28
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
Practicing What I Preach
Last week, I talked about how in the life of discipleship, we don’t want to look down at our skis, but look just a little ahead. On Tuesday on the trails, I found myself doing the most literal “practicing what I preach” by going back out to the Craftsbury Outdoor Center and reminding myself exactly that (I still crashed). I also found more skiing lessons that relate to our New Testament texts this week, in which Jesus rebukes an “unclean spirit” (Mark 1:21-28) and Paul writes to the Corinthians about Christian love in the midst of each other’s spiritual struggles (1 Cor 8).
In discipleship and in skiing, not only do we want to look ahead, but we want to do two things at once: 1) have awareness of the dangers in our surroundings, and 2) focus on where we want to go. And so the art of cross-country skiing is similar to the art of what the Christian tradition calls “spiritual warfare” — being aware of and confronting evil, but focusing and orienting towards what is good. But first, more on skiing.
Don’t Stare at the Bridge
I’m still learning how to be a disciple, and I’m still learning how to ski. On Tuesday, our class went around one of the easier slopes on the trail, the Duck Pond loop, a green circle noob trail. Our class instructor, Kara, waited for some of us at one of the steeper hills. At the bottom of the hill is a bridge that the trail runs across, a quick drop that could careen us into wooden rails. Kara took the time to point all this out with the speed and turning dynamics of what we were about to encounter, then stopped to emphasize: “What you don’t want to do is stare at the bridge. Look to where you want to go.” This is because our bodies naturally adjust if we look at the place we want to end up. So, if we only focus on what we want to avoid, we actually make it more likely we will run into it. This is a small example of facing danger in the spiritual life.
We have to be aware of evil. Some of us are called to make a life’s work of dealing with, diagnosing, protecting from, and mitigating its work in our world. But like the bridge, if we entirely focus on the evil we want to avoid, we often end up running into it. Worse, we may accidentally adjust ourselves to its logic and become more like it.
To be sure, we cannot ever ignore evil. It’s very important to be aware of the dynamics of darkness, to talk about our participation in it, to try and help others see it. In our Mark reading today, Jesus demonstrates how he and we are going to be confronted with malevolent spiritual forces in contact with the sacred. Especially when it happens in our midst, we have an extra responsibility to stand up to it—not solely because we want to defeat evil for the sake of evil, but so we can stand up with each other in the face of it. As Karen Swallow Prior said recently, “I talked for a long time with an abuse survivor yesterday. She said her abuse is over. But the silence and indifference of those who knew and know continues, and in some ways, that is the worst part.” I saw this happen in the psychedelic world, and I have been so grateful to come across the writing and advocacy of people like Aaron Hann, Wade Mullens, Rachael Denhollander, and many, many more who inspire me to be better. What I find with these spiritual firefighters is that they so often have a deep faith underneath that prevents them from being subsumed by the evil they confront, which enables them to go back out and face it again.
We want to be aware of evil, confront it, and confront our own participation in it while simultaneously reorienting ourselves to God and reminding ourselves of what is truly good. This is one goal of what we do every week in worship.
Jesus and Spiritual Warfare
I, myself, am far from a demonologist. But it’s important to the Christian tradition to understand there are several types of evil, and one type is evil as a spiritual force. I have talked a bit before about Ephesians 2’s classic formulation of evil, “the flesh, the world, and the devil,” where we have to be aware of the different ways evil shows up in ourselves, in the social systems of the world, and in inhuman spiritual forces that have a mind of their own. The “unclean spirit” that Jesus faces comes from the last category.
To many people, this whole conversation and the term “spiritual warfare” brings up challenging associations. Maybe it’s TV characters of little old Southern ladies who talk about the devil, or Christians who have harmed them, or something else that feels antiquated. Some modern Christians want to explain away all demonic spirits in the New Testament as simply mental health issues they didn’t know about back then. While this tries to explain away some uncomfortable passages in the Bible, it makes for unhelpful implications for people with mental health challenges today.
But there are good reasons to tread lightly in discussing spiritual warfare because of how thinking about evil can sometimes make us treat each other. We even have a word for this risk: demonizing. This extreme degree of judging, shaming, and condemning others as other-worldly bad goes hand in hand with dehumanization. And then the tragic irony that we all know too well happens: once we say someone is evil, we justify being evil to them, “repaying evil for evil” (1 Peter 3:9).
If it’s a trap we fall into, it’s not because evil doesn’t exist, but because it does. Evil spirits do have the ability to capture us, through all the -isms, -ologies, addictions, and so much more. There are indeed spirits that “rule the air” (Eph 2:2) we breathe. And people can be so full of manipulation and abusive that it is like they are possessed by a demon. But in “The Moral Theology of the Devil,” Thomas Merton talks about how many Christians think so much about evil that we start to believe the devil is more powerful than God. We can get so obsessed with the demonic that we become demonic in trying to fight the demonic; after all, we have to if we want to defeat it. Like skiing, our bodies adjust to how we’re orienting ourselves. I know this too well.
Scripture affirms time and again that we are to “hate evil.”1 But we also turn to God for our help that we might hate evil in an un-evil way, a challenge that only the rarest of persons doesn’t struggle with. We also find that we often don’t have to seek evil at all, for living out The Good is often what invokes the “unclean spirits” to show themselves, just as it showed itself to Jesus while he was doing nothing more than teaching and praying in the synagogue. Like everything else, we can learn to better respond to the evil in the world by paying attention to Jesus’ ways. We can become more comfortable in confronting it as Jesus does, but also like Jesus, we can also have patience in teaching each other about what to avoid: “Watch out for the bridge!” But in many ways, spiritual warfare in Christianity is as much about evil as it is about putting our attention, faith, and trust back in God.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up….Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…when you thus sin against brothers and sisters and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never again eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
1 Cor 8:1, 9, 12-13
Aware of Each Other’s Surroundings
But I keep finding myself wrestling here, shifting weight back and forth on my spiritual skis, because I also know we can take evil’s impact on each other too lightly. This is what Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 8.
In talking about what our freedom in Christ means, Paul challenges some of the Corinthians who say that worrying too much about evil infringes on their freedom. He quotes their popular church sayings about why they should be able to do what they want, in this case, eating meat offered to idols as part of Roman religious life: “No idol in the world really exists,” and “There is no God but one” (1 Cor 8:4). Some Corinthians might have thought Paul was evil-obsessed by worrying too much about the idols they left behind, so they should be free to do what they want. After all, evil is not as powerful as God—and this is true, and Paul agrees. But also, Paul points out, this is just knowledge that “puffs up.” We need the love that builds each other up.
Paul’s point was that even though these idols have no power over you, you cannot ignore the power they have over other people in their community. When we do whatever we want because Jesus has our back and loves us, our freedom “becomes a stumbling block” to others.
And so to be Christian is not only looking out for the danger you might ski into, but to look out for everyone else’s dangers by being more fully aware of your total surroundings, to “expand your consciousness” truly beyond your own selfish concerns. Just because there are some dangers that you can avoid and some evils you may be pretty immune to, it does not mean your neighbor is as lucky. We have to be more and more aware of the full implications of our actions on each other. And we cannot abuse the freedom that we have in Christ if it hurts one another. Instead, we are to sacrifice so that others may spiritually live.
And however much we think idols don’t have power, if we start to believe that “anything goes,” eventually we might find ourselves worshipping one.
The Balancing Act
Another thing I’ve learned about cross-country skiing is that you don’t actually want to stay perfectly centered on your skis. Instead, you should always be shifting your weight back and forth, left and right as you glide. It’s when you’re trying too hard to stay perfectly centered that you’re most likely to crash, rather than balancing in movement, always adjusting. This is also the process of discipleship. Not staying static, but adjusting to the little imbalances of sin that come back up after our last adjustment in one area or another. Rather than being a source of anxiety that we are helpless to mess up, this can be a source of ongoing joy, receiving one little grace after another, the wind blowing at our face as we go farther than we thought we could.
When I’m wrestling with how to relate to evil, this balancing act is important. When we find ourselves leaning too hard in one direction—evil is all-powerful, or there is no evil at all to worry about—we can rebalance our weight. It is just one of many balances Christians are called to do: mourning and rejoicing, striving to change the world and loving it as imperfect as it is, remembering and anticipating, serving and being served, praying for others and allowing ourselves to be prayed for, and yes, pointing out evil and pointing back to the goodness of God.
If we’re all joy and rejoicing with zero appreciation for the dark, for the pain, for the presence of evil, we will be disconnected from the suffering we’re called to attend to. But if we’re so busy mourning and being cynical (and don’t I know it), obsessed with where we are rather than what’s ahead, or who we are instead of who we’re becoming, we are not skiing the faith either. We want to look ahead to where we want to go, trusting our bodies to adjust, pushing harder up the hills, and leaning into the gravity of grace to pull us through.
The Temporary Surrender of the Cross
Many readers know I often stretch analogies beyond their usefulness. In this case, I will go ahead and admit the skiing analogy isn’t perfect. Because in worship, we turn our eyes not just to “where we want to go,” but who is taking us there.
Jesus’ ultimate act of spiritual warfare comes much later. At the end of his life, Jesus ultimately chooses to temporarily surrender to evil, to let evil think it’s won. After demonstrating his power that he can command “even the unclean spirits” (Mark 1:27), at the Garden of Gethsemane he accepts the cup before him. From the demonic energy of the crowd, to the demonic energy of the religious leaders, to the demonic energy of the Roman empire, to the simpler sins and failings within his disciples who denied and deserted him, he chose willingly, and with great suffering, to let the “unclean spirits” appear to win. This was not letting evil hurt others, but himself. He did so in order that God might point to an even more ultimate good: a God who gives up his complete freedom so that we might live. We are called to do the same for each other.
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Amos 5:15, Romans 12:9, Proverbs 8:13, and many, many psalms andproverbs.