BY DANIEL T. GOMES
“All warfare is based upon deception.”
— SUN TZU, THE ART OF WAR
Conflict is an unavoidable part of living. Everyone has experienced it in some form or another, and everyone has gained or lost something in an attempt to resolve it. From the pettiest dispute to the most devastating war, the human being is familiarized with conflict and often seeks the most advantageous way of dealing with it. While some are bound by varying degrees to moral codes of conduct even in warfare, others believe that in war, as in love, there are no rules. Those who dare to do anything are likely to succeed where those who would refrain from a course of action cannot, and the most brilliant and victorious individuals in history often belong to the former group.
Sun Tzu was one such individual. The Chinese expert studied and mastered warfare to the point of making it an “art”: he identified common notions and systematic principles vital to the success of any military enterprise, and his treatise remains one of the most popular books on the subject twenty-five centuries after it was first written. Even though the work carries a martial emphasis, many of its broader concepts can be applied to just about any type of clash of interests – arguments, legal battles, sports, and so on.
Perhaps the most iconic principle to be laid out by Sun Tzu was the employment of deception in war. To him, deception was a fundamental tool in any general’s arsenal, as it allows one to subvert the enemy’s perception – a decisive leverage when properly manipulated. When duly applied, this principle impairs an opponent’s ability to act according to his best interests: he may be left unsure of what to do, or he may be led to believe he is acting appropriately when in fact he’s not. Sun Tzu argued that the use of subterfuge and dissimulation was inherent to warfare and could effectively turn the tide of battles and wars. So far, history has proven Sun Tzu to stand correct, at least when it comes to the more earthly kinds of engagement.
Spiritual warfare, however, allows no room for deception. More specifically, the Christian spiritual warfare cannot make use of this principle in any form or shape, since deception itself is the enemy. Satan, the “Accuser,” is the personification of pride unchecked, and has mastered every known instrument – deception especially – to sway humankind away from its appropriate course of action, i.e. to be united with God in perfect harmony. The Devil has sown discord and destruction since the beginning of times, in the vain hopes of winning a war lost from the start; still, he continues to work diligently, if not on winning, then on causing as many losses to the other side as he possibly can. To this end he has led many people astray, his deception having pervaded anything and everything that ought to be holy and pure.
Because of this, deception must be beneath the Christian. He cannot lie when he swears allegiance to an omniscient God that prizes righteousness and justice. He cannot lie to the cunning Adversary, lest he ends up as the one being tricked. He can only lie to himself and others; but to do so is to disregard the precepts of Christian faith. There are some religions in this world that allow its practitioners to conceal and even deny their faith to their opponents under certain conditions, but the Christian knows better. Perjury and hypocrisy are the ways of Satan, not of the Christ; if Peter felt shame after denying Him in public, shouldn’t all Christians feel the same when they do so in their own hearts, let alone in public?
Deception is therefore incompatible with the Christian faith – and yet it thrives in Christian circles just as well as in secular ones. At the end of the day, man will be man, which in Christianity translates into an incredibly incongruent creature, one made in the image of God but tainted by sin. As such, it comes as no surprise that a Christian’s spiritual warfare knows no respite, since his faith may be challenged even at times when he would think it to be most secure. But then again, that’s the point of Satan’s deception: to strike when least expected, to manipulate his opponents – which, according to the Bible, is just about God and His entire Creation – and leave them vulnerable.
The art of spiritual warfare is based not upon deception, but truth. The faithful Christian knows that the truth is the only way to beat the Adversary. But as Pilate famously put it, “What is truth”? To the believer, the truth is God’s Word. It holds the promise of redemption and grace through which man may be justified by faith. It reveals God’s character and denounces Satan’s rebellion. It sheds light on the sinless life of the Christ, who yet suffered a grievous penalty for the deliverance of many. By holding on to the truth and proclaiming it – even if at the cost of his
life – the Christian fulfills his call and emerges victorious from the spiritual battle he is constantly engaged in. By holding himself accountable before God and repenting from sin, the Christian denies Satan the opportunity to accuse him.
Therein lies the fundamental concept of this art: that truth alone vanquishes the Adversary, thwarts his plans and disarms his traps. It is an immense ordeal to put this principle into practice, and there will be times when the believer simply won’t be able to uphold it; in these times, the believer must remind himself that he is not alone, that the One who gave him truth will also help him stand for it. If he clings to the truth, he will be triumphant; he will have checkmated Satan himself in the fight for his soul and earn for himself the victor’s wreath – a most deserved reward to one who masters the art of spiritual warfare.