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The Devil’s 5 Favourite Strategies: Church Leader Edition

You’re probably thinking: Seriously? A blog post on the devil? I mean come on… I thought this was a blog for thoughtful leaders.

Well, I’m with you. Talking about the work of the enemy is not an easy task.

The challenge, I think, lies at the extremes. There are some Christian leaders who never talk about Satan, and others who talk incessantly about him. You know what I mean. In the case of the latter, every time the toast burns or something doesn’t go their way, Satan is behind it and it’s time for an exorcism. Neither extreme is particularly helpful.

In a similar way, the greatest mistake I believe you can make with evil is to overestimate or underestimate its influence. It doesn’t have ultimate power, but it also isn’t powerless. Evil is active. And in some way, it’s probably influencing your thought life, ministry, and family right now. At least that’s what the scriptures claim. And Jesus himself acted as though evil was very real.

Before I entered ministry I believed what the scriptures taught about evil and Satan because, well, I had confidence in the authority of scripture. But reading passages about evil felt like I was reading about some other time or place. I just had no idea how any of that worked nor did I feel I had any experience with it.

My time in ministry has changed my perspective. Suddenly passages that seemed arcane (like for example, the references in Ephesians to evil, or Jesus’ very real struggle to stay faithful to his Father) began to pop off the page. The scripture’s understanding of the battle between good and evil began to explain a good deal of what I was feeling inside of me as a leader, but also around me in relationships, in culture and even, sometimes, in the church.

Again… please don’t hear extremism in what I am saying. But even if you’re skeptical about evil, you might also have noticed that we do live in a strange world, with headlines that depress, good leaders that get derailed, people that struggle against each other and against themselves. It’s like there’s a virus in the system that we just can’t seem to shake. Because, of course, there is.

C.S. Lewis, of course, treated the subject of the presence of evil in the world masterfully in the Screwtape Letters, written during the ravages of the second world war. It’s a book that has not lost its punch seven decades after its publication. Going back centuries further, you can read Thomas Brook’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices—an astonishingly insightful book (HT to Tim Keller for the reference).

The key to overcoming the activity and influence of evil in your life and your world, of course, is to recognize it. When you expose it to the light of Christ, evil loses its power.

So, in the hopes of shedding some light on evil’s activity, here are some of the strategies I see presently at work in the lives of leaders and churches.

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1. Division

If there’s one strategy Satan comes back to again and again, it’s creating division in the church. And why wouldn’t he? It works.

Strangely, in our culture, some Christians wear their divisiveness as a badge of honour. It’s not. It’s actually a badge of evil.

How do we know division is a sign of the activity and presence of evil?

Paul actually defines which human behaviour is motivated by God and which is motivated by the enemy in Galatians 5.

He begins by listing the characteristics of people whose lives are under the influence of evil.

Ready for the list? Here it is:

Hatred

Discord

Sexual immorality

Jealousy

Impurity and debauchery

Fits of rage

Dissension

Factions

Envy

Conceit

Sadly, too much of that sounds like church.

Even if you remove the sexual sins (which, tragically, are often present too), the list sounds like a job description for self-righteous Christians. But, actually, it’s Satan’s job description.

Contrast that with what the Holy Spirit generates in peoples’ lives. When the Holy Spirit gets hold of a person and a church, he produces:

Love

Joy

Peace

Patience

Kindness

Goodness

Faithfulness

Gentleness

Self-control

The contrast could hardly be sharper.

But wait, you say, what if my conviction is from God?

Sure, occasionally we need a Martin Luther to nail 95 theses to the door. But most of us are not Martin Luther.

And even if you need to ‘take a stand’, it’s probably not a stand for Jesus if it ultimately produces more division and bitterness than it does unity and love. Sometimes love is tough, but love never ends tough.

If you want to drill down a bit further, I’ve written about how the church today might be getting discipleship wrong in this post and again here.

Regardless, if your definition of Christianity has anything to do with hate and division, it’s not Christianity.

2. Arrogance

Arrogance can creep in so easily among church leaders.

There are two primary ways Christians succumb to arrogance: success, and by using a common but false definition of ‘maturity.’

Let’s start with the first. The most difficult test of character is not failure. It’s success.

Here’s why. It’s pretty easy to be humble when you’re failing. It’s just far too easy to take all the credit when things go well.

As a result, leaders of growing churches and ministries almost always have a daily fight with arrogance. Or at least hopefully there’s a fight. Because if there isn’t, arrogance will win. Every time.

I know in my life as the church has grown, as more people have read my blog or even listened to my podcasts, the battle against claiming credit is daily.

I remember that when our church was little, I regularly prayed: “God, write a story so big here that only you can possibly claim credit.”

The truth is, God has.  Our church or my wider ministry has impacted far more people than I ever dreamed or could possibly have pulled off. But I still have to fight myself to make sure that I’m not trying to snatch credit for anything God has done in my life or ministry.

The goal of Christian leadership, after all, is not to get people to follow you. It’s to get people to follow Jesus.

If the battle against pride isn’t daily, pride will win.

A second way that arrogance creeps in is when Christians falsely characterize Christian maturity as knowledge.

If you listened to many in the church these days, you’d think knowledge equals maturity. The more you know, the more mature you are.

Scripture suggests that’s a false test. After all, as Paul points out, knowledge puffs up; love builds up.

Knowledge makes you arrogant. Love fosters humility.

As a leader, I need to be daily transformed by love and humility. When I do that, I resist the devil.

3. Discouragement

If you’re feeling beat up by the first two points (and in different seasons, I’ve felt beat up by both of them… well, actually, I needed to be beaten up by both of them), then you might gravitate toward another of the devil’s favourite strategies: discouragement.

Discouragement says

I’m no good.

I’m not making a difference.

I always mess up.

What’s the point?

I might as well give up.

We’ve all been there. But I believe that none of those messages are from God.

Want a little hack? Read the book of Ephesians, and everywhere it says “you” or “us”  just substitute your name. Put your name in the blanks below:

Even before he made the world, God loved _______ and chose _______ in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt _______ into his own family by bringing ________ to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.

I know that’s a little cheesy, but it actually helps you battle well.

The best antidote to a lie is the truth. So ground yourself in the truth. And also in the truth about yourself.

4. Self-pity

If discouragement is left unchecked, it grows. Self-pity is discouragement on steroids.

Self-pity chisels in stone what discouragement whispers.

It tells you there is no out. That this is the way it will always be. And it simultaneously tells you it’s all your fault and none of this is your fault. Paradoxically, you believe both.

Self-pity is dangerous because it moves you to the sidelines.

Living in a state of self-pity means you don’t need anyone to take you out of the game because you’ve taken yourself out.

It’s an incredibly effective strategy and completely counter to the gospel.

The final thing self-pity does is rob us of all joy. Satan can’t steal our salvation. But he can steal our joy. And he delights in doing it.

Don’t let him.

If you really struggle with discouragement and self-pity, last year, I did a four-part series at Connexus Church, where I serve, on how to change your mind through the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s called Playback: How Changing Your Mind Can Change Your Life. You can watch it here or listen to the series via audio podcast.

5. The slight crossing of moral lines

Occasionally leaders move from relatively deep obedience to an extraordinary moral breach overnight, but usually, it’s far more subtle than that.

As C.S. Lewis says in the Screwtape Letters, “the safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

So how does this happen?

Often it happens when you start to compromise on the small things. Maybe you take a deduction you shouldn’t on your taxes. Or you get a little too close emotionally to someone you’re not married to. Sure… nothing happened. But deep down you know something is happening in your heart. Or maybe you just shade the truth a little in conversations to make yourself or the situation look better than they really do.

The first moral lapse is always the hardest. Then it gets easier from there.

You may be asking God for more in your life or leadership, but whenever you ask God for more, he usually asks you what you’re doing with what he’s already given you.

If you’re not faithful in the little things, you won’t be faithful in the bigger things.

Obedience may seem boring or inconvenient in the short-term, but it’s richly and deeply satisfying in the long term.

If you refuse to compromise now, it becomes much easier to resist compromise in the future.

What do You See?

Those are 5 strategies I regularly see at work in my own life and that I see other church leaders battling against.

Again, knowing what they are is half the battle. If you don’t recognize Satan’s strategies, it’s hard to defeat them. But once you see them and hold them up to the light, they lose their power.

Obviously, this is a short list. What other strategies do you see? How are you combatting them?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

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  • Lee Willis

    Great article, Carey. I appreciate the balanced perspective. Another tactic we see a lot of is comfortableness. When the enemy can get the church to feel like everything is good. We are living the American dream, nice house, nice neighborhood, nice family life, nice cars, nice life… go to church on Sunday, or every other or so… just keep the status quo. Maybe read a verse or two of scripture a day, and pray before dinner, on holidays, anyway.
    Too many church attendees have that perspective of life is good, don’t upset the apple cart.
    Closely related is: family first. It’s a subtle lie that’s easy for people to buy into – sounds so nice.

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  • Rob Clark

    Thank you for this! The simple reminder that there is an enemy using these tactics against us is encouraging. When I forget that, I sink deeper into self-pity and/or arrogance. For me, those two strategies seem to be two sides of the same coin.

    I love the “cheesy” Ephesians hack. Another tool that I don’t use nearly enough is having someone I can be brutally honest and painfully open with. Choosing the right confidant can help neutralize Satan’s strategies.

  • Mike

    Hi Carey. I would second your first two points and move them into a bit more of the concrete.

    Division:
    Do you see a division in church between clergy and laity that ought not be there? I’m specifically referring to paid and unpaid people that comprise the local church.

    Arrogance:
    In listening to leadership podcasts (yours included) I hear a lot of interviews with “movers and shakers.” Have you considered interviewing everyday folk, people that are just living life and not concerned about leading? When leaders interview leaders it feels, to quote Titanic, “Masters of the universe congratulating each other.”

    Just my perspective… hopefully not too frank. And hopefully not contributing to #3.

    • Hey Mike,

      Thanks for this. I’m not sure I see a divines between clergy and laity at least in my mind. At our church, everyone works together to move the mission forward.

      In terms of the leadership podcast…appreciate the comments. Of course, it’s a leadership podcast so I’m going to talk to leaders. However, you’ll notice the majority of my guests aren’t ‘famous’. They’re just leaders making a difference where they’re working. I’m committed to keeping it a blend of people you’ve heard of and people most people don’t know.

      • Mike

        Thanks Carey.

        On the clergy/laity divide what I see is an imbalance of financial and auditory exchange. Laity gives finances and passive listening attention. Clergy consumes finances and empty auditory space.

        In my company, management and employees are working towards a common goal. We have different responsibilities and activities but we’re all being paid and rise or fall on the success of our product. Management actually hinders progress to the degree they keep distracting with talking about the work rather than facilitating the work happening. The best managers are almost invisible because they’re making sure the work is front and center, not them.

        In the church it seems like there is a top-heavy scenario where leaders receive compensation, attention and honor at the expense of those they are leading. For me, it seems like there is a correlation with pastors and managers. Pastors ought to be shepherding the work, meaning facilitating the Body work, going unnoticed because each member is edifying each other. That does not seem the case in the church today where the pastor is front and center.