The Christian life is often described as a battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. For most Christians, most of the time, the world and the flesh are tangible and visible; we almost always recognize our struggle against them. The devil, however, is more cunning and more manipulative. He wages a subtler war, often coaxing God’s image bearers down paths that lead to misery, meaninglessness, and poverty.

Invariably, it seems, we’re lured down these paths in life’s ordinary places: our offices, schools, and homes. It’s there, in the places we live and work, that we’re drawn into this cosmic, spiritual war.

Throughout the New Testament, the Apostle Paul talks about the spiritual forces at work around us. In the book of Romans, for example, Paul describes certain realities, mostly concealed from us, that influence the way we think about the world and how it works. In Chapter 8 Paul tells us, “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). In other passages, we come across several words — such as principalities, virtues, dominions, thrones, and names — spiritual forces that, in their efforts to thwart God’s plan, sway our thinking and thereby pervert our social habits and misdirect the way we live.

These aren’t words we use every day, but, according to theologian Hendrik Berkhof, they were familiar to Paul’s original readers. For them, these words provided a graphic picture of why — as these powers exploit fallen man’s greed, covetousness, and pride — governments exploit citizens, business manipulates customers, and teachers lead students down deceptive paths. With these once common words Paul is telling us, in our generation, that business, education, government, and science wield power. They shape our thinking and affect our lives. And as theologian Albert Wolters says, they are always in play. Everything we do, as a result of what informs and motivates us, nudges the world in one direction or the other: either closer to God’s loving purpose, thereby causing life to thrive; or nearer to Satan’s, bringing decline and decay.

Paul also wants us to understand that there are unseen forces: rulers, authorities, and angels that inhabit the invisible realm of God’s creation, and that we encounter them every day. Their work is subtle, and its effects are almost always gradual, but day by day as they influence us, they shape the traditions and institutions that order our lives.

Our Institutions Taken Captive

In his book “Christ and the Powers,” Berkhof points out that our cultural institutions are good and a part of God’s plan for the world. But with the fall of man and the mutiny of angels, they’ve been taken captive. Ephesians 6 tells us that rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers have not only commandeered the culture-shaping organizations, but they’ve also fashioned idols from them, persuading mankind that government, business, religion, and science — in and of themselves — can meet the full scope of mankind’s needs.

Paul is telling us that the invisible realm acts on this one, and that it acts in and through the institutions that shape our lives.

This is what Paul is getting at, Berkhof says, when he warned the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). We’re not to put our trust where it doesn’t belong. We’re not to be swayed by fickle public opinion, or the latest fad, or by some deception that has, in a given cultural moment, been prettied up to entice susceptible minds. These “prescriptions and doctrines of men,” Paul warns, lure us away from Christ and rob us of life’s meaning.

Paul talks a lot about this, and every time he underscores the same point: that apart from Christ we’re vulnerable to these renegade powers; apart from Him they have room to form our values and guide our lives. Apart from Christ they, deformed and crooked powers, often provide the veneer of structure and the illusion that life is in order.

Business, law, architecture, music — these are all essentially good. But, Berkhof says, when Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ, “not even the powers,” he’s warning us that danger lurks; that on this side of mankind’s Fall they’re prone to do just that — to separate us from God’s love and persuade us to act in ways that are counter to His purpose. Business entices us with money and power. Government lures us with the assurance of safety, security, and equality. Education seduces us with the promise of prosperity. These foundations of our society, which are meant to bind us to God’s love, have become a wedge that separates us from Him (Galatians 4:8).

And this is why God has scattered His people throughout the world. This is why He calls them into every sphere and institution.

Idolatry is in the Air

This may sound like passing the buck. After all, institutions are inanimate; they don’t have motives, or crave power, or scheme, or manipulate. So what does it mean to say “education seduces,” or “government promises,” or “business entices”?

There’s a clue in Ephesians 2:2. There Paul points out that Gentile believers once walked “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air.” A few pages later, in Ephesians 6:12, Paul talks about powers that reside in the heavenly regions, and in Colossians 1:16 he says that the powers are in heaven. In each case Paul, again using language that made sense to his early readers, is describing the border between the visible and invisible realms. He’s telling us that the invisible realm acts on this one, and that it acts in and through the institutions that shape our lives.

We get a better grip on this, Berkhof suggests, by looking at Paul’s phrase “powers of the air.” It brings to mind several expressions we use today, sayings such as “love is in the air” or “spring is the air.” Such expressions describe a prevailing mood that a society shares. They also label the sweeping, almost inexplicable shifts in our cultural perspective.

For example, when courts and state governments suddenly begin legalizing gay marriage; when, contrary to millennia of common sense and natural law, lawyers, judges, and lawmakers, seemingly all at once, neglect the complementary nature of men and women and the corresponding roles that mothers and fathers are meant to play — it’s clear that they’ve been caught up in the latest whirlwind of public opinion.

When hundreds of Veterans Administration officials across the country falsify data about how long veterans have been waiting to see doctors, there’s something “in the air” — a force that defies our reason.

When, in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, thousands of loan officers in every state and hundreds of cities began approving home loan applications from unqualified borrowers — as if in a coordinated action — there’s more at work than greed.

And when millions of able-bodied citizens are persuaded that others should pay for their food, health care, and day care — and when they deny their obligation to work and contribute to their neighbors’ good, we can safely say they’ve been deceived by powers of the air. As a result they, and the culture that misleads and enables them, have been lured into a life that is barren of any grand purpose.

Scripture tells us that when we’re enchanted by the “powers of the air” we are “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). As we contest the issues of our generation — marriage, social entitlements, education, the sanctity of life, capitalism, socialism, income inequality —  we see how these forces consolidate public opinion, how they form coalitions of thought and philosophy, and thereby separate man from God and His good purpose.

Thankfully, Christ intervened. In the words of Ephesians 4:9, He descended “to the lower earthly regions” and came to our rescue; and He thereby empowered us to infiltrate every sphere, occupation, and secular enterprise.

The Powers Have Been Exposed

Colossians 2:13-15 plainly tells us that Christ died for us, and that by His death He atoned for our sin, cancelling our legal debt by “having nailed it to the cross.” That’s good news, and in these words we find the inescapable assurance of our salvation. But it’s the rest of the sentence, the part we don’t as often dwell on, that inspires us to get up and go to work each day. It’s there that we learn Christ also “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” That’s the reality, Berkhof suggests, that emboldens us and gives us the courage to challenge the status quo.

There are rulers and authorities that divert us from God and His wisdom and the fruitful lives He wants us to have, but Christ has exposed and conquered them. That means we can fearlessly steer our businesses in a righteous direction — innovating, serving, and rousing people with a majestic purpose. We can enter the public square with confidence, shaping public policy so that our laws and customs cause our neighbors to thrive. We can bravely teach school, shaping and training students to live productive, satisfying lives. We can valiantly practice law, seeking justice and equal opportunity.

We can venture wherever He leads, knowing that by His “descent” the Son of God invaded hostile territory, and that by His resurrection He subjugated the occupying enemy, proving that government, religion, and business are means not ends — tools created to serve His purpose and weld us to His love.

We know that business, schools, government, and science — though they sometimes thwart our best intentions — are not categorically evil. They are not the devil’s invention, flung into the world to wreck our lives. These powers come from God, and like levees surrounding a flood-prone city they’re meant to preserve and protect us from chaos. And we have the assurance that God has called His people into nearly every place and position, so that we can align these institutions with His intention.

The Church — A Visible Challenge

The church — meaning the entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers, architects, accountants, volunteers, and salesmen who follow Christ — keeps the powers in check. Attuned to God’s wisdom, His people reject every foolish impulse, regardless of its cultural popularity. By our faithful presence we force the rebel powers to retreat. By our loving involvement in every sphere and institution we’re a perpetual challenge to the “powers of the air.” And with our participation — in fashion, art, and music — we reveal a hope and a purpose the rival powers can’t offer. Everywhere, and in every occupation, we prompt more and deeper thought, and we defy the status quo that leads so many into dismal lives.

Christ has disarmed the insurgent powers; therefore our lives are to be an open challenge and a persuasive alternative. In our classrooms and science labs, we understand that the battle isn’t against flesh and blood, nor is it against institutions and social organizations. We strive against the powers and principalities that conceal God’s wisdom, that camouflage His purpose, and — by their deception — impoverish people and nations (Ephesians 6:10-18).

When the Apostle Paul writes that “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), he gives us a peek behind the curtain — a glimpse, if you will, into the cosmic control room where we see that it is Christ, and not these renegade authorities, who actually pushes and pulls the levers of power. Everything, then — from software development, to nursing, to finance — serves its intended purpose when it submits to Him, the “head” and the “beginning” of all creation (Colossians 1:18). It is then, says Berkhof, that these things properly function “as the invisible weight-bearing substratum of the world, as the underpinnings of creation.”

Conversely, when our “weight-bearing” work serves some other purpose, it not only fails to buttress creation but also impoverishes mankind and sets culture into a steep decline.

The French journalist Guy Sorman once wrote that “democracy, law, and economic development intermingle, for all three are based on a universal system of moral values.” Said another way: All three, by God’s common grace, are grounded in His wisdom.

God scatters His people across creation because without our leavening presence, and without our visible hope for a Christ-redeemed future, the hostile forces exploit people and creation so that they, oppressive and deceitful powers, will be exalted. Every day and in every sphere, God’s people are to draw His kingdom further into this world, knowing that “the [evil] powers” don’t enable people — they exploit them. They don’t regard workers, managers, citizens, parents, and students as creatures who have been “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5); they see them as a resource to be used. They don’t view people as beings who have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands; they see them as tools to be manipulated for their own selfish and ultimately destructive purposes.

Disengaged from the Grand Project

Thankfully, in the United States, most of us are free to exercise our God-given gifts. Our work is generally valued, our creativity has room to blossom, and almost everyone has the opportunity to live a rewarding life.

And yet we see the oppressive powers at work in business, finance, and law. We see it in shifting attitudes toward sex and marriage. And we see it in our suburbs and inner cities, where millions of Americans are chronically unemployed, where thousands of our able-bodied neighbors, because they don’t work, are disengaged from the life of their communities, and where countless people in innumerable neighborhoods play no part in the grand project that propels the world forward.

We see it in the government’s employment reports — that the powers have persuaded us to devalue work. The authorities have convinced us that idleness is a virtue. Rulers have persuaded our neighbors that the world doesn’t need their labor, talent, or participation. And so people are demeaned, vibrant cultures have wasted away, and whole neighborhoods remain impoverished.

Christ’s followers — businesspeople, teachers, bureaucrats, and volunteers — are called to push back, to renew and revitalize, and to bring life and light into every sphere.

About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.