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OpEd: Spiritual warfare & sustainable spiritual freedom

I was weighed down with the same wordless oppression that had distracted me in the first days of my faith renewal. At times, the simmering anxiety from the oppression felt like spiritual napalm—a burning that adhered to all of my life. I had no idea what was happening to me.

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Columbia University in the 1960s & 1970s was embroiled in social and spiritual warfare. Photo: Life Magazine, 10 May 1968

Vaino came to a Columbia University engulfed by social, political, and spiritual struggles since the late 1960s.
Photo: Life Magazine, May 10 1968

Editor's note: We have received diverse reactions to our series "Demons, devils, golems & idols" and will publish them as soon as we can. 


MY FIRST CONSCIOUS TASTE of what many Christians call "spiritual warfare" came shortly after my conversion from an indifferent pew-warmer to a living, breathing believer in Jesus at age seventeen. Afterwards, I had a vague feeling of wrestling with a problem which I couldn’t identify.

I wondered about these periodic bouts of internal frustration. It felt like an unseen, obstructive presence. I filled my notebook at the time with poetry, song lyrics, and other beginning-Christian expressions. Scattered through these musings, I addressed an “adversary.” Once I wrote, "#%&$! Hey, cut it out, you guys in there!"

I believed that I was struggling against a stubborn will beyond my own. Reflexively, I found relief in opposing and even rebuking it. Perhaps I had absorbed proverbial admonitions of the Bible like, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you," from the Book of James 4:7. I instinctively knew that I could not simply yield to what seemed intent on confusing and debilitating me and my trust in Jesus.

Just months after my conversion, I fell into the confusing times of the massive campus reaction against President Richard Nixon’s order to expand into Cambodia the bombing campaign against the Vietnamese communists. In my freshman year at Columbia University student protestors occupied and shut down buildings. I had some of my classes in Riverside Park. Inside, I was also in the midst of a different kind of battle. The confusion outside of me just made it more obvious that I needed help to have peace inside. I prayed for spiritual help and indeed found it at the university.

I bumped into some similarly revived Christians at the student center at Ferris Booth Hall, and at St. Paul's Chapel. I felt reassured that God had answered my prayers for spiritual companions. Among their number were three fellow students who introduced me to more experienced mentors. Hannah Lowe, a veteran foreign missionary, exemplified “spiritual warfare” in ways that I quickly came to respect.

At age eighteen, this white-haired lady seemed elderly to me, but she was not elderly in her alertness. Her ability to perceive the problems of other people, even strangers, and to communicate her attitude of care was extraordinary.

Her prayers were not light weight. In prayer, she grappled with substantial spiritual, social, political, and personal issues on behalf of many others—including me. She prayed as if her petitions and persistence made a genuine difference in outcomes. She prayed against evil—evil intentions, evil ideas, and evil spirits. She prayed like an Old  Testament prophet, asking that God break the teeth of the invisible foes of our spiritual life. She prayed against warped selfishness and social shenanigans. I had never heard people pray like this, but it made sense to me that if prophets, King David, Jesus, and the apostles of the Bible applied themselves to God's business as Lowe did, I should follow suit.

In their descriptive prayers I heard this impressive lady and others in the congregation anticipate the revelations about the corruption of the Nixon administration. They pleaded for its exposure, which then happened during the Watergate investigation. They fasted and prayed for the repentance and conversion of individuals at the heart of the scandal. We then appreciatively watched Senator Sam Ervin quote the Bible’s wisdom and laws forcefully to witnesses such as John Erlichmann, and we saw Nixon's nasty hatchet man, Charles Colson, jailed, repent and transformed into a man of faith ministering to prisoners. In that era we sensed that there was a spiritual enemy to be defeated with prayer.

My most painful experience with spiritual warfare overtook me shortly after I had landed an entry-level job in electronic mass media. I again faced the paradoxical dilemma of being directed by God into a spiritual battle.

In a college-dorm prayer meeting, I sensed that God was inviting me to yield my future to Him. So, I began to inquire what I ought to be doing as preparation. Specific direction came from God more quickly than I had expected. One morning, I prayed with uncharacteristic passion about children and television. A journalist, former NY Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips, observed that he thought I was praying "well beyond my knowledge." God seemed to be present in the prayer. On Sunday, a gentleman stood up in church (our congregation is more participatory than many) to speak about the need for Christians to stop avoiding work in the secular mass electronic media.

I had heard before the familiar appeals to consider missionary service, evangelism, and other ministries. I had dutifully responded with sincere "amens" and wondered how I might serve. But that morning, I was piqued to high and lucid interest. God seemed to be addressing me directly through this man's relatively off-road comment about jobs in the electronic media. I approached the speaker afterwards about whether he was directing his appeal toward me, but he denied that he had me in mind nor did he offer any encouragement. Still, I nurtured the idea in prayer and felt increasingly emboldened to pursue it. However, at first I passed through a trail of spurned job applications. Even so, I persisted in seeking what I thought God had called me to do.

Late that post-Freshman summer, my destination, a job offer, came into view. A temporary employment agency placed me at a major broadcasting network for a month’s assignment. Soon, the hiring executives offered me a permanent staff position and 75% tuition reimbursement to allow me to continue at Columbia part-time. This beginning, which had hung before only by the slender thread of my faith, would lead to a 24-year career that encompassed the launch of a national television production house, a cable network, and internet news sites.

Getting there involved an unexpected baptism of fire.

Soon after parachuting into that first job, I found myself in a dark and heavy spiritual battle. I was weighed down with the same wordless oppression that had distracted me in the first days of my faith renewal. It gnawed at me and soon rendered me quite unfocused on work. At times, the simmering anxiety from the oppression felt like spiritual napalm—a burning that adhered to all of my life. I was wholly unprepared for this type of battle. I had no idea what was happening to me.

Before long, the wordless oppression oozed out its content: I was induced to conclude that I could not survive as a Christian at a national broadcast network. I even began to question my sanity and my salvation. The weight became too great, and I lost confidence in God.

In a moment despair, I gave up on God and told Him so. I felt a kind of relief. I also had a profound sense of emptiness.

I took back my "resignation" from God and decided to cling to some faint hope.

As the oppression continued, I entertained resigning from work, church, and school. I imagined being on the road “going out West” on a Greyhound bus.

In those days I avoided looking into a mirror for fear at seeing how washed up I would look. I dragged myself to a regular morning prayer to mumble some farewells and to return a borrowed hymnal. Lowe, the missionary, saw my defeated, hangdog look. She asked me to take a seat and explained a slogan: "Fact, Faith, and Feeling." Gently, she talked to me about the philosophy of life that could be found by looking at a train. Each car of the train is arranged in order of function. "The caboose (your feelings) is incapable of pulling the train," she said. "The facts of God's word are the locomotive; you hitch your faith to that, and the caboose comes along for the ride; live your life pulled by your feelings, and you're in for a miserable roller-coaster ride!"

Somehow out of the homeliest talk came the weightiest recognition. It was exactly what I needed. I started to understand that my feelings were not a reliable way to run one’s life. I began to snap out of my deep, spiritual funk. I had been so fixed upon my miserable feelings that I had lost the ability to rise above them. Now, I recognized that my will, and with it, my spirit, had become so buried under emotional oppression that I nearly had become a skeleton of a person. Phillips encouraged me by enjoining, "Jaan, can you rise up now and decisively shatter this thing?" Then, I understood what he was encouraging me to do: in an act of will that engaged my spirit as well as my body, I stood up, threw off that weight of oppression, and declared in prayer that I would have nothing more to do with it—as if I could simply do that. The fact was, I could. I began to feel energized, freer and more alive again.

I proceeded to work that day, unburdened but not unchallenged. The distraction, weight, and troubling began to settle on me, as before. This time, I stood up, silently saying, "No, not this time; it’s over." Beginning what would become a tactical habit for the next few weeks, I strode to one of the fire exit staircases in the building and quietly walked up and down several flights, silently but pointedly declaring some Bible verses that came to me as I looked for weapons to take up against this bullying of my soul:

I went back to that proverb from James: "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you." (James 4:7-8)

Then, I would add, “And take that!,” sometimes punctuated by a punch or kick in the air.

Scriptural advice also gave me a sense of increased authority to act against my emotions by remembering such verses as “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Christ] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross…” (Colossians 2:15) Then, I would add, “And take that!”

And I told the gospel to myself: "And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life...." (1 John 5:11-12), adding a “Take that!,” with a good right cross in the air. This really satisfied my need to engage my body, soul, spirit and will into my counterattack to defend my faith.

It became clear to me that hell’s object was to induce me to retreat from the field where God had called me and from the strategic position in which He had placed me—and to cripple me as a person too. That might well have been the result, had I not begun to learn, from believers who understood the basics of defensive and offensive spiritual warfare, and lived accordingly. As it turned out, I didn't have to be loud, demonstrative, wrought-up, or strange. It did require me to acknowledge the reality of a strategic spiritual contest and the necessity of fighting for my spiritual survival and effectiveness—for others, and for God’s enterprises.

At the start, I retreated to the fire stairs more than once daily. After I had driven my adversary back, I could return to work. Within a couple of weeks, the pressure of the attack receded, and soon it was gone for good!

I discovered great help in Paul's letter to the Ephesians. The early Christians and their religious opponents certainly felt that life was a spiritual battle. At that time the Roman polytheists could also call upon the weapons of the Roman military machine. However, Paul told the persecuted Christians that their real concern should be on the invisible spiritual battle, not the one with iron swords and lions ravenous for the Christian faithful. He wrote to the Ephesians,

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground..." (Ephesians 6:12-13)

When I recalled such Biblical texts in my fire-stairs walks, I was doing what Paul counseled: "And take...the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Verse 17). It always worked, as nothing else had.

And I did not struggle in social isolation. As a novice Christian, I received critical support from veterans of their own spiritual battles. While it was I who had to act, it was their knowledge, experience, and love for me that supplied what I lacked.

A lost book also emerged as a jewel in my war chest. The book, “War on the Saints,” written by Jessie Penn-Lewis and evangelist Evan Roberts, emerged out of the Welsh Revival at the turn of the 20th century. The theme was that Christians are not exempt from being troubled by evil spirits and that the Bible provided the strength and roadmap to prevail.

It turned out that our veteran missionary had remembered the book in its unabridged form and managed to obtain a clean copy. She and others proceeded to re-publish the unabridged work, which had entered the public domain.

I didn’t find War on the Saints light reading. But I did feel remarkably stronger from reading it because it is intelligent, systematic, and rooted in the ministry of Jesus and his immediate followers. The book was the product of seven long years of prayer and spiritual intensive care for the evangelist, who knew that he had veered off track into deception, false spiritual practices, and personal confusion. The result was a book that traces the Biblical history of evil spirits, their methods, and antidotes to their destruction. The end product of the scriptural remedies is freedom from misconduct, fear and paralysis.

The book is not just another "kit" for casting out demons. This work concentrates more on creating sustainable spiritual freedom. Jesus talked about the importance of a design of our spiritual lives so that we could sustain the lively joy and direction in life. He used a parable of sustainable housing to talk about a sustainable spiritual life. He said, “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)

I found the effect of War on the Saints refreshing and liberating. Rather than ego-venting bluster on the battlefield, Penn-Lewis and Roberts offered practical, intelligent steps for Christians like me to regain personal freedom and ensure that our "house" does not stand empty and vulnerable. As the authors observe, the evil one’s encroachments on personal liberty are generally gradual and insidious; so lasting deliverance from them generally will not be obtained instantly.

My chief cautionary experience about deliverance ministries arrived in the form of a visiting "deliverance minister" from Chicago, who came to our congregation full of descriptions of his public encounters with various demons, with whom he felt free to converse in order to extract "information" and to command them. He came seeking publication of a book he had written and to offer his teaching and services. His forceful personality served to obscure doubts about his teaching and practices, and he found general approval. But not long thereafter, he incited a disastrous conflict within a foreign mission. The man himself became a moral and spiritual train wreck.

But I have experienced instant deliverance, too. One memorable day in 1974, I walked into a pole on a Manhattan sidewalk on my way to work, distracted by a shop on the opposite side of the street. The gash in my eyebrow required a trip to the ER. In a church prayer meeting that same evening, a familiar brother placed his hands on my shoulders and asked the Lord to recompense me with a “delightful day of deliverance.”

When he had finished praying, I felt distinctly unburdened of something—a weight on my person that I had not been able to identify until it was gone. I felt I had been given new space to live in. In the ensuing days, I found words to describe what was gone: a nameless dread that I had carried about with me—a background fear that somehow, in spite of the love and grace of Christ, I would ultimately fail and be condemned. I determined to fill that new “living space” with confidence and trust in Jesus, and with joy and gratitude—which now came easily, without my forcing it. Without a “deliverance minister,” God had delivered me of a debilitating burden through a concerned and faithful Christian brother. This can happen anywhere followers of Jesus are ambitious for sustainable spiritual freedom.


Jaan Vaino worked for CBS Broadcasting in New York for twenty-four years in management roles involving Finance, Marketing, Information Systems, Production Operations, Administration, and new business development. During twelve years at CBS News and CBS New Media, he helped to launch CBS News Productions, the (short-lived) CBS Eye On People cable network, and He also has been operator and part owner of a small-town radio station and a Vice President of Teachscape, an internet venture in teacher training.

  • Interesting approach towards this. Wondering what you think of its implication on society as a whole though?

  • Greetings from Colorado! I'm bored to tears at work so I decided to check out your website on my
    iphone. I really like it! A big surprise to me--NYC religion?!

  • Hi Jide, We don't have a program on "spiritual warfare and sustainable freedom." Perhaps you would like to contact one of the articles authors or one of the authors of the books that we listed. We would be happy to help you contact whomever you want. Thanks for the interest.

  • i am highly interested in your program . please i would like to be part of your spiritual warfare& sustainable freedom. i need guide line and information on how to become a member of a spiritual warfare & sustainable freedom under journey. thanks.

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