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If your name is Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright IV, you need a good nickname.
For most of his life, the tall, thin Wainwright, a career military officer, was called “Skinny.” He liked it.
His greatest honor – being named supreme commander of the Allied troops in the Philippines early in 1942 – was also equivalent to a death sentence. Japanese troops, intent on capturing the Philippines, cornered Wainwright and his 11,000 soldiers on the island of Corregidor. Desperately short of food, medicine, ammunition, and sleep, the Allies’ lines finally broke on May 6. Fearing that his troops would be annihilated, Wainwright surrendered.
Now a Lieutenant General, he was the highest-ranking American POW ever held in a Japanese concentration camp. That made little difference to his captors. He and his men endured more than three years of torture and humiliation. Many did not survive.
When word finally came in August 1945 that the war was over, General Wainwright – a shell of his former physical self – marched to the hut of the camp commandant and ordered him out. It was his camp now. Thirteen days later, wearing a crisp new uniform that hung on him like a drape, “Skinny” stood on the deck of the battleship Missouri to witness the formal Japanese surrender. In the picture above he stands on the right, being embraced for the first time in more than three years by General Douglas MacArthur.
Jonathan Wainwright’s seizure of leadership at the prison camp helps us understand the difference between two important biblical words: power and authority.
When he walked into the hut, he had no more power than he had had when he arrived as a prisoner. From a physical perspective, in fact, the general’s powers were sadly diminished. What made the Japanese commandant abdicate was Wainwright’s authority. He officially represented a greater power – the overwhelming power of the United States, which had just won the war.
If you’re driving down the street and a police officer steps into the middle of road, raising his hand and ordering you to stop, you hold all the cards when it comes to power. You can do a U-turn and speed away. Or you can accelerate and aim directly for the cop. Neither of these strategies is highly recommended.
That’s because the police officer holds all the cards when it comes to authority. The reason he can signal your car to stop, and expect you to obey, is that he is the authoritative representative of the overwhelming power of local government officials.
Here is where followers of Jesus should take note.
The apostle Paul writes, “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” (Ephesians 6:12).
Hollywood has conditioned us to think that the battle against spiritual evil is a power encounter.
Evil forces are portrayed as super-strong entities that can chase us around the house, threaten our children, or walk down the streets of New York City looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. According to this perspective, Satan and his minions are very powerful, and we are not. Therefore we must be afraid.
But according to the New Testament, the battle against spiritual evil is always a truth encounter.
None of us is stronger than Satan. But it doesn’t matter that we fail to match his might. We have been granted the authority to represent Christ. Even though evil is real, Jesus has already won the ultimate spiritual battle on the cross.
Therefore, when it comes to spiritual evil, Peter counsels us to “be alert” (I Peter 5:8). Notice that he doesn’t say, “Be afraid.” And James declares, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). We don’t run from Satan. Like the commandant in that prison camp, he runs from us. That’s because we represent the Power who actually rules the Cosmos.
How exactly do we live this out?
Our faith is not in crosses (even big gold ones), strands of garlic, or silver bullets. We resist the devil by defining reality according to the truths of Scripture. When we embrace the genuineness of Christ’s victory and affirm our own status as his representatives, we will win the truth encounter.
Sometimes that comes down to speaking the truth out loud.
If you’re in the midst of profound discouragement, fear, or confusion, here’s something you might try. Find a place where you can be alone. Surrender yourself, as best you can, to God’s care. Then calmly speak aloud words like these: “Because I am God’s child, dark powers have no power over me. Go away in the name of Jesus.”
You may feel like a fool. You may be glad that no one was there to hear you. But God always hears. And he is the one who has told us to resist the dark powers that tend to attach themselves to our discouragement, fear, and confusion, so they will flee from us.
In John Bunyan’s literary classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrim, the aspiring disciple of Jesus, encounters a frightening moment. Timorous and Mistrust come running down a hill, terrified. “There are lions! There are lions!” they shout.
Pilgrim goes ahead anyway. He discovers that while there truly are lions, they are held fast by chains.
We know that Jesus has been given all the power and authority in the universe. And we know that whatever entities might be aligned against him are actually held fast by chains.
Therefore, let those realities settle into your heart.
As a representative of God’s grace and overwhelming power, you can win the truth encounter.