Lessons from the Art of War: The Five Factors

the-art-of-war-coverA few year ago, I read in one of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church that it would greatly benefit Christians to read books on warfare because it would teach us to engage the enemy in spiritual battle. Those who have experience in combat likely understand this better than myself.

I just recently acquired a copy of the ancient Chinese classic The Art of War and have been impressed with it. Everything in it must be understood allegorically, which can be a bit challenging. But I will try to extract a few of the more easily grasped gems.


I want to focus today on verses 3-11 of the first chapter entitled Laying Plans. Sun Tzu teaches there are Five Constant Factors present in every battle. He states that an understanding of these things is critical to victory, so, with God’s help, I will present what I perceive as the spiritualized factors:

1. The Moral Law

“The moral law causes the people to be in accord with their ruler.

This is the Gospel Law of love for God and neighbor that unites heaven and earth and, consequently earth to other earth (that is, us to one another). CS Lewis once said, “If you aim for heaven, you will get heaven and earth. If you aim for earth, you will get neither.” When man walks in union with God and the commandments of God, his will is aligned with that of his “ruler” and harmony is ensured with both God and neighbor. This first factor is critical to the success of any spiritual battle. Without keeping the Moral Law, which is summarized in love, all of our spiritual endeavors will be like boxing at the air.

2. Heaven

Heaven signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons.”

By heaven, he means natural rhythms beyond our control. These are transitory states in our lives such as mood, weather, hunger, physical pain or comfort, all of which, on their own, are fairly neutral, but tend to affect our ability to ward off a spiritual attack. Pain or hunger may make us irritable, too much comfort tends toward complacency, numerous cloudy days may lead to depression, a series of fortunate events may lead to self-reliance and egoism, a series of unfortunate events may lead to despondency.

The point is that we recognize which situations tend to cause a negative internal disposition within us and know that the enemy will exploit us by launching some sort of battle at that time. We must ask the Holy Spirit to assist us in knowing ourselves and our tendencies to change with the weather and situations in life. In the early years of our spiritual journey, we should aim to move from being easily swayed by changing events to a better state of accepting whatever happens as God’s will, even if it is difficult. The saints were unaffected by these things due to their complete trust and communion with God, and that is the ultimate goal.

3. Earth

I understand earth to be our responsibilities and “earthly” cares to which even spiritual people must attend.  It includes proper hygiene, cleanliness and order within our home, job responsibilities (particularly if we have a family to support), etc.

All of these are grounds on which the enemy will attack by means of the two extremes: obsession or sloth.  In a properly balanced life, we will give adequate time and attention to our responsibilities, working at them for the Lord.  Neglect in these things reveals an immature emotional and spiritual state.

We are to be like the birds of the air, as Jesus stated in Matthew 6:26, who do not fret about their needs, but that is not an excuse for sloth.  For even birds build nests, preen their feathers, and catch food for their young as well as themselves.  Obsession in these areas has as its fruit greed, pride, stress, envy, vainglory, listlessness, depression, and all sorts of chaos the enemy brings into our lives.

As in the prior Factors, one of the keys to victory is to know ourselves and where we are weak.  The enemy will always exploit a weakness.

4. The Commander

The commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, and strictness.”

I think this signifies the Holy Spirit speaking into us through our conscience.  If we are in the habit of ignoring our Commander, we will be as lost as a soldier who strikes out on his own against a fierce enemy.  A rogue soldier, in this case, is a dead one.  So too with us.

Our conscience directs us to do things with wisdom, which is discernment in all of our undertakings to avoid extremes; sincerity, which is truthfulness with God, others, and ourselves; benevolence, which is love for God and others; courage, which stands for what is right and does not fear circumstances in life, but trusts God in all things; and lastly, strictness, which is vigilance in our thoughts so that whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things (Phil. 4:8).  Strictness does not allow sinful ideas to pollute the purity of the mind.

The enemy’s approach to gaining victory in this factor is to get us to ignore our conscience or to argue with it.  A conscience that is not hindered by spiritual lethargy, sin, and pride will always guide us aright.  We should ask God to help us hear and obey this inner commander so that we will not be tossed into restlessness and turmoil by the enemy’s attack.

5. Method and Discipline

By proper methods and disciplines, we maintain the roads by which supplies may reach the army.  That is, we open our spirits to the grace through the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.

Following the church’s fasts, going to church, having an established prayer rule, and every form of asceticism are included in this fifth factor.  The undisciplined soldier will not stand long.  The soldier who does things according to his own will and does not follow the “method” of the church, which has been proven and tried for thousands of years, will not find spiritual rest and will frequently fall due to being self-willed, or simply not knowing better, both of which were the case in my life before Orthodoxy.

The temptations of the enemy in this fifth factor include a push toward the extremes of spiritual slothfulness or zeal without knowledge.  The signs of lethargy are obvious: not fasting, not keeping a prayer rule, not attending services, etc.  These things usually result in a slow spiritual death, because every day we are either moving closer to God or further away from Him.

The opposite extreme is witnessed in those who treat the methodology and disciplines of the Church as an end in themselves.  The result is pride and arrogance, looking down upon others, and delusion.  Both extremes are equally dangerous, the latter more so because it so often acts invisibly.


Knowing ourselves is the key to winning against our spiritual enemy in the factors listed above.  To know oneself requires years of trying, falling, and getting back up again.  By simply paying attention to these times that we fall, and by asking for honest feedback from our spiritual mentors, we can begin to shed light on our souls and understand the battlefield more clearly.

Sun Tzu later states,

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. [3:18]



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