Two Wolves - How Do You Win the Battle?
A while back, I came across a story at a very crucial time. It went something like this:
An old grandfather was teaching his grandson about life. He said to the little one, “A fight is going on inside of me. It’s a terrible battle between two wolves. One wolf is evil—he is fear, anger, selfishness, regret, self-pity, guilt, resentment, pride, and discontentment. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, selflessness, gratitude, and faith. This same fight is going on inside you and every other person too.”
The child thought about this and asked, “Which wolf is going to win, Grandfather?”
The old man replied, “The one you feed.”
When I first heard this parable, I knew that at least part of it was accurate. I faced a similarly vicious struggle, with a proverbial good wolf and bad wolf warring inside of me for power and control.
The Battle Rages
To say I was a hot mess would be an understatement.
My husband and I had just moved with our kids to a new city so he could return to school, and we were squeezed into a tight apartment and a tighter budget. My husband’s time and energy were stretched between school and working full time, and a surprise pregnancy brought our fourth baby in six years. To say I was a hot mess would be an understatement.
We had some challenging circumstances in the pressure cooker of stress with zero margin. In the midst, I knowingly walked into sinful thought patterns and ways of coping, feeding and strengthening the worst tendencies inside of me. Then, I didn’t seem to possess the power to get out again.
For almost two years, I did the bare minimum to not neglect my kids, nursed bitterness that deteriorated my relationships (including my marriage), and sat on Facebook…lots and lots of Facebook. Anything beyond that—getting groceries, paying bills, or socializing—induced anxiety and seemed impossibly overwhelming. I was drowning in teetering piles of neglected bills and dirty laundry, weighted by discontentment, escapism, and, in hindsight, probably some form of depression.
I tried so hard to change things, boiling it down to bad habits and cranky moods, rather than something deeper. In an attempt to feed the good wolf, I feverishly implemented routines to master housekeeping and parenting, and I read all of the “30 Ways to Nurture Your Marriage”-type articles. I expended emotions and energy trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps and discipline my way out of it.
But like quicksand, more effort only sunk me in deeper. The bad wolf was easily winning, and the power of the darkness inside stunned me. I felt desperate and hopeless in the battle. Finally, I was literally crying out, “GOD, please HELP!! I CANNOT handle my LIFE!!”
Where the Parable Gets It Wrong—A Crucial Difference
In terms of the battle motif, it mirrors the following passages of scriptures.
I came across the parable of the two wolves right at that turning point. In terms of the battle motif, it mirrors the following passages of scriptures. But they reveal a crucial distinction that gives insight into the true nature of this struggle:
“For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other.” (Galatians 5: 17)
“A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” (Galatians 6:7-8)
But, unlike the story suggests, it’s nothing like the “angel and devil on the shoulder” dichotomy we’re so familiar with.
The battle definitely is inside each of us—a battle between darkness and light, destruction and life. But, unlike the story suggests, it’s nothing like the “angel and devil on the shoulder” dichotomy we’re so familiar with. It’s not simply a matter of choosing between your good side or your bad side. When we see sin this way, it creates a cycle of guilt, shame, and “trying harder” next time. This was the futile strategy I tried in my own life. It does not work.
Now, don’t get me wrong; our choices are important. But when you look closely at destructive forces such as anxiety, loneliness, and depression, you see that the source of our peril goes so much deeper than just our choices—it goes down to our broken and sinful nature. This nature is intrinsic to our condition as humans in a fallen state, reacting to and existing in a fallen world.
See, if sin was only skin deep and was simply a matter of choosing to do good, we would have a fighting chance. It would make sense to rally our might and virtue to defeat it.
But it goes much deeper. The fact is, when we fight the bad wolf on our own, it only feeds and strengthens it. It’s a battle we’re sure to lose if we fight it ourselves; we need Someone else to fight for us.
The One Who Has Won
Paul talks about the hope of this Someone who will fight the battle. He starts by acknowledging this maddening, fruitless struggle, and his intensifying tone shows he totally understands the quicksand-like feeling it causes—and then he recognizes the One who gives true victory over it:
For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15b-25, shortened for space, emphasis added).
Jesus is the only one who has ever won the battle of the two wolves...
Jesus is the Someone we need. He is our only hope. He led a sinless life, and he fulfilled the requirements of righteousness that none of us will ever be able to fulfill. And when he died on the cross, the wages of sin had no hold on him, as proven by his resurrection (Romans 7:23). He is the only one who has ever won the battle of the two wolves, and when he did, he won the victory on behalf of all who will receive it from him (2 Cor. 5:21, Hebrews 4:15).
The One Who Still Fights for You
The cross means that Jesus, the victor, will come to our aid in our own fight. He never leaves us alone or defenseless.
In some of Jesus’s final instructions to his disciples, he reminds them, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Some people stop here, but what follows cannot be separated from it: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth,” (John 14:15-16). In his physical absence, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to guide us and remind us of Jesus’ teachings (John 14: 25-26). In this way, he fights for us.
The proverbial “good wolf” is also inside us, but doesn’t come from us. It’s the Spirit who lives within us and changes our hearts, guiding us in the right way. We can’t “feed the good wolf” by being good people, or by “trying harder, doing better,” but only by listening to the leading of the Spirit of the Lord. When we follow the Spirit, Scripture says we are sowing seeds, or, you could say, feeding the good wolf and starving the bad one.
For me, instead of flexing my might to overcome my trials and sins, I relinquished it, utterly admitting my dependence on God.
This is an abstract concept, and it’s not easy to distinguish between what it means to follow the Spirit rather than simply “being good,” but it’s characterized by a posture of humility and surrender. For me, instead of flexing my might to overcome my trials and sins, I relinquished it, utterly admitting my dependence on God.
In the heat of battle, the Spirit leads the charge, not by the command to “Behave,” but by the imperative to “Believe!” And what he wants us to believe is that the gospel of Jesus is our true source of hope. Rather than putting my hope in my ability to behave my way to a healthy place, I had to believe in the One who is my only hope.
This is not to imply that righteousness and holiness aren’t of the utmost importance. They are. The question is, how can you obtain them? Do you truly believe that Jesus is your only hope for health, righteousness, and right standing with God? That faith will yield the fruit of obedience in a way your best efforts to behave are incapable of achieving.
Fighting with Hope
For my part, I finally had no illusions about my situation, and the Spirit started revealing paths out of the pit that, for various reasons (pride, shame, selfishness), I hadn’t previously wanted to follow.
- I thought I needed to get a grip on my life—to fight the bad wolf on my own—but the Spirit instead led me to admit my lack of control.
- I desperately wanted to keep the dark things in my heart from being exposed, but he urged me to seek council and to confess some very hard things to very dear people.
- I was sure I didn’t have to make certain sacrifices to have victory, but he made clear that I had to get rid of things (such as ways of coping) that I wanted but which were harmful.
And the Spirit’s strength and leading were life-giving and life-changing. I wish I could say that I’ve never had to face the bad wolf again, but of course that won’t be true until Christ returns and completes the work he’s started in us (Philippians 1:6).
But I take great confidence in now knowing the true identity of the good wolf inside of me, fighting on my behalf. Do you have this confidence too? If your faith is in Christ, know that battle has been won by him and therefore will be won in you, too.