on the armor of God: Eph. 6


rd. Eph. 6. In the opening of the first of Elena Ferrante’s novels of Naples, the narrator discovers that her best friend Lila has disappeared so completely that she’s cut herself out of every photograph. The narrator responds by muttering to herself: “We’ll see who wins this time.” My Brilliant Friend, the first of Ferrante’s series, is a story of skirts at war. Two, talented, beautiful young women long for better lives, adore each other and yet can’t help competing over everything. The story opens as the two girls exchange dolls, and as soon as Lila “had Tina, she pushed her through the grate and let her fall into the darkness.” The novels are compulsively readable. We enter into the women’s competition and feel the truth of it. The narrator claims: “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” She says she “grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.” She pins it on the poverty of her neighborhood: “The women fought among themselves more than the men, they pulled each other’s hair, they hurt each other. To cause pain was a disease.”

But Isn’t that everyone’s world, even though we don’t like to admit it? Isn’t causing pain a disease? The fact is, this world often feels like a war against our enemies as well as our friends. We wonder what’s wrong with us. Can’t we just chill? Aren’t we being too melodramatic?

But maybe our embattled feeling is not wrong. Maybe Elena Ferrante is onto something about the human heart. Maybe we are in a war. If so, we need to fight the right enemy. Otherwise we’ll always feel exhausted. We’ll wear the wrong armor. We’ll throw away the wrong dolls.

So who is our enemy? Bad people, right?

Nope. Paul says our battle is not against other people. Paul says we do not fight “flesh and blood” but instead are fighting the rulers of this present darkness, the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly realm. Eph. 6: 12.

Wow. Those are chilling words.

But if they’re true, and our enemy is not other people, we have to abandon hatred, resentment and bad-mouthing as our weapons of choice. But how can we not resent other people? I mean, they do bad things to us every day, right? For instance, even in this one chapter Paul provides guidelines that no one lives up to. Eph. 6:1-9 (children obey parents; fathers don’t be harsh with children; employees work well; bosses don’t take advantage of their positions to be abusive). So why can’t we point to these rules to justify resenting those who fail to live up to them? We could; and we often do; but we end up resenting not just everyone we meet but also ourselves. The problem is that no humans follow Biblical guidelines perfectly. The rules, written on our hearts in the form of our consciences, instead show us our need for forgiveness. They bring humility. They turn us into people who cry out to be under grace.

So instead of battling other people, Paul here offers us a constructive way to fight; he tells us to put on the right armor so we can fight the real enemy. He starts with a bridge: we are to draw our strength from God. We are to be empowered through our union with God. Eph. 6:10. In other words, our relationship with God is everything.

Paul moves from this to say we can only battle the spiritual forces of evil with God’s armor. He says we are to put on a belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet and take up a sword. He calls this the “armor of God.” But what exactly is this armor?

Paul says the belt is truth. The breastplate is right-standing with God. The shoes are the gospel. The shield is faith. The helmet is salvation. The sword is the Word. But what is all that?

Each part of the armor is Jesus, nothing but Jesus.

How do we know? Because the Bible provides a translation key. Jesus told us, “I am the truth.”  The Bible tells us that we have “right standing with God” because Jesus died to give us his own righteousness. The good news of the “gospel” is that we are forgiven in Christ even though we fall short. “Faith” is a gift from God through which we receive God’s blessings. “Salvation” is what God provides for us through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The “Word” of God is Jesus. See e.g. John 14:6. Romans 3:24-25; Romans 1:16; John 1:1. This is Biblical algebra. Substitute for every part of our godly armor the word Jesus, and we realize that if we believe in Him, we are completely safe from the lies and accusations of the enemy.

Lies and accusations are the weaponry of our real enemy. Paul explains here that the devil has “strategies and deceits”. He adds that the devil hurls “flaming missiles” at us. The devil’s accusations burn. His deceits cause us pain. His lies injure us.

For instance, the devil will tell us that no one could love us unless we’re perfect. The devil tells women that their husbands couldn’t love them unless they’re the most beautiful woman in the world. He says we’re too far gone for help. The devil will tell us to give up.

Instead, the truth is that Jesus was lifted up on the cross to conquer death for us. On the cross, God protected us with His love. We are not perfect, and we are loved. We don’t have to be the most beautiful or smartest or fastest to be loved by God or other people. And God will seek us even if we make our bed in hell. Psalm 139:8.

There is a supernatural realm of wickedness that is out to get us. But we don’t have to be afraid. God has already defeated the devil on the cross. If we rely on Jesus, we have already won, no matter what anyone or anything says. This is the war that God won by giving up His life. To make sense of our world, including the embattled feeling that haunts us, we need to take in daily that God has already conquered evil.

Evil tells us we should fight evil by ourselves. Why would we listen to the enemy? The enemy wouldn’t want us to win. The enemy would want to isolate us. Instead, Paul gives us his famous description of the armor of God, an armor that protects us by faith in what Christ did on the cross. In this truth, we can lay down our restless desire to prove ourselves and rest in God’s victory.

But what happens when we can’t rest? What if we read the above, agree, and find ourselves doing all the wrong things? What then? Maybe the problem is that it’s not that we want to fight other people. Maybe the real problem is that we’re afraid. And when we’re afraid, fighting is all we know to do. We’re ashamed that we’re afraid. But the truth is all humans are afraid. It’s what we have in common. So instead of fighting each other, we can talk to God–pray in the Spirit as Paul puts it–and tell him we’re afraid. We need His help. Vulnerable truth, as always, will set us free. And in revealing our fear, we find strength comes as a gift when we need it most, from the One who became completely vulnerable on the cross for us.

Amen, posted by Caroline Coleman on Monday, January 25, 2016

swimming with flippers: Ephesians 5

Read Eph. 5. When a new year begins, we blossom with new ideas. We start new plans. We hope to be new people. We ask ourselves questions like: “if we could ask God to change one thing about us, what would it be?” But it’s a cliche that these kind of resolutions fail. In their place, we instead find a growing sense of alienation, misery, numbness, dissatisfaction, restlessness and ennui.

Why? And how can we actually change? The short answer is: we need to learn how to swim with flippers instead of forcing our way through the water. Right? As Anne Carson explains in a new story in the New Yorker: people “think swimming is carefree and effortless. A bath! In fact, it is full of anxieties. Every water has its own rules and offering. Misuse is hard to explain. Perhaps involved is that commonplace struggle to know beauty….Every water has the right place to be, but that place is in motion. You have to keep finding it, keep having it find you. Your movement sinks into and out of it with each stroke. You can fail it with each stroke.” 1=1.

What Carson says about swimming strikes me as being true of making resolutions. We fail them with each stroke. When we make resolutions we tap into our inborn desire for perfection. But perfection, like water, is a place in motion. We have to keep finding it.

When Carson’s narrator puts on small flippers, however: “The difference is like the difference between glimpsing a beautiful thing and staring at it. Now she can stream into the way of the water and stay there.”

So how do we learn to stream into the way of the water? (note to self: how do we learn to write like Anne Carson?). If we want to know the way of the water, we can find it. For instance, in the chapter before us today, we read: “Live a life filled with love.” Eph. 5:1. We sigh. That sounds so good. As usual when we crack open Scripture, it cracks us open. We read this verse, and we realize we kind of, sort of, maybe, forgot about living a life filled with love. Other goals crept in and pulled us off course, seaweed choking our flight through waves.

Chastened, we read on. Paul tells us to avoid sexual immorality, greed and impurity. He tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit instead of getting drunk. Good idea, we think. Paul goes on to suggest that wives treat their husbands with respect, and that husbands love their wives. Of course, we think. Who wants to be contemptuous or unloving to their spouse? We dimly recall reading John Gottman’s insightful, practical books on improving our marriages. Weren’t those all about removing the four horsemen of criticism, contempt, flooding and defensiveness and instead asking intimate questions to improve our “love maps”? We nod as we read. We know this to be true.

Paul even gives us a specific antidote, a practical recipe for change. He tells us that instead of immorality we should be filled with thankfulness and sing songs of praise to God in our hearts constantly. Be thankful instead of greedy? Sing praise instead of gripe? What a grand exchange! For anyone who is a Christian at least, just reading a chapter like this fills us with the desire to do it. Isn’t wanting to be good enough?

Nope. Here’s how our hearts really work. When I read this chapter, I started at the word greed, sandwiched as it was between the obvious finger-pointers of sexual immorality and impurity. Hold it. You mean greed is right up there with sexual immorality? What? Are those jelly beans that disappear from our front hall on a daily basis a bigger problem than I realized?

“Yes,” Paul says, and it was as if he was talking to me: “Yes,Caroline, a greedy person is an idolater, worshipping the things of this world.” Eph. 5:6.

Eek, I thought. Horrors. To be greedy is to worship something other than God? I resolved to never be greedy again as long as I lived.

Here’s where things got interesting. The moment I made the resolution to never be greedy again for the rest of my life, I ate dessert at lunch.

But I hardly ever eat dessert at lunch. I didn’t really want dessert at lunch. And then I ate a Dove bite on top of it. And then another. What? So why did making an extreme resolution create in me a desire to do its opposite? What is wrong with me?

Apparently I’m in good company. Paul, writing as a Christian, says the moment that he read in Scripture that he shouldn’t want anything that belongs to anyone else, he found himself full of the desire for things that belonged to everyone else. Romans 7:8. Paul explains that the human heart is just messed up: “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Romans 7:19.

This rebellious streak in our hearts is why making resolutions and just trying harder to be good completely backfire. We try to swim into the way of the water on our own, over and over, and feel only anxiety. We think the problem is our technique or maybe the water. Shouldn’t it be saltier? We’re anxious swimmers, trying to respect and love, but hearing sour notes creep in; trying to be drunk on the Holy Spirit but saying sure, why not, to another glass of wine: trying to be thankful to God and sing His praises but hearing ourselves murmur and complain instead. We just can’t do and be all that even this one little chapter asks of us.

So what’s the solution? Not reading Scripture? Just doing whatever we want and accepting it?

Some might say yes. But deep down, we know that doing whatever we want has never really worked for us. We’ve all tried it. It never delivered on its promises. Deep down, we all know that what Scripture tells us is right and true. So what are we to do? Aren’t we doomed?

Yes, and here’s where we start to fasten our small flippers. Realizing that we need God’s help is the beginning of freedom. Just intellectual knowledge isn’t enough, though. We have to know, really know, that we are helpless and hopeless without God. Only that realization unleashes our pride from its stranglehold on our hearts. Failing causes us to cling to our Savior out of desperation, in a way that success usually prevents us from doing. We need Christ. We need to know we need Christ. We start to swim in the way of the water when we realize we need something to propel us. Or perhaps, most of all, we swim best when we know we need the God who can walk on water.

That’s when the fireworks start in our heart. Joy and peace return. We find ourselves singing spontaneously to God out of gratitude for how He saved us on the cross. We praise him out of an overflowing heart. It bubbles up from inside, not as a formula. The joy that has eluded us for so long makes our grins so broad people think we’re in love.

Because we are.

It would be lovely to avoid this cycle of trying hard on our own, failing, remembering we need grace, and begging for it. But that’s called being perfect and I haven’t met one of those humans yet. I think that these eureka moments arrive best when we properly diagnose our problems as spiritual and so find the right cure. Making resolutions are just grandiose gestures to try to unite with beauty; they provoke only anxiety. But uniting with Christ, who is our beauty, causes us to stream in the way of the water.

Knowing that and allowing ourselves to rest our heads on the chest of God; allowing Him to draw us close; letting Him whsiper to us that everything’s going to be alright; in that relationship lies the beauty we truly seek. There lies the rest for our souls we long for. There lies the peace that surpasses all understanding, and the joy that makes us kick up our heels and sing.

Trusting in Jesus allows Him to start changing not just the one thing about us we can come up with, but an infinite number that only He knows. Because He knows our hearts best. He made them. He fashioned us in His image. He wants to clear away all the things that hold us back from living the life of love that we all want but just can’t do apart from Him. So yes, we can make resolutions. But perhaps the better word is that we can spend time staring at the most beautiful thing of all. The God of love, dying for us, to bring us to new life.

Posted by Caroline Coleman in a Chapter a Day on January 14, 2016