on the armor of God: Eph. 6

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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

what is the real battle and how do we win it?: John 1

 

read John 1.  Don’t make the mistake of starting to read The Hunger Games at night.  You won’t sleep – partially because you’ll have to stay up until you finish it, and partially because you’ll be so terrified for the heroine that you won’t sleep even after you do finish it.  While reading it, I shivered and sweated.  I’m not sure how you can be cold and hot at the same time, but that’s what this YA novel did to me.  Books 2 and 3 aren’t nearly as good, but you will want to read them anyway, just to find out what happens to the characters.  Because what happens right away, is that we care about the characters.   And caring about the characters is what distinguishes a good book from a great one.

There are many reasons we care, but the main one is because the characters, while fully human, fight against injustice with divine determination.  It makes the reader want to go find something to fight for, too.  So when I finished it, I asked myself:

What is the battle that matters most?

Even the most dilettante reader of dystopian fiction will know that if you replace an evil regime, you will find the new regime is also evil.  One of the hallmarks of dystopian literature – and its main attraction – is a deep understanding of the evils and blindness of the human heart.  So what is the real battle?  Is it just to replace tyranny with democracy?  Or is it something far more subtle, far more profound, far more impossible.

The real battle, I believe, is the softening of the hard, selfish, bitter, hurt human heart.

If so, the place to start is with our own hearts.  We can’t control anyone else’s heart.  And the moment we start to try to control our own hearts, something curious happens.  We discover we can’t do that, either.  In fact, the harder we try to be good, the worse we discover we are.  So what’s the solution?

This brings us back to The Hunger Games.  As mentioned above, the characters in The Hunger Games are fully human.  Katniss evaluates her own motives often and considers herself selfish, proud, rebellious, stubborn and distant.  She’s right.  She is all those things.  And yet we root for her from the get go.  Why?  Because she cares.  She will fight hardest to help those who can’t help themselves.  Her stubborn resistance melts in the face of pathetic vulnerability.  And here is where she crosses over into the divine, despite her humanity.

For it is in the character of God to rescue us for the sole reason that we need rescuing.  Just as Katniss plunges her face between the whip and the bloodied pulp that has become the back of her best friend Gale, so Christ flung himself between us and the powers and principalities of darkness.  As we see in the resounding opening lines of John 1, Jesus Christ was, unlike Katniss, fully divine.  He was – and is – God.  He is the Word.  He was there from the beginning of  creation.  All things were made through Him.  He is the light of the world – which may explain why God said, upon creating the world: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” – even though He didn’t make the sun until later.  God made the world, and Christ came into it.

But when that same world needed saving, because humans started acting in the evil ways highlighted in dystopian novels like The Hunger Games, God came into the world to save it.  But this time, God didn’t come with power and might but with vulnerability.  He came as a baby – the most vulnerable form He could have taken.  Human babies are completely defenseless.  And just as the defenseless Rue melts Katniss’ resistance in the Arena, enabling Katniss to befriend Rue instead of kill her, so the defenseless God melts our resistance.  Jesus came into the world in a form so unrecognizable that it took a vision from God – the image of a dove resting on Jesus as he came up out of the water – for his cousin John to even recognize him as the Savior of the world.

Because what God did was like the most moving action Katniss does in The Hunger Games.  When Katniss’ little sister is chosen to have to fight 23 other children to the death in the Arena, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  Katniss is a trained hunter.  Her sister would have been slaughtered in the bloodbath that is the opening of the Hunger Games.  Katniss risked her own life to save someone who couldn’t have protected themselves.  And that’s what God did for us on the cross.  He became, as John writes here, like a lamb.  He became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

We are all, like Katniss, stubborn, proud, resistant to direct orders, wanting people to like us, but unable to make it happen, and furious in the face of evil.  No matter how hard we try to be good, we all fail.  That’s why the law “kills” us.  The law shows us how stubborn we are.  The law kills our false image of ourselves as good and deserving.  “I’m basically a good person,” I hear people say a lot.

Really?  Are you really a good person?  Because I’m not.  And if you think you are, ask children what adults are really like.  Children know the truth.  That’s why kids respond to fairy tales.  That’s why teenagers are eating up The Hunger Games.  Because kids and teens know what adults seem to have forgotten.

No one is good.

That’s why John writes here that we humans need to be “reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” v. 13.  The harder we try to be good – the harder we try to win the battle that counts most, conquering the selfishness of our hearts – the more quickly we lose.

The solution is, paradoxically, to admit failure.  The way to win the battle is to lay down our weapons and wave the white flag of surrender.  “I GIVE UP,” are the words that spring to our lips when we honestly, sincerely and completely try to do things God’s way.

“Thank goodness,” are the words we will hear in response from God.  “I was waiting for that,” He will say.  “Now we can finally get to work.”

Because God can’t do anything with us while we are still in denial, still pretending we’re good, still pretending we can climb our own ladder to heaven.  But the moment we accept Christ’s invitation to “come and see”, we will find in God everything we lack.  If we, like these early disciples, hear God whisper, “Come, follow me,” and respond, as they did, with the desire to follow Him, we will find all of heaven opens up to us.

But heaven comes, like all battles, at the heaviest of prices.  Heaven unlocks upon death alone.  There is a reason we respond to stories like The Hunger Games where children fight to the death.  Heaven opened because God sacrificed himself for us.  That’s why Jesus says here in John 1 that He is the stairway to heaven.  Jesus’ body is the stairway.  We climb on the back of His body.  We get to heaven not through our own efforts, but through His perfection.

But there is a second death involved in our ascent to heaven.  It is the death of our selves.  Heaven requires the death of our pride.  The stairway to heaven opens magically before us when we admit we can’t even climb the first rung on our own.  The next rung appears when we ask God to help us be like Him.  When someone insults us, for instance,and instead of defending ourselves, and snapping back, we bite our tongues and think: “they just don’t understand.”   That’s when the next rung appears.  Because in fighting God’s way, we have used the weapon that counts:  the weapon of humility and truth.  Because the only way we can know that our fellow humans don’t understand what they’re doing, is because we have come to accept that we, too, didn’t understand. We know we’ve done the same thing.

This world is dystopian.  We are dystopian.  But utopia is available.  It’s available not with blasting people with AK-47s, but through bending the knee to the one true God.

And when that happens, let the Games begin.  When we are finally listening to the still small voice of God, the battle is on.  When we are reborn with the Spirit of God inside of us, we can finally begin to rid the world of injustice – by starting with getting rid of our own injustice.  We can speak in love when we want to hate.  We can forgive those who don’t deserve it.  We can stay silent instead of gossiping – no matter how dainty and tasty a morsel we have quivering on our lips.  We can stop wishing for grandiosity and fame and instead start asking for God’s help right where we are – even if it’s doing a task so humdrum and boring our very flesh chafes under the strain of it.  And when we feel like fighting injustice with more injustice, we need to, just as Haymitch reminds Katniss her second time in the arena, remember who our true enemies are. Our real enemies are not other people.  They’re the powers and principalities of darkness.  And the only way to defeat those dark powers is with the power of God.

We will fail.  We will fail often.  But the good news is, when we choose the right team, we can never be kicked off for failure.  We just have to make sure we’re fighting on the right team – we want to be on the team of the One who Cares about us.  And if we side with Him, He will show us the right battle, give us the right weapons, and whisper that He’s already won, because He laid down His life so He could be with us – even if the entire world rejects us.

What is the reward?  God will give us the peace that passes all understanding.  He will open our eyes to the beauty of the world.  The patterns on the back of a snail shell will move us to tears (literally – it just happened to me).  The birds sing more sweetly.  The colors shine more brightly.  Grumpiness melts into joy. Heaven appears on earth – it’s the one true magic, the glory to which every fairy tale points – as we abandon trying to be perfect, or to live in a perfect world, but instead enjoy the journey with the only One who is truly Perfect – who fought to the death to win us to his side.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on March 21, 2012