Sunday, October 25, 2020

Worth Dying For

When King David wrote, “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze,” the great warrior-poet was not reaching for an apt figure of speech to describe some vigorous spiritual exercise. He meant it absolutely literally. David had men on every side who were trying to kill him with bows, arrows, swords and spears. His enemies were not looking for a bracing intellectual argument; they intended to spill David’s blood, and spill it in copious quantities.

Moreover, God was not standing aloof from David’s very physical struggles. He was right in there equipping his servant to pierce, crush, injure and maim his fellow man.

Crush, Injure, Maim

So his psalm continues, “I pursued my enemies and overtook them, and did not turn back till they were consumed. I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet. For you equipped me with strength for the battle.”

David was not wrong. He shed the blood of truly evil men … but also, no doubt, of less-evil men who followed wicked leaders simply because it was their job, or because they thought they had no other choice, or because they had been told David posed a threat to their own homes and families. War is not pretty, and it doesn’t make those sorts of fine distinctions.

Anything a modern Christian can take from such statements is purely by analogy. We are not called to “thrust through” our human enemies in the strength of God, and God can hardly be expected to provide strength for tasks he does not command his servants to perform.

The War Language of the New Testament

All the same, the language of the New Testament remains relentlessly martial: “Fight the good fight of the faith.” “Put on the whole armor of God.” “In all these things we are more than conquerors.” “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” “The weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” “I do not box as one beating the air.” “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The language of combat has trickled over into historical Christendom in ways both logical and sometimes confusing: in our hymnology (Onward Christian Soldiers, The Battle Belongs to the Lord, Fight the Good Fight); in the mentality of the crusader; even in the inclination of one denomination to distinguish themselves from others by the use of the word “army”.

The Apostle Paul in a Fistfight

Ironically, these vigorously martial turns of phrase are not the imagery of a career military man whose life experience inevitably informed his figures of speech and who could hardly be expected to think in any other terms. No, they are the words of a trained theologian whose deadliest weapons of record were the quill pen and inkwell, and even these were usually wielded by others. From what is written about him, if Paul had ever gotten himself into a fistfight, he would likely have ending up taking a serious and perhaps fatal pounding.

Our pluralistic, relativistic culture has difficulty getting its head around this sort of language. War metaphors are not in vogue when everything (apart from the cardinal virtues of diversity and tolerance) has become a matter of personal opinion. Even competition is frowned upon. Competition has winners and losers, and we don’t want to call anyone a loser, do we? Everyone must receive his participation ribbon. And when even the basic concept of competition has become less-than-acceptable, how much more has fighting to the death?

Peacemakers and Wrestlers

So why is it that we find so many war metaphors in Paul’s epistles? Why does he frame the Christian life in terms that make so many moderns cringe? How is it that we, who are called to make peace and to live ourselves perpetually in the peace of God, are also commanded to be conquerors and contenders and boxers and wrestlers and soldiers?

A few thoughts on that subject:
  1. The scripture covers the entire Church Age. The New Testament relates (in most cases at least), not just to our own era, but to the entire period between its writing and the coming of Christ to judge the world. The fact that recent generations shudder at the thought of mortal combat (except in video games and in the service of communism, of course) does not mean Christians of other eras did not find its war metaphors extremely relevant and useful.
  2. Flesh and blood. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood,” wrote the apostle. It must be remembered that in the Christian era, the war metaphor is an analogy, not a command to go out and kill our enemies and God’s. There has been some confusion about that over the years, and it is not because Paul was ambiguous, but because ignorant men distorted the scriptures to use them for their own ends. When it is kept in mind that our enemies are spiritual and that the battle is primarily waged in the heavenly places, then I think we are reading Paul more accurately, and his language becomes much more comprehensible.
  3. War is serious business, and so is the Christian life. I am not sure we could find another figure of speech that would make this point. A friend from one of the “high churches” once asked me why evangelicals seem to feel compelled to proselytize. She found it distasteful. But our compulsion to talk about the gospel is inextricably tied to the urgency of our message. If the gospel is really a matter of life and death, how can we not take it to the world? Likewise, living the Christian life in a way that pleases God is not some kind of salvation “add-on” for the higher tiers of mature believers. We all need to learn to give Satan no quarter in the battle for control of our bodies and lives.
  4. Our faith is worth dying for. It is also worth killing for (“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry”), provided we recognize that the “killing” in view is spiritual and not literal. That following Christ even to death is a worthy enterprise seemed patently obvious to Christians from the first century until very recently. It is why our language has the word “martyr” in it. In Christendom’s current unserious state, perhaps we need that reminder more today than ever.

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