I’ve always thought the warfare language around faith was kind of troubling. I mean, God, I hope I don’t demonstrate my faith in you by going out and slaughtering a bunch of villagers. That sounds like I’m some Viking praying to Odin, not so much a Christian. I mean, I can sort of understand the Old Testament; the rules were different then—it was about setting Israel apart, and, yes, there was a lot of killing going on there—in spite of God giving the Israelites an explicit commandment, “Thou shall not kill”—but these examples of killing tended to lift Israel over some occupying force, some people who were not where they belonged, and so while it may still make me a bit uneasy I can understand it. But, after Jesus, the warfare images feel like they maybe shouldn’t be needed. After all, we are no longer Jews or Greeks, so what on earth are we fighting about?
Yet, the images persist, begging us to consider why. Paul, in Ephesians—in Ephesians of all places, where he has spent pretty much the entirety of his letter talking about unity in and through faith—writes about putting on the armor of God because of the threats to the people from the ruling authorities. This sounds like it might be the pregame pep talk leading to war. This has been used by Christians during the Crusades and the Inquisition, where putting on the armor of God has meant converting the savages by means of a sword. Something about that doesn’t feel right. If someone came to ransack our town and told us to convert or die we would (I think rightly) assume that their faith is pretty weak if it takes threats of violence to achieve conversion.
So, it seems like we might be heading that direction. Paul takes us to the precipice of where we have been before—war, death, destruction—it’s the old ways again, time to pick up our swords or grab our guns and head to battle, but that’s where things change. It’s precisely at this point where we discover the change in what it means to be a God-follower after Jesus. Yes, we put on the armor of God but the armor of God is not battle armor. Rather, Paul says it is the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace. Paul’s message is particularly effective because he leads us down one avenue—war, battle, man-things—and takes us on a sharp left turn toward something different, a saving grace that requires us not to fight for our lives but to give our lives away. This is the stunning left turn of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But, if I’m being honest, this is kind of a tough turn to make, especially for men. Many men are excited to throw on the armor. And here I want to draw a quick distinction between joining the military, which at its best is about serving for peace at home, and going on a personal war, which is about achieving our own ends. Paul wasn’t writing against the choice to defend your country—after all, the people to whom he was writing were under foreign rule already, rather he was taking a certain attitude that tries to achieve its ends through violence and turning it around.
Now, we don’t go to battle as much these days. We certainly don’t do religious wars so much anymore, which is I believe very much for the best. But instead we throw on our Vikings horns or cheese heads or Sioux and/or Fighting Hawks jerseys or smiling Golden Gophers shirts—because nothing so terrifies the enemy as a brick of cheese or a grinning rodent—and then we go and cheer on our team. Or we throw on the armor in other kinds of competition. We throw on the armor of a business suit and make cunning deals and take home lots of money. We put on the metaphorical armor of parents and we defend our families. One of the reasons I find that men do not connect so much with the church these days is because there is sometimes very little here that feeds that sense of going to battle for something. The church may feel passive because we are preaching a grace given to you, for you, and there’s nothing for you to do about it. There’s nothing to seize; no dragon to conquer that isn’t beaten for you. Some of us are like those knights in medieval stories who apparently go kingdom to kingdom looking for a troll or dragon or monster of various size and strength to slay. It’s their purpose.
Some people just need to battle. But this is where we tend to misunderstand the role of faith, because there are things worth fighting for. Putting on the armor of God is not a violent exercise but it is not a passive one either. Instead, it is living a life worthy of the Gospel to which you have been called. There is a response to grace and that is in how we live. It is what we do with those shoes we put on that are supposed to be bringing peace. It is the work we do—fighting for our families, our communities, our selves. We do this not primarily against antagonistic regimes—I feel like many Christians are walking around looking for a made-up enemy to fight and so they go to battle against the “the culture” or “the world” or worse yet a particular subset of people they imagine to be the enemy—no, most of the time we aren’t fighting anything but ourselves and the power of sin over us.
The thing we should realize—that is so hard to realize in the moment—is that most of the fights we fight against sin are not fights at all. We don’t wage war on cancer—cancer is part of us. We don’t battle depression—depression is woven into us. We don’t go to war with grief—grief is the product of love, which is the very thing we are fighting for. Often what we need is an active attitude that accepts a passive resistance. Accepting that I cannot fix a thing is the hardest thing to do, but it is very close to what putting on God’s armor is about—it’s remembering that I am not the one I am fighting for.
But many of us are only happy trying to fix things. If there’s nothing to fix we feel we are lacking a purpose. So, when some tragedy strikes we try to fix it. When others are sick we try to fix it. When something we cannot repair gets broken we obsess over trying to fix it even when it cannot be done. A relationship is not a pipe. A human body is not a car. So, to put on God’s armor is a reminder of our vulnerability, and it’s an acceptance of the things I cannot change, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. That doesn’t mean—just because we admit that we can’t do it all—that there aren’t things worth doing. And that’s where I worry that we lose men in the church, because just because you can’t fix everything—and you have to rely on a higher power to save you and the people you love—doesn’t mean that you can’t be the hands and feet of Jesus. In fact it means you have a real duty to do it. We all do.
So let’s put on the armor of God for the right reasons. To do good for the world. To be little Christs. Then, let’s accept we can’t do all the good we would like. So, we remember what we are fighting for—not our strength but the strength of God through us.