The Whole Armour of God
As someone who has spent my whole life in the United Church of Canada, it has not been my experience that we talk about spiritual evil a lot, in our tribe. There could be a number of reasons for that. Part of it is probably the influence of increasing secularism in and around the church. In a culture where people have less and less interest in religious understandings of the world, it's somewhat less embarrassing to talk about things like love and grace, and the goodness we are capable of. "Spirituality," in our time and place, always seems to have a pleasant quality. It's always nice. It's always supposed to feel good. When people tell me that they are "spiritual," I don't generally get the sense that they mean that they have a strong belief in what Paul calls "the cosmic powers of this present darkness...the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places..."
I remember being laughed at by a teacher in seminary for suggesting that I thought that maybe CS Lewis was onto something, in his great little book The Screwtape Letters, when one of the demon characters tells another that their greatest accomplishment is making people not believe in them. I always thought that was kind of insightful. My teacher looked at me as if I'd just said I thought the world might be flat. I do understand her skepticism, but I guess I just don't have that much difficulty looking around and seeing that there are things that are clearly wrong with the world, and that defy neat and tidy explanations. I don't have to look all that far! I just have to look inside myself. A bit of self-reflection makes it clear that my spiritual life is not all sunshine and roses. I understand perfectly well what Paul's going on about in the letter to the Romans, when he says that as often as not he's found that the good stuff he wants to do he doesn't, and the evil stuff he doesn't want to do, he does. I'm grateful for his honesty about that.
I think that inner turmoil is part of the reason that Paul is insisting that our battle is not against "flesh and blood." Partly that has to do with early Christian pacifism. Early Christians didn't take up arms of any kind. But it also has to do with the reality that whether or not we are anywhere near actual war, actual physical conflict, we still know about the intimate enemies of sin and death. Even in the most idyllic situations, when everything is good and peaceful, we are capable of thoughts and actions that betray self-centeredness, undermine our commitment to God's way of justice and love, and break down our relationships with ourselves, and each other, and the rest of creation. That's why we begin our worship with a prayer of confession. Paul says elsewhere that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22), and even when everything seems to be right in the world, we come up against the opposite of those things, in ourselves and in others. I'm assuming it's not just me.
We may not share Paul's cosmology, the way that he describes the order of the universe. He's reflecting a first century, Greek way of ordering and understanding things. It's not exactly ours. But we shouldn't dismiss what he says out of arrogance; and we would do well to remember that there are lots of cultures in the world today who have no trouble understanding what we're dealing with in this passage. It would not surprise me at all if there are some among us who have a real experience of what NT Wright calls "sub-personal" evil (it can't be "personal" because God is personal; if Jesus is Life, whatever the opposite of Jesus is can't be; but it's nevertheless real). And at the end of the day I don't think we do ourselves any favours by ignoring the reality that we know something about these things ourselves, even if we wouldn't describe it exactly like Paul does. It's not even the weirdest thing Christians believe.
But I want to take our cue from Paul on this. I think it's important that he names the reality of evil, and then proceeds to give it no real power. The real power is God's. The last word is God's. While there's a danger in not naming evil, turning a blind eye to the destructive forces in our lives and in the world, the other side of things is at least equally, and maybe more dangerous. It is entirely possible to pay too much attention to the reality of sin and evil. I think one of the most demonic tricks, one of the "wiles of the devil" is to get us to focus obsessively on what's wrong with us and the world, so that we become paralyzed by guilt and shame and fear and hopelessness. The Church is susceptible to that temptation. There are lots of churches where you might never know that the gospel is actually good news, because all the focus, all the energy goes to what's wrong and broken. Bad news gets all the headlines.
So Paul names it, but the focus is really on God's action, and our participation in God's power to make all things new. This is not about our hapless existence, carried along by the relentless current of brokenness and evil, hoping that at the last minute we might get rescued from this wretched life. This is about the power of the Living God, who equips us here and now to join in the work of setting the world right--work that we see most clearly in the resurrection of Jesus, God's overcoming of the ways of sin and brokenness and death. For Paul, Jesus' resurrection is the decisive victory in the battle for the world. It is God's declaration that Jesus--his way of love and justice and righteousness--is the way, the truth, and the life that is truly life.
And as we follow him, as we learn to walk in his way, embody his truth, take hold of his life, we are being made ready to face down the stuff that would destroy us, our neighbors, and this world, and we can be certain of our victory. I have a friend and colleague who was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, she was the mother of boys my sons' ages. It was caught fairly early, and she underwent all of the therapies and surgeries. The first round didn't work, so she ended up having a full mastectomy. And though right now the doctors are pleased with how everything went, and the cancer seems to be gone, these things are never certain. Through it all though, whenever people came to visit her, all they seemed to experience was how well she was doing--how calm, how patient, how hopeful she was, during what was an unquestionably challenging time, a time riddled with brokenness and death. And when people asked her about that, she had a great response: she was getting through it with "training and grace." I love that. I hope that if I am ever faced with the kind of mess that she was, I can say something similar.
And the point is not to compare responses to tragedy, but I think her line brings to light the action and energy of what Paul says. I know that there is a complicated relationship between religion and militaristic images. And it's worth doubling back to Paul's instruction that our battle isn't against flesh and blood. But I love this idea of the Christian life as a peculiar kind of mirror image of a Roman soldier preparing, dressing and training, for battle. It pulses with energy and expectation that I think we could use some more of in the Church. And, like my friend, it reminds us that, whatever the current conditions of our lives, we are training to move in the world not in the ways of violence and conquest, but in the way of Jesus: in the way of grace upon grace, and peace beyond circumstance or understanding, and love beyond life, and hope beyond hope.
Thanks be to God, Paul says, we are equipped to do that with nothing less that the armour of God. And what is this holy equipment? It beings with the belt of truth. We're held together, secured by the truth about who God is (the maker and sustainer of all things, who created in love and continues to love this world beyond measure); we're held together by the truth about who we and our neighbors are (people made in God's image); we're bound up in the truth that in Christ, God was pleased to reconcile all things in heaven and earth, and that in the end that reconciliation will be complete: every tear will be dried, every hungry belly filled, the lion will lie down with the lamb. We begin our preparation in faithfulness by putting on that truth, wrapping it around us, learning to rest secure in it.
And then we put on the breastplate of righteousness. We let God's armor protect our hearts. One of the most familiar results of sin and brokenness is shame (in Genesis, the first thing that happens to Adam and Eve is the realization and shame that they are naked), which can lead to an inability to know how deeply we are loved, that we really and truly are (as the psalmist puts it) the apple of God's eye. We can have a really hard time believing that. We get our relationship with God and ourselves all out of whack, in all kinds of ways, and so our relationships with others get all messed up. Righteousness means getting those relationships, inside and outside, in order, set right so that they are life-giving and flourishing. When we put on the breastplate of righteousness we learn to receive God's abundant love for us, and to let it flow out of us. When our hearts are protected we are able to love God and our neighbors with everything we've got.
Next, comes whatever footwear will make us ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. I really like that "whatever." Paul is not prescriptive here. He's full aware that we might need different footwear for different situations, when walking in the way of Jesus. The Christian life isn't a kind of cookie-cutter existence. Spiritually speaking, sometimes we're hiking, or running, or lounging on the beach. Sometimes we're walking purposefully; sometimes we're strolling leisurely, considering lilies and sparrows. God trusts us to be nimble, to pay attention and prepare ourselves in whatever way we need to, so that we can show the world what God is like--so we can bring peace wherever we go.
Now pick up the shield of faith. It's always good to remind ourselves that faith, biblically speaking, isn't simple agreement with a set of statements about God and the world. Faith is intimate trust. When we pick up the shield of faith, we learn to trust that in fact we are standing in the strength of the Lord, in the power of God, as Paul puts it. We are not left to live our Christian commitment by our own best will and efforts. We have more. We have God, with us and for us. And that conviction is what goes between us and the enemy. In the midst of battle, the power of positive thinking doesn't hold up all that well against "flaming arrows." We need more, and we have it. Our hope is in God, who made heaven and earth, God who is worthy of our trust, come what may.
Then comes the helmet of salvation, protection for our heads, our minds and thoughts. It's a beautiful image, our thoughts and minds protected by the reality of our salvation. That means that we begin to understand the world through Jesus, to conform the pattern of our thoughts to his will and way. Or, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippians: Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philppians 4:8; see also Romans 12:2). This is not willful or naive ignorance about the messes we see in the world; it's a conscious decision to know that those things will not have the final word, on us, our neighbors, or creation. It's to focus not on our brokenness, but on God's desire to make us and all things whole.
And finally, our only weapon is the sword of the Spirit, which is an awfully strange weapon. It's actually useless if we want to do damage in the world. We're told that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God, which here means a spoken word, not a written one. The sword of the Spirit is our ability to speak love and truth; it's to give voice to God's grace; it's to speak in ways that build up, rather than cut down; in ways that honor, rather than demean. Eugene Peterson says that whenever we open our mouths, Christian truth is on the line. To carry the sword of the Spirit is to let our words be precise and accurate, quick to say and sing and pray the power of God's love and grace, wherever we are.
And now we're all geared up! I want to finish by making clear that Paul doesn't give us an image to superimpose on our lives, as though it should come completely naturally. He gives us an image to live into. One of my favorite theologians says that a good image is much better for helping us grow in truth, than a bunch of information, and this is a good image. And what's for sure is that I haven't managed to completely unpack it. We're meant to engage it, meditate on it, pray through it, not just understand it. In the end, it's an image that reminds us that we need to train (as my friend puts it), regularly, in order to move easily, nimbly, energetically, suited up in God's grace. A soldier unfamiliar with her equipment is going to have a hard time when it matters.
That's why Paul wraps it all up by encouraging prayer, for ourselves and others. If we're going to wear God's armour, and use it well, we need to spend time in God's presence, learning how God moves in the world, learning the strategies of grace and love, justice and peace, hope and joy. We get ourselves in trouble when we start to think that the way that God moves in the world is more or less like we do, just a bit better. Anne Lamott has a great line about how if it turns out that God hates all the same things you do, then you've probably made God in your own image. I think the same is true if it turns out that God really likes all the things we do. Paul says that he needs prayer so that he can make known the mystery of the gospel, not a projection of his best will. We're not dealing in something that makes perfect sense, by our familiar standards and experiences. The gospel, God's good news for the world in Jesus Christ, comes unexpectedly, as a beautiful surprise, a holy mystery--as strange as resurrection. If we're going to get in on that, we've got to train, we've got to practice day in and day out, so that whatever the situation we can begin to move in the rhythms of hope, peace, joy, and love instinctively. We've got to learn how to move in the way of Jesus, to run and jump and live in the wide space of God's grace. By God's grace, we will. Amen.