This blog was inspired by an experience I had the other day. I plan on sharing the experience itself soon, but for my own understanding, I had to process it on a philosophical level first. Thus, even though this post is largely theoretical, just know that it serves as a reaction to a practical scenario.
I believe that life in the Kingdom is marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And yet, I can’t help but notice a lot of martial imagery, even in the New Testament. Reading Paul, it would appear that as citizens in God’s kingdom, we are also soldiers. At least, that’s how Paul refers to his fellow Christians: in Phil. 2:25, he calls Epaphroditus his “fellow worker and fellow soldier”; he also describes Archippus as his fellow soldier in Philemon 1:2. Similarly, he instructs Timothy to “endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” and reminds him that “no one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs–he wants to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:3-4). Perhaps you could argue that Paul is just using figurative language, but it seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom talk could be viewed similarly. Right now, my conclusion is that as much as one is a metaphor, the other is a metaphor; as much as one is real, the other is real.
But wait–how can we be soldiers when Jesus tells us repeatedly to do such wussy things, like,
“Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:38-45).
Seriously? What kind of soldier does not resist his enemies?? Why would Paul refer to us as fighters, if we are not supposed to fight?
The reason for this seeming discrepancy is that in Paul’s language, people are not our enemies. According to him, “ our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). And thus, he tells us to outfit ourselves in such a way as to wage war with these enemies:
13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (Eph. 6:13-18).
Okay, so our enemies are not people, and our weapons are not guns, hatred, anger, or poisoned words; instead, they are truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, God’s Spirit, His word, and prayer. Those might sound kind of lame and ineffective compared to brute strength or biting rhetoric, but Paul assures the Corinthians that God’s weapons are all we need:
“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5).
Our weapons are powerful, and they are perfectly suited to our mission. But what is the mission? Reading Paul’s words about our enemies, I must admit I get a little confused. “Spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”? What the what? And demolishing strongholds? Huh?
I get some insight into the big picture from Paul’s words just a chapters earlier in the same letter. Here, Paul does a great job of clearly laying out what we are supposed to be doing as Christians. In these verses, I find the ideas that hold everything else together:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:14-21)
See, our mission is not to destroy people; it is to save them. Our number one goal is to reconcile the people to God. And strongholds? Those are the things that separate people from God. Paul says as much when he describes strongholds as “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor. 5:5). In short, the picture I get is that our “enemy” is anything that separates man from God.
Here’s another big point: it seems that God’s system has evolved in this area. See, in the Old Testament, the Law commanded that the Israelites stone people for several different offenses. The purpose of that brutality seemed to be to cut off evil from the group. According to the Law, it would seem that the enemies of God were people, and that you overcame said enemies by literally bludgeoning them to death with rocks. And, you know, that gets confusing when you compare it to Paul’s words (not to mention Jesus’). In fact, I don’t really know what to say about that besides two things: it didn’t work (evil was always present in the Israelites), and the New Testament gives us more sophisticated weaponry.
To me, it’s the difference between fire bombing a city and using strategic missiles to take out specific, high-value targets. For all the casualties that the first causes, the second is actually more effective. You can stone people all day long, but you aren’t going to beat the devil that way. And also? Stoning people is horrific.
So Jesus and Paul aren’t backing down. They aren’t being wusses. They are being more precise in their definition of enemy and more sophisticated in their tactics of taking him down. Their ways have far less civilian casualties.
Here’s one way Paul describes our new fighting tactics:
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.‘
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12: 17-21).
Here is another way:
“We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God;with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left;8through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6: 3-10).
Okay, that’s all I have for now. Here’s my (current) conclusion: as citizens in God’s kingdom, we are also called to be soldiers. Our mission: to reconcile man with God. Our enemy: the devil and his schemes to separate man from God. Our weapons: righteousness, goodness the “armor of God” in Ephesians 6. Our tactics: loving people.
Right now, this is all theoretical, not to mention constantly evolving in my brain. Hopefully, I’ll give you a scenario that puts some flesh on these ideological bones soon. Until then, I’m open to any suggestions/revisions!