Friday, January 30, 2015

On the Mat

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood . . . (Eph. 6:12)


Throughout middle school and early High School I watched and cheered as my son participated in a sport that I didn’t understand. At all.


Wrestling is not for the faint of heart, neither the student competitors nor their parents. For one thing a wrestler steps onto a mat alone. Yes, there’s a team, guys wearing the same colors from the same school. But when it’s really time to play there is no team. Just a wrestler and his opponent. When one of those happens to be your kid you can feel something happening inside your skin. Your stomach knots up and maybe your temples throb. This could go on for minutes. It could be over in seconds.


Another factor that makes wrestling tough on the average parent spectator who never donned a singlet is simply the scoring. Crossing a goal line or throwing a ball through a basket are easily grasped ways of winning. With wrestling, things are not quite as clear. Beyond basics such as a ‘take-down,’ ‘reversal,’ and ‘pin’ I never really understood what was going on. The competitors looked like a tangled writhing mess. Over time I came to understand that there was much more going on than my untrained eye could sort out.          


Done right, every move on the mat is designed to seize an advantage and exploit a weakness.


Mixing Metaphors

Paul’s coaching in Ephesians 6 is designed to encourage us to fight spiritual battles. Paul wants us to understand that these battles are real and the opponent we face is deliberate in his tactics. His every move is calculated to seize an advantage over you and exploit your weaknesses.


In the course of his admonition Paul mixes his metaphors. Most of his language is militaristic. He tells us to put on armor. He speaks of shields and breastplates and swords and helmets. We might say that he spends most of his time talking to us about our gear and our weapons.


But at verse 12 Paul switches to a different word picture, mixing his metaphors to make sure we know what we’re getting into. The NIV Bible gives a rather weak translation with “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” A better rendering is found in the ESV’s “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.”


Paul uses a Greek word from the world of athletics. He wants us to know that we are wrestling, grappling with our adversary in close combat. John Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 6:12 includes a footnote that cites Plutarch’s explanation that

Wrestling was the most artful and subtle of the ancient games, and the name of it was derived from a word which means to throw a man down by deceit and craft. And it is certain that persons who understand this exercise have many fetches, and turns, and changes of posture which they make use of . . .  to trip up their adversary.  


In Your Face

As strange as wrestling may seem to the uninitiated spectator, a suit of Roman armor is even more alien to us. Thankfully Paul blended a picture from sport with his guiding image of a soldier. If nothing else, the truth that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” tells us that this fight is close and that the opponent is deliberate in his moves.   


Don’t miss the implications of this. You are wrestling today, not flying a drone.


The fight is close up, even in your face. Spiritual battles are neither abstract nor distant. They don’t happen to someone else while you stand afar. And your adversary is working with the details of your life to get a hold of you, to immobilize you, to throw you down.


By God’s grace every move has a counter-move. You are not defenseless. Maybe you’ve never set foot on a mat. But you are a wrestler.


Where are the vulnerable places in your life? What will you do to engage the adversary?


Grant us wisdom, O God, to see and to know how our opponent moves against us. And make us ready to engage the fight, staying on our feet and standing firm by the gift of your mighty strength, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Things Unseen

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood . . . (Eph. 6:12)


Spiritual warfare. If we’re honest we might admit that there’s something about the phrase that we don’t like.


Maybe it’s the word ‘warfare.’ These days anything that blends religion with war talk offends our sensibilities. That’s no surprise. We’re living in a day when the ravages of militant religion are regularly displayed on social media and cable news channels. People who mix faith and fighting are dangerous people. We want nothing to do it.


For generations they hymn Onward Christian Soldiers was sung with gusto in American churches. In recent years that hymn has fallen from favor, the militarism prompting its removal from a number of hymnals. The hymn was written in 1864 specifically for use as a processional for a children’s Sunday school program in Yorkshire, England. But marching children conjured pictures of Hitler Youth. We have little interest now in teaching children to march. Farewell beloved hymn.


Know Your Enemy

We’ll have plenty of opportunity to talk about ‘warfare’ in the days ahead. For today, instead of jumping straight to the noun ‘warfare,’ we’re going to linger with the adjective ‘spiritual.’ We are thinking these days about a particular kind of conflict. If we don’t understand this, if we fail to grasp the nature of the fight, then there won’t be a fight at all. We’ve lost right from the start.


In his letter to the Ephesians Paul is very clear as to the nature of what we’re up against.

For 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).


We don’t have time here to sort out all the language of that verse, but don’t miss the opening phrase. We are not fighting flesh and blood. The most formidable enemy of your faith is not a human enemy – neither your boss nor your ex, neither Hollywood nor the media, neither Republicans nor Democrats.


John Calvin commented on the text by saying “Let us remember this when the injurious treatment of others provokes us to revenge. Our natural disposition would lead us to direct all our exertions against the men themselves; but . . . the men who annoy us are nothing more than darts thrown by the hand of Satan.” 


Game Over

One of the most insidious things about spiritual warfare is that the fight often comes to us in familiar and plain wrapping. We fail to identify the enemy. We live blind to the spiritual nature of the conflicts that eat us alive. We live our days angry about politics, worried about our children or about money, guilt-ridden with past failures.


Having failed to see the enemy, we lose the fight. We don’t know joy. We forfeit our peace. We carry shame. Game over. 


C. S. Lewis said that one of the devil’s most effective strategies is simply getting us not to believe that he exists at all. American Christians are particularly vulnerable to this strategy. So early on, get honest about this: Do you know the nature of the fight you’re in as you seek to live a life of faith? There are unseen realities around you, what Paul called “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Do you believe this?


As you look at this day, what are you up against? What do you see – and what might be unseen in the struggles you’re facing?


Gracious God, help us to see beyond the obvious in the things that confront us and threaten us today. Keep us from living fearful and angry lives and make us equal to the struggle that threatens our walk with you and out witness in the world, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

You Have an Adversary

Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11).   


Pastor Erwin McManus, in a sermon titled Seizing Your Divine Moment, shares the following story about his son Aaron.

One summer Aaron went to a youth camp. He was just a little guy and I was kind of glad because it was a church camp. I figured he wasn’t going to hear all those ghost stories, because ghost stories can really cause a kid to have nightmares. But unfortunately, since it was a Christian camp and they don’t tell ghost stories . . . they told demon and Satan stories instead. And so when Aaron got home he was terrified.

 “Dad, don’t turn off the light!” he said before going to bed. “Daddy, could you stay here with me? Daddy, I’m afraid. They told all these stories about demons . . . “Daddy, Daddy, would you pray for me that I would be safe?”

I could feel it. I could feel warm-blanket Christianity beginning to wrap around him, a life of safety, safety, safety. I said, “Aaron, I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous that demons will flee when you enter the room.”

And he goes, “All right. But pray I would be really, really dangerous, Daddy.”

Spiritual ‘Snuggie’

I know too well the lure of “warm-blanket Christianity.” The phrase reminds me of those TV commercials for something called a “Snuggie” – basically a blanket with sleeves so you can literally slip it on and wear it around your house.


When we slip on our spiritual “Snuggie” our prayers become a means of increasing our comforts. We want good health for ourselves and those we love; we want adequate income and meaningful friendships; we want to be shielded from what can harm us; we want the American dream and everything that comes with it, and we appeal to God to help us attain it.


Such prayers are not intentionally greedy or fearful. After all, a much-loved Psalm tells us that the Lord, our good shepherd, will lead us to green pastures and still waters. His rod and staff will comfort us (Psalm 23:1-4).  


Prayers that seek solace are not bad prayers. But neither are they complete. God wants to make us dangerous and not merely safe. God promises to give us courage, not just comfort. God will fill us with his power in addition to his peace.


Clever and Relentless

1 Peter 5:8 tells us that we have an enemy. There is a personal presence at work in the world, actively seeking to diminish and ultimately destroy your faith in God and your life as a follower of Jesus. Peter likens this adversary to a lion, prowling and hungry, eager to devour you.


For the next three weeks we’re going to be thinking about “spiritual warfare” – what is it, how do we know we’re in it, and how do we engage it rather than hide from it. This topic may be a familiar one to some of you. Others of you may come from traditions that regard such matters as belonging to the pew-jumpers and Bible-thumpers.


Regardless of what you call it, this is true of every person who seeks to live a life of faith: you have an adversary. This adversary is clever and relentless. And the point of struggle or conflict that occupies your thoughts today has a spiritual dimension – whether you know it or not.   


What will it mean for you to put on the full armor of God and to ready yourself for a fight? How will you seek something more than safety, living dangerously as you follow Jesus through this day?



Too often, O God, I ask for what will make me comfortable and keep me safe. Today I’m asking you to make me dangerous – a threat to the presence of evil in this world and the brokenness it brings about. Use me today as means of blessing. Empower me to carry your light into places that are dark. Make me bold to live as one called to engage the adversary, and give me what I need for the fight, I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.