Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Full Armor" Image - Still Meaningful?

This week I'm going to preach about being “dressed for success” using a passage from Ephesians 6. Using a word that occurs only one other time in the New Testament, the author exhorts us readers to put on the “full armor” of God. But what kind of armor is this?

Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Spirit? These are the articles of clothing with which we are to gird ourselves in preparation for battle with “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” Um… don’t you have anything more … substantial? Like a thermo-nuclear device, maybe? Shoot, I’d settle for a shirt of chain mail!

The answer, of course, is no. This isn’t real “armor” we’re getting ourselves dressed in; armor is being used here symbolically. This passage is a metaphor for preparing ourselves to live the life God wants us to live, which may prove to be difficult from time to time. The author has taken overtly militaristic imagery and transformed it into what would seem like nonsense to a soldier. Surely a soldier with any sense would rather go into battle with a shield made out of metal or even wood, rather than one out of faith.

But I think that is precisely the point. God gives us what we need to prepare us to live a good life, and much of the time it’s not really what we might expect. Nevertheless, God assures us that what has been given is indeed sufficient, despite our frantic scrabbling for something we think might be more appropriate.

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The above thoughts are a part of my newsletter article this week. I always write an article intended to prime the pump for the upcoming worship services, get people thinking, kind of preview coming attractions. Of course, it also reflects what I am thinking about during the week as well.

I have been thinking a bit about militaristic images in scripture, kind of as a tangent to the central theme of the week. War is something I have changed my mind about many times throughout my life. And using militaristic images to talk about faith has been something I have usually avoided, or at least not emphasized, because of this waffling.

Listening to people talk about their experiences Guatemala, ravaged by war over the past several decades, really impacted my ideas about war. Serving as a pastor in Warrensburg, with several Air Force personnel and their families in the congregation helped to shape my thoughts as well. And good friendships with a few people who have served in the Middle East and their families have also informed my opinions.

One thing that is certain: war in 2009 is so different from war in the ancient near east as to be almost unrecognizable. A soldier described in the Bible and a soldier serving today in Afghanistan have many things in common, to be sure, but also huge differences. For one thing, the level of destruction that is possible today would have been unthinkable then. Also the amount of automation along the front lines is obviously an enormous difference. And changes in communication and transportation have flattened the world so that every local conflict is instantly global.

Because of these differences, I am hesitant to incorporate militaristic imagery when talking about faith. It's just not the same world now as it was then. And out of my deep respect for people who serve in the military, and my sincere desire to support them and their families, I choose not to use military metaphors to make a theological point. I even sort of regret my off-handed attempt at humor in my newsletter article above, mentioning a thermo-nuclear device to illustrate my point. That was pretty insensitive of me, and I am sorry.

Like I said, this is a topic that I have changed my mind about before, and I'm sure I will again. I'd be interested to know what y'all think. If you feel so inclined, leave a comment and let's discuss it. Does the militaristic imagery in scripture still convey the meaning it was intended to convey?

6 comments:

willdeuel said...

The last time the RCL blessed us with this passage I used my son's catcher's gear as a substitute for military armor.

korywilcox said...

If anything, I think the imagery in Ephesians 6 stands to be enhanced by our advances in military technology. Like you said yourself: "don't you have anything more substantial?" That's about what I think first whenever I read this passage, too. And that's why we need it.

The passage incites the idea that we're not fighting a physical fight, yet if we were, we might have a fighting chance if we were to wear our breastplate and helmet. Believable. Whereas these days, it seems a physical encounter somehow guarantees the destruction of one party or the other. And when we know every fight is winnable given enough force, what need is there to desire the submission of an enemy rather than their destruction?

Likewise, I think it's easier today than it was when Ephesians was written to believe that, when faced with spiritual evil, chances are we're not going to survive. We've seen our own physically destructive power, and are pretty sure there are some things we just wouldn't be able to fight back against. So if we believe that about our physical life, don't we run the risk of believing that about our spiritual life? Then we give up when it starts to get hairy... say we're no match for this temptation... believe there's no way we can bring light into that person's darkness... or love into that person's despair.

In that sense, I think this passage is timeless. We need something to remind us that, no, this is not a losing fight. This is not a lost cause, and our destruction is not guaranteed. If the imagery needs to be updated, then fine. Put on your radar jammer of truth and kevlar of salvation. The fact is, no matter what the physical odds of battle may be, spiritually speaking, in the end, evil is no match for what we are armed with.

I think we could easily extract military imagery from scripture, but I'm not sure we extract confrontational imagery alltogether without extracting the biblical idea that we are all sought after by forces which are against God. Because of the degree to which we're all exposed to the magnitude of our world's collective destructive power, do we not need to be able to understand and answer that idea today as well as (if not better than) we did 1800 years ago?

Andy B. said...

Interesting points, Kory. And I see where you are coming from. My first reaction is that it doesn't respond to the issue of the sort of de-personalization of military action these days. I mean, could we say "take the unmanned remote control drone of righteousness"?

But you've definitely given me ponderable stuff!

korywilcox said...

Now we're messing with objectives, though. I see what you're saying. War was once always an occupation of troops. Now that's more or less what comes after war. Mission accomplished, etc. I guess I'm assuming this passage views our spiritual battle(s) as a sort of perpetual "last stand," which is always going to be personal.

Will Deuel said...

As children of the Living God, what we need to protect ourselves from the spiritual forces of wickedness is spiritual armor. Our helmet IS salvation. We don't need a literal breastplate - we need the breastplate that is righteousness. etc. I find it useful to transform the war imagery spiritually. Truth, righteousness, the Word, the Spirit are what strengthen and protect us like armor protects a warrior.

bridger said...

"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."

I believe if we truly look at our spiritual existance, we are in the midst of a battle every day. Not merely living a good life, but being attacked at our weakest point. A friend of mine was having marital trouble, and a boyfriend from years ago called her out of the blue. A specific attack, a fiery dart that can only be extinguished by a shield of faith in Christ. I don't think there is any more accurate description than the military one, because we need to not only be protected from evil, we need to be prepared for the back and forth battle that rages every day. The sword of the spirit (God's word) at our side to beat back the advances of Satan. Go for it Andy! I think those who are offended by military language are not fully aware of what is happening every day in their spiritual existance. Hope these comments were not too much. "Onward Christian Soldiers!"