Most people who have grown up in the Christian church would be familiar with the image of the armour of God. For people who may be new or unfamiliar with Paul’s metaphor, however, it might sound very strange. When we think about the violence done to people in God’s name, using military metaphors to describe the life of faith might be challenging or even offensive.
So why Paul did use this image and what does it say about living as disciples of Jesus? Why do we need to put on the armour he describes? Why are they important in a life of faith as we follow the way Jesus taught?
Paul helps us to understanding the image of the armour of God in verse 12 where he writes,
… 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. (NIV)
Paul assumes that living as followers of Jesus will be a struggle. The Greek word Paul uses literally means ‘wrestle’. He wasn’t thinking about the carefully choreographed spectacle we might see on TV, but the kind of wrestling that is a sport at the Olympic Games where people are locked into a closely fought physical contest.
Paul tells us that followers of Jesus are constantly struggling or wrestling with ‘rulers’, ‘authorities’, ‘powers of this dark world’, and ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’ These struggles can take a wide variety of forms, from demonic attacks or spiritual oppression, through to more ordinary experiences such as trying to trust in God’s goodness and love when life is hard, or loving someone who has wronged us or is difficult to love. No matter how we might understand the idea of spiritual warfare, Paul assumes that all of God’s people are involved in a struggle with the forces of evil in one way or another.
This can be very different from the sort of Christianity people look for. We can often want an easy, convenient and comfortable faith where we get what we want and it’s simple to follow. If this is what we’re looking for, then maybe, based on what Paul writes, the devil has already won. To trust the goodness of God’s love for us in Jesus will be a struggle because often what we see and experience actually tell us the opposite. We will always struggle to love others in the same sacrificial, self-giving way as Jesus because we are essentially hard-wired to put what we want first, even if it comes at other people’s expense, and we live in a culture that tells us that being self-centred is good. Whether you believe that the devil is real or not, to live each day trusting in God’s goodness and love, and loving others in a Christ-like way will always be a struggle because it goes against our human nature and the way the world around us operates.
Following Jesus will be a struggle for us because he struggled, too. Jesus didn’t choose an easy, comfortable or convenient way of life. Jesus knows the struggles that come with a life of faith because he has already experienced them during his life on earth. When we read the gospel stories of his life, as soon as he was baptised, Jesus’ struggles began as he was lead into the wilderness and tested by the devil. Throughout the three years of his ministry, Jesus struggled with the same forces Paul mentions, and in every case he showed he was more powerful. We see Jesus fully embracing our struggles when he wrestled with his approaching suffering and death in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he experienced pain and suffering before and during his crucifixion, and when he felt like he had been abandoned by his heavenly Father on the cross.
Jesus’ struggles were the path to a greater end – his resurrection from the dead and the gift of life to all who believe in him! In the same way, our struggles of faith lead us deeper into the life of the risen Christ. As we struggle, we learn to trust in God’s goodness and love. When our struggles appear to be overwhelming or too much for us, we have others who are struggling with us and for us to help us find the life of Jesus in the middle of our struggles. When we are willing to give up a safe, easy and comfortable form of Christianity to embrace the struggles that go with following Jesus, then we not only grow in the life of Jesus for ourselves, but we meet others in their struggles and help them find God’s strength as well.
It is vital to recognize that all of the verbs in this passage are plural. Paul is telling his readers to be strong together (v10), to put on God’s armour together (vv11,13), to stand together (vv13,14), to take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit together (vv16,17), and to be persistent in praying together (v18). The life of faith is not an individual pursuit of a ‘me-and-God’ relationship. It is a life together with other disciples of Jesus in community as we struggle with and for each other, standing with and for each, finding God’s mighty power that overcomes all our struggles with each other and for each other.
This idea of struggling in faith and love for each other becomes critical when we talk about ministry with our young people and being part of God’s mission to the world. Maybe our biggest failure as church is that we have preferred an easy, comfortable, convenient version of Christianity over the struggles that come with following Jesus. We have been more concerned with how things might impact what we want than how we can be Christ to others. If all we’re concerned about is what’s comfortable and convenient for me, then the devil has already won because we are reflecting the way the world works. To follow Jesus means being willing to struggle with trusting God in all the situations of life and living in self-sacrificing love for others, not matter what the cost may be to ourselves. This will never be easy for us. It will always involve struggle.
So I’m left asking: will you join in the struggle for the hearts and souls of others? Will you embrace the struggles that goes with following Jesus faithfully in order to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus yet, or who are themselves struggling to find the goodness and love of Jesus in their lives? Are you willing to give up a safe, comfortable, convenient version of church and embrace the struggle of faith for the sake of the young people of our church?
When we are willing to give up our own comfort and follow Jesus into the struggle of faith and love, that’s when we are strong in the Lord and his mighty power, covered head to toe in the full armour of God.