Living in a War Zone
Living in a War Zone
I am writing this message on my front porch rocking chair. It is a breathtakingly beautiful day, uncharacteristically cool for August. My oldest son just finished the lawn; the smell of fresh cut grass is still in the air, and in my opinion nothing looks better than a well-manicured lawn. Through the window I can hear sounds of the Cubs game that my wife and my youngest son are watching. Here I am sipping lemonade and making notes on a passage of scripture that seems light years away from this moment. Paul is talking about the dark world and spiritual forces of evil. But today, from where I sit, life seems perfect...beautiful...peaceful. Everything looks so good; it is difficult to imagine that we are, in reality, living in a war zone. But we are.
Although today my life resembles a Norman Rockwell painting, the things that cannot be put on canvas—my thoughts, my struggles, my fears, my doubts, my dreams, my goals—they are in the midst of a fierce battle. From the time I wake up in the morning until my head hits the pillow late at night, I am in engaged in combat—in a war hard fought and not easily won, a war in which the casualty count can include every person I come in contact with day in, day out.
And it's the same for you. You live in a war zone. Your life is a battlefield. Every moment throughout the day there are things happening around you that cannot be seen with the natural eye, but are, nonetheless, all too real. Now, I'm not talking about ghosts and goblins, but I am talking about what Paul makes reference to here: We are in the midst of spiritual warfare.
Ephesians 6:10–12 says: "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. 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."
We are engaged in spiritual battle, and without God's help we will lose. There is more to life than meets the eye, more than the materialism with which we so often consume ourselves. Paul says that there is an unseen world that exists around us. This is not the first time he has mentioned it. In chapter 1 he talks about every ruler and authority and power and dominion—and his point is that Jesus is superior to every spiritual being that exists. He is the name above all names, the king above all kings, the Lord above all lords. Jesus Christ is all in all.
Now, he has power over every ruler, authority, and dominion—but we don't. We are engaged in spiritual warfare, and without his help, we are sure to lose.
When we put on the full armor of God, we can stand against the enemy's strategies.
Listen again to verses 10 and 11: "Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes.
It is only through God's power that you can expect to win the spiritual battles of life. If you enter the battlefield alone, there's no telling what will happen. But, if you enter in his power, you are guaranteed to win. As John said in First John 4:4, "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them [false spirits], because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world."
Because Jesus Christ has been given all power in heaven and Earth, we do not have to lose spiritual battles. Some of you may be thinking, "You're beginning to sound a little out there, Steve. What exactly is a spiritual battle?"
Every time you are presented with the opportunity to entertain a lustful thought, you have entered a spiritual battlefield. Every time you have the chance to do something vindictive, you are on the battlefield. Every time you have the chance to say something harsh and hurtful, you are in the midst of battle. Every time you toy with the notion that you're just a little bit better than most of the people you know, you are surrounded by enemy fire. Every time you encounter a person in need, you are engaged in combat.
Life is a spiritual battlefield, and there is a force at work in this world that does not want you to do good. There is a force at work in this world that does not want you to live for Jesus. There is a force at work in this world that does not want you to minister to others in his name. There is a force at work in this world that does not want you to reflect God's love and mercy. And that force will do whatever it takes to make sure you don't do it. Some of you may say, "Wait a minute. I didn't sign up for this!" Maybe not, but when the doctor spanked your bottom, you were drafted into it. That's just the way life is. As someone said, "You gotta serve somebody—it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody."
Now, let me make this perfectly clear. Our enemy might be strong, but our Savior is stronger. Don't get the impression that a fight between God and the devil is a close match. The devil has been defeated. Beaten. Stomped. Humiliated. He has no power in your life, so you don't have to moan and groan about how oppressive the devil is. All you have to do is put on the full armor of God and you will win the battle. James 4:7 says, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you."
Isn't that a great idea? Wouldn't you like to see all the opposing forces in your life pack up and take off running in the other direction? Wouldn't that be great?
In the full armor of God, we can stand our ground against the enemy and keep standing.
You resist the devil by putting on the full armor of God. Listen to how Paul describes it in verses 13 through 17, "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. Stand firm, then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
This is an interesting metaphor; we'll look at it more closely. Paul was, of course, describing a Roman soldier. At the time he was writing this letter, he was in prison and he was probably chained to a Roman soldier. So, when he began to think of spiritual warfare, he looked at the man next to him and noticed that in the same way this soldier's armor protected him in battle, God has provided strength to protect us in battle. Each item on the list parallels a behavior—something we are to do in order to experience the fullness of God's strength. The emphasis is not on the item of armor and all it symbolizes. The emphasis is on the behavior Paul is challenging us to emulate. I don't want us to get sidetracked on the symbolism of the belt and breastplate and helmet; I want us to stay focused on what Paul is telling us to do. Let's take a look.
Wearing the belt of truth, we can stand firm in truthfulness and sincerity of heart.
Paul says to stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist. Always before I had interpreted this to mean "THE truth", as in the truth of God. But Paul doesn't say "THE" truth; he doesn't use the definite article in the Greek. He is saying, "Stand firm, then, with the belt of truthfulness or sincerity of heart buckled around your waist." Paul is talking about our behavior. He's talking about truthful living, truthful thinking, truthful speaking. He's talking about not lying, not being deceptive. He's talking about honesty.
A soldier's belt did basically two things: it protected his midsection, and it gave him freedom of movement. Living according to the truth does the same for us.
A few months ago I was doing a retreat with a church that had been having some internal problems. One of the leaders came to me to discuss a problem, and then said, "Joe will talk to you about this later. When he does, pretend like you're hearing it for the first time." He was asking me to deceive a friend of mine, basically. Now, this may seem like a little "white lie", but I began to feel pressure. I wondered, "What if I don't fool him? What if he knows that I know? What if these two guys have set this whole thing up to see how deceitful I am?"
That's a little far fetched, of course, but this is my point. If I had agreed to so pretend, I would have had to practice deceit. And practicing deceit is never a good idea, no matter how insignificant the circumstances may seem. It doesn't pave the way for the power of God in your life. We often lie to protect ourselves, but it has a tendency to backfire on us. Getting caught in a lie only makes matters worse. When Joe came to me later, I said, "I'm somewhat familiar with all this, but I don't know your side of the story." I didn't break a confidence, but neither did I practice deceit. And by not practicing deceit, I wasn't choosing sides. It made it easier to approach the matter with wisdom.
When Paul says to have the belt of truth buckled around our waist, he is calling us to live truthful lives according to God's truth. A commitment to living truthfully both protects us and gives us freedom.
Wearing the breastplate of righteousness, our personal holiness will be seen in doing good.
The breastplate's role was obvious. It was like a bullet-proof vest. It protected your most vital organs. And what is that breastplate made of? Righteousness. Paul is referring again to our behavior; that's why he emphasizes that we are to "put on" the full armor. He is talking to those who are already believers, so he's not talking about the "imputed" righteousness we receive at salvation—he's talking to believers about personal holiness. He's talking about doing good works.
I know that some people don't like the term "good works," so I want to make it clear that I'm not talking about working for your salvation. I'm talking about being holy. Good works—right living— paves the way for God's strength in your life.
Wearing feet fitted with readiness, we can go and fight or serve the instant God opens an opportunity.
Do you remember at the end of the Beverly Hillbillies they sang the song about having us back next to week to "have a heaping helping of our hospitality"? And he said, "Sit down a spell, take your shoes off...." The idea is to relax, make yourself at home, take it easy and do nothing for awhile.
Paul is saying the opposite. He's saying, "Put your shoes on. Get busy." He's talking about our behavior: Be ready to go. Be ready to move. Be ready to work. Be ready to serve. Put your shoes on.
Wearing the shield of faith, we are protected from anything the enemy throws at us.
Roman soldiers used two kinds of shields. A small one in hand-to-hand to combat, and a large one—four and a half feet tall by two feet wide—for use when the army was advancing. Each solider would stand side-by-side, holding up his shield, and the enemy would be faced with a solid wall of shields—row after row after row. This made the army impenetrable.
That's what faith does. It makes you impenetrable, especially when you're marching side by side with your fellow soldiers. Paul is talking about our behavior again. He's not referring to a mere creed that you acknowledge with your intellect, he is talking about faithfulness—faith in action.
He makes reference to fiery darts. These Roman shields were covered with leather and were often soaked before battle so that the shield would quickly absorb and snuff out the flaming arrows that were shot at them.
Your faith gives you the same protection. When you continue to advance side by side with your fellow soldiers, your faith protects from anything the enemy throws your way.
Wearing the helmet of salvation means meditating on all God has done for us and has planned for us.
Paul is talking about the way we think. Just like a helmet protects your head, salvation does too, when you meditate on it. Remember that Paul is speaking to people who are already believers. He's not asking them to be saved—they already are saved. He's saying "Use your salvation to protect your head."
Do you know why I can't give in to despair, no matter how bad things get? Because God's salvation protects my head. When I think about what he has done for me, and all that he promises me, I can't believe in despair—even during the darkest days. Do you know why I'm not very good at worry? Because God's salvation protects my head. When I think about God's salvation, it is difficult to see things as beyond his control—and if he is in control, why worry? Do you know why I find it difficult to preach a negative sermon? Because God's salvation protects my head. When I meditate on God's salvation, I can't believe in gloom and doom. No matter how bad things may seem today, I know because of his salvation that these things are only temporary. He promises, ultimately, a bright and beautiful future for all believers. Let God's salvation protect your head; think about it.
Wearing the sword of the Spirit, God gives us specific words to live by.
In verse 17, Paul refers to "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." In this case, Paul isn't referring to the Bible or the New Testament which hadn't yet been completely written and compiled. And he doesn't use the word logos here. Rather, he uses the word rhema, which really means "a saying." It refers not to a general word, but a specific word. For example, the whole Bible could be called a logos, but John 3:16 would then be called a rhema, or a specific word or saying.
The sword of the Spirit is that specific word—that rhema—that God gives us by supernatural revelation. Most often for me, it is a verse of scripture that applies to my specific situation. I could give you hundreds of examples. Here's one from this week.
I was having a discussion with a couple of people. We weren't arguing, but we were disagreeing. One of the guys began to say something that I didn't want to hear, and I opened my mouth to speak, but the moment before I cut him off, the Lord spoke to me from Proverbs 18:13, "He who answers before listening, that is his folly and his shame."
So I closed my mouth and let him finish talking. Later, we were able to come to an agreement, due mostly to the fact that we were able to discuss the matter without each of us interrupting the other. The word of God, the sword of the Spirit, pierced that conversation and enabled us to find a solution.
Our weapon for spiritual warfare is this same sword, the word of God spoken to us for a particular situation we find ourselves in. Do you realize what that concept means? We have to spend a lot of time in the Word, the Bible, so that God can speak specific words into our life when we need it most.
Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God. You don't have to remember the breastplate and the belt and all the others, but you do need to remember this. We are in a spiritual battle, a battle that we can win only through the strength of God. In order to experience the strength of God, we need to do certain things:
Do good works.
Be ready to go where God sends.
Be faithful (full of faith).
Think about salvation.
Listen to God's word.
This is the full armor of God. It enables you to stand against the devil's schemes. And there's one more weapon in your arsenal.
Our greatest weapon in the battle is prayer.
Paul says in verse 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."
I was tempted to extend this series one more week so that I could preach an entire message on the subject of prayer, but I didn't want to separate the subject of prayer from the subject of spiritual warfare.
Paul's strategy for prayer is quite simple: Pray for everything and everyone. All occasions, he says. All kinds of prayers and requests, he says. For all the saints, he says. Pray.
I challenge you this week to make prayer your "first resort." Before you do anything, pray. When you get up in the morning, before you interact with your family, pray just a quick prayer: "God help me help them get their day off to a great start." When you walk into your workplace, pray a quick prayer: "God help me do your work today for your glory. And help me treat my co-workers with dignity and respect." Before you make a phone call, before you speak to a client, before you go to a meeting, pray. In traffic, pray. In stressful situations, pray. In every event throughout the day, pray. On all occasions with all kinds of prayers, pray.
This is your greatest weapon in spiritual warfare. Why? Because when you pray you are submitted to God. Remember the verse from James 4:7, "Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you."
Life is a war zone, and every day we're on the battlefield. The only way you can win this battle is through the strength of God. But to receive God's strength you must act. Put on the belt of truth: live truthfully. Put on the breastplate of righteousness; do good works. Put your shoes on be ready to go where God sends you. Take up the shield of faith, and be ready to live by faith. Take the helmet of salvation, and fill your mind with thoughts about all that God's salvation means to you. Get into the Word and listen to God's voice, so that he can speak specific words into your life. And most of all, pray—on all occasions, all kinds of prayers, for everyone. Do this, Paul says, and you will stand your ground, and when the battle is over, you will remain standing...for the glory of God.
Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.