our struggle is not against people

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. 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.

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 Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

If there’s anyone who struggled with people besides our Lord, it was surely the Apostle Paul. When you read the account in Scripture, it’s remarkable what all he went through especially from his own people, but sometimes from others as well. His life, like our Lord had previously indicated, was marked with suffering. And Paul did warn people about certain characters who were resisting the gospel and its messengers.

But in Ephesians we read something that is remarkable in itself and yet given the message of Scripture and what is more and more revealed along the way is arguably not all that surprising. There are underlying spiritual entities at work both to resist us and resist our witness. They are active and at work in usually the most subtle ways, though sometimes not so subtle. C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is a remarkable read that lifts the veil off what they’ve been doing the past few centuries right through to the present day, even with anticipation of what’s beyond. Without getting into that, which I’m not prepared to do anyhow, I want to insist that what Paul calls us to here is nothing short than living in the truth of the gospel, as we share that gospel as a witness to others.

What do we tend to do instead? We fall right into the enemy’s trap by doing something different. We might fight fire with fire. We might enter into the struggle as if it’s against other humans, perhaps a political or philosophical battle rather than a spiritual one. That doesn’t mean that something of philosophy or politics might not find its way into what is going on, though the gospel should always be front and center. The point is that we’re no less than in a spiritual battle, with the Holy Spirit at our side to help us through prayer and our attempt to do in the Lord’s strength, what God calls us to do here.

With these things in mind, we want to beware entering into the enemy’s turf by stooping to something less than what we’re called to do. Yes, there’s always grace for us in Christ, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing what’s best or most pleasing to the Lord. So we want to avoid insofar as possible partisan politics, like siding either against or for some particular politician or government official. This seems to be a major way in which the enemy is either tripping us up, or our witness. That said, we also need to be willing to take some controversial stands which will be considered political. The gospel is not just about one’s personal relationship with God and their salvation. It includes so much more, at the very least in its impact on all of life. If we fail to take that into account, then we’re not following Paul’s example or heeding what Scripture says. But we want to do so as those who are “as wise as serpents, yet harmless as doves.”

This really all begins with our own walk. We should not imagine that God has something “great” for us to do day after day. The great God wants done is that we see to ourselves, as the text above says, and pray. God will let us in on other things along the way, but it must always be first things first, the basics in place. We must seek to live in the strength and provision from God, realizing that we are in a battle, a spiritual one. In and through Jesus.

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walking in the Spirit

Yesterday I mused a bit on the fruit of the Spirit, gentleness. If there’s anything more crushing and heavy for me, it’s considering the fruit of the Spirit as if we’re meant to live in them: love, joy, peace, etc. We can’t in and of ourselves. But that’s where again as always we need to consider context. So now more of the context (of course the entire book is the best context).

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Galatians 5:13-26

There’s a lot there, but I want to consider what it means to “walk by the Spirit,” and to “keep in step with the Spirit.” There seems like there are two possibilities for us: we either walk/live by the flesh or by the Spirit. I think the NIV footnote is helpful:

  1. Galatians 5:13 In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit; also in verses 16, 17, 19 and 24; and in 6:8.

If the Spirit is in us, then we’re not “in the flesh,” perhaps meaning not controlled by it (Romans 8). God’s Spirit is God’s life breath given in both creation (Genesis) and new creation. Physical life and spiritual life are both in play here, we could say the physical to creation and the spiritual to new creation. But there’s surely some interplay between the two in both, even if we do well to keep the distinction. And in the end God’s life breath is the entirety of life for the human so that any distinction between the physical and spiritual will be all but lost, in the resurrection in Christ.

But I want to better understand, I might say understand period what it means to walk in or by the Spirit. When I consider it, it seems so heavy to me, like a burden placed on me. But then I know I’m approaching it wrong. The Spirit is our spiritual life breath. Our physical life breath is from God too, actually from the Spirit, but not in the same way. But there is some correlation between the two, while a clear distinctiveness, as well.

It is subtle, something present, and so important for all of life, especially for us living in the life of Christ. But it’s present not for itself so that when we examine it as if it is, we miss the point and perhaps lose out on what it’s doing. The Spirit draws our attention to Christ, who in turn draws our attention to the Father, who in turn glorifies the Son and is thus glorified himself in the Son by the Spirit. So the Spirit is God in us, as close to us as the physical breath we breathe, and actually our spiritual breath.

So we’re to walk or live by that spiritual life breath, not by our own impulses which are actually diametrically opposed to that. What that actually means in life, I’m not sure, and I doubt that we’re meant to pin down its meaning. There’s a certain mysteriousness about the Spirit like there’s a certain mysteriousness with God. It’s like it’s present, an important part of the picture, but not something we’re to be so focused on. To be aware of, yes, as God’s means to God’s end. Not that the outcome is mysteriousness as we see clearly in the passage above.

Something I’m working on as I consider what God wants our lives in Christ to be like, certainly gentleness being one characteristic of them.

 

some further thoughts on Jesus’s invitation to rest

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

It is refreshing when living in a culture so individualistic to have Jesus’s personal invitation into rest and full participation with him with the further rest and strength that participation brings. I appreciate our church, and in general all the churches we’ve been a part of. And we’re part of a small group which meets twice a month and once during the summer. And on top of that I work at a ministry and thus am in daily Christian fellowship. But still by and large what the New Testament teaches in regard to what the church is to be is not practiced enough. Our church service has good coffee, good worship in song, great teaching from Scripture on the screen to our campus, so in many ways it’s my cup of tea. As long as I have my ear plugs (and I barely need them, but trying to protect the hearing I have at an older age) I’m good to go. And it helps if in my comfort zone, or just being more or less chronically tired, I don’t doze off.

Jesus’s invitation is no less personal than it was when he made it I assume not only among his disciples, but when teaching the multitudes. It is an invitation open to all, certainly one to enter into a relationship of discipleship we might say. It refers to a double yoke which oxen we’re hitched to. The Lord himself is alongside of us, in the time he taught it in person, but especially fulfilled, even for the people of his day after he would ascend and pour out the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit, he would come to them, and thus this invitation would be fully open to all. (Not to be confused with his actual return, when he comes bodily, bringing heaven to earth.)

This invitation is no less radical than when it was made. It is not only for all of life, but an actual relationship with Christ by the Spirit. In a sense it stands on its own, but in another sense, not. That is, it is a powerful dynamic in and of itself, the Lord being present with us, and directly teaching or at least impacting us in this communion by the Spirit. And it seems that it is indeed a working relationship. It’s about rest, but it’s also about taking up a yoke and moving with the Lord. So it stands on its own that way. But it’s not apart from what Scripture teaches so that we’re to be active in the word day after day.

This is the breath of fresh air we need for ourselves and for our help to and participation with others. In and through Jesus.

a newer venture: finding rest and strength in Jesus through his invitation

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:25-30

I was intrigued recently to see a connection in the gospel according to John between our following Jesus, and Jesus following the Father. Seems that what Jesus practiced (I would even say, learned) from the Father was kind of a way of discipleship, that the Father led him in the same way that Jesus leads us. So that our discipleship in following Jesus is rooted in Jesus’s discipleship in following the Father (John 15:9-10; 17:18-19). Jesus was entirely devoted to God, and worshiped God as a human. Yet never ceased being God himself, so that Jesus’s devotion to the Father was nothing new within the eternal Triunity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As we see from John’s gospel account that devotion was indeed reciprocated. But that in no way lessens the significance of Jesus’s complete learning from the Father as a human here on earth in this present life. Jesus’s invitation needs to be seen in that backdrop.

But again, for me this is a recent revolutionary development after decades of being a Christian. Not to say I haven’t entered into this many times along with all other believers. But with the possibility that we might be enabled by God’s grace and the Spirit to actually learn to live in this from day to day. Jesus’s invitation seems similar to that which he gave his disciples. It wasn’t meant to be just a one time event, but day after day after day. Of course they were with him nearly three years daily, but what he was promising them here was something even closer and more intimate, we might say, his presence with them and more by the Spirit after his ascension.

Who of us does not become weary and burdened by what often seems to be the relentless and crushing responsibilities of life? There’s so much we can’t control, not the least of which what other people might do. With that the mistakes we make along the way, and it goes on and on. But our Lord’s invitation remains: We’re simply to come to him as those weary and burdened with the promise that he will give us rest. We’re to take his yoke on us and learn from him as those beside him. He is gentle and humble in heart, and we will find rest for our souls. His yoke is easy and his burden is light. We will gain strength to do what we’re called to do in and through him, even through his direct tutelage and walk in his presence with us by the Spirit.

There’s more I would like to share connected with my own story and endeavor to live in this reality. But I end it here, at least for now. Something offered to everyone in and through Jesus.

 

not acting on emotions

Better a patient person than a warrior,
one with self-control than one who takes a city.

Proverbs 16:32

I think one of the greatest problems we have in not really following through on wisdom as we would like is our habit of acting on impulse. Somehow we proceed on how we feel, our emotions, rather than on good thinking based on understanding considered in the light of what is good for others and ourselves, in the fear and goodness of God.

It is almost a given that if we feel a certain way, then corresponding words or actions will follow. For example, someone cuts us off on the road, or sits at a light. At best we might utter a relatively mild word under our breath, at worst we remark that they’re dumb. Or I might just think they’re on their cell phones, and shake my head in disgust.

What Scripture calls us to is not some stoic resolve and refusal to acknowledge what is happening and how we feel. I’ve seen people act like everything is okay when it’s not, and keep doing that only to explode at a certain point later. It’s better to shake one’s head right along, while keeping oneself mostly in check, not flying off the handle. But better yet is the refusal not to act at all on our emotions which we would call negative. But rather, to keep working through things in a thoughtfully wise and understanding way. And many times along the way that will involve prayers to God and seeking help from others, as well as simply persevering in what we need to do.

Like the NET Bible footnote tells us, it is harder for us to appreciate the impact of this verse now, since the kind of warfare mentioned is largely a thing of the past. If we carried that forward to what we know of the military today, they’re trained not to act on emotion, but strictly on command. But in our imagination we can go back to the days when military feats we’re done in hand to hand combat.  I actually don’t think it’s so much comparing one action to the other, but rather simply saying that one mode of conduct is better than the other.

The Holy Spirit and the word helps us to avoid what is not helpful. To be patient, or slow to anger, to be self-controlled. It’s vitally important that we don’t act on negative emotions like anger or fear when we know our words or actions will not help those who hear or see us. Best never to act on such emotions at all. Part of living in wisdom, knowing what is good and right and helpful. In and through Jesus.

 

the experience of God’s love in our hearts

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

I live in the default experience of feeling down. Some people, especially Christians, will fault me for that, or at least wonder, though many not. It’s not how you feel, but it’s about faith, and in a sense, what we do with our feelings. I wonder if it isn’t related to head injuries I’ve had. But it’s been a struggle for years.

There are ways I can get around it, or maybe past it for a time. But the best way by far seems to be when the Holy Spirit just takes over. All the negative feelings are gone, awash in the love of God through the Holy Spirit.

Note in the passage above that this love is in a process which in itself is not easy, and surely fraught with negative emotions. The peace with God spoken of here is not the peace of God experienced, but rather our standing before God through God’s justifying grace and our faith in Jesus. Suffering is part of it, and then the perseverance that follows it. And character, and then hope.

I wish I could live in that feeling and sense of well being and love all the time. It does make life so much easier. I have to remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan no less, which tormented him. But how God was in that for Paul’s good, and our blessing (2 Corinthians 12).

But that love of God is made known to us by the Spirit. Something we look forward to living in forever together with all of God’s children in and through Jesus.

the danger of relying on feelings

Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:24

The Hebrew word translated “heart” here refers to both thinking and feelings, to the entire inner person. We’re told here to guard it above all else. This seems to me to suggest a discipline that refuses to let up. I notice two extremes in my life which I would like to avoid. One is when all seems well and from that I can go off on this or that, getting carried away in ways which aren’t well enough controlled. The other extreme is probably more what I’ve been accustomed to: being dead or overcome with negative feelings, then choosing to ignore them and rely on rational thought with the danger of running roughshod over anything and everything. The self-control that comes from the Holy Spirit can help us navigate and find good throughout all the fluctuations of our inner life.

To much of the world, “if it feels good, do it.” You do whatever comes naturally, whatever that is. That really doesn’t work well unfortunately, because we’re amiss or at least easily led astray even by what in itself is alright and good. This passage suggests that we’re to discipline ourselves in watching over our thoughts and emotions. What we do comes from what we are inside. God’s Spirit helps us both in our thoughts and feelings. It’s not at all like they’re unimportant. And we’re involved in the process. We aren’t just carried around as automatons, but we are completely involved in this walk of life. And part of that is to guard ourselves inwardly so that outwardly we might live lives pleasing to God for the good of others. In and through Jesus.