Before I dive into the body of this post, I would like to make it clear that as Christians our aggressive warfare is NEVER directed against other people, and NEVER uses physical weapons like swords or knives or guns. This is a very, very important point.
As Christians, regarding other people we are only ever called to love them, even (especially) people who hate us, even (especially) people who seek to destroy the Gospel that we preach.
The Bible says explicitly that: “the weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (ie physical) 2 Corinthians 10v4. The Bible also says that: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood” (ie we do not fight against other human beings) Ephesians 6v12. Where over the centuries people have waged physical wars in the name of Christ, this is emphatically not Biblical. In my opinion the true underlying motivations for these “holy” wars would largely have been very similar to the motivations for other wars: namely the desire for resources, territories, or power over subjugated peoples. I believe that the name of Christ would in these cases usually have been invoked as a cheap justification for people to go out to fight*.
I really want to emphasise this point beforehand because one of the ongoing accusations against “religion” is that it has been the cause of “many wars”. This view is usually promoted by atheists or agnostics. It has been repeated so many times that it has become a factoid – something that everyone “knows” is true just because it has been repeated so often. I have made the case before that atheism in its very short history as a widely accepted doctrine in the West has already been responsible for overwhelmingly more deaths than have occurred in all the religious wars between all the faiths that have occurred throughout the whole of history. My point regarding this is that getting rid of the idea of God will not in itself stop humanity from killing humanity.
However today my point is not about atheism. My point with the Bible is that the idea of picking up physical weapons to fight against other people and possibly kill them “in the name of Christ” is completely alien to the ethos of the New Testament. To complicate matters (and muddy my argument) yes, killing in the name of God does occur in the Old Testament. However, this idea is completely and indisputably overthrown by the New Testament, while it still manages to maintain its integrity with the Old Testament as one seamless whole in the Christian Bible. Consequently I believe that anyone trying to use an Old Testament justification to go out to physically attack other people in the name of Christ – that is, trying to pull in Christ’s name from the New Testament to endorse this Old Testament practice – is either completely self-delusional or an utter liar.
Having made that point, the fact remains however that as Christians we do have to fight, and the war that we fight is aggressive, violent and unrelenting. This war is not even a matter of life and death – it transcends that – it is a matter of eternal destinies – of ourselves, of our friends, families and neighbours, of our work colleagues, of our communities. If we are definitely not fighting against other people, then against whom are we fighting? We are fighting against the destructive schemes of our enemy, the devil. He is not only the enemy of Jesus, God and Christians but also the enemy of all people. Let us take a minute to think of our world and all the pain and heartache that exists. Much of this is caused ultimately by the devil. The Bible teaches us that the devil comes only to steal, kill and destroy: John 10v10. However the devil often works through human agents – we are all capable of being used in some way by the devil, and we have all been used in this way many, many times. Every time we lie, we cheat a little (or a lot), or we deceive one another we contribute to the pain of the world. If we acknowledge how much heartbreak there is in the world, then we can see how vicious our enemy is, and how tenaciously we Christians have to fight.
How we fight
The devil extends his kingdom through lies and stealing and killing and destruction. However God’s Kingdom is extended through love and forgiveness and joy and peace. As Christians, we are called to be God’s agents on earth spreading love and forgiveness and peace and inviting other people into God’s Kingdom. When you become a Christian, then your heart is released from being the official territory of the devil and you as a person become the official territory of God. This does not mean that people who are not Christians are not capable of doing lovely and amazing things, because they definitely are, and do, and history shows us sadly that we who are Christians have often demonstrated ourselves to be capable of doing appalling things. It does mean that when you are a Christian you officially belong to God; the devil can no longer claim you as his eternal property to drag off to hell with him.
As Christians, while we are on earth we will still face temptations to sin: to lie, to steal, to deceive others, even in extreme situations perhaps to do unthinkable things like kill other people. In fact, some people believe that after we become Christians we face increased temptations to sin. Therefore one way we as Christians fight is to fill our hearts with God’s Word and to immerse ourselves in God’s presence to defeat the lure of sin. This is described as a fight because it is something we have to pursue aggressively. The temptation to sin in various ways is aggressive and never-ending and to defeat it we have to fight with a determination and a pursuit of God that is even greater. The great thing is that God Himself is the One who fills us with the determination to live in purity. We simply have to ask Him as hard and as persistently as we can.
As Christians we are also fighting in prayer for the eternal destinies of our friends and loved ones so that they might accompany us to heaven rather than be dragged to hell with the devil. The devil however wants people to go with him to hell so this is not an easy fight. But we pray with everything we have to see people released from the punishment of hell to the joy of Heaven. The key here is that we are aggressive in prayer, not with our friends. With other people we are called to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled, as these are the fruits of a heart that has been filled with God’s Spirit (Galatians 5v22-23). I admit, to my great shame, that many times I have been aggressive about sharing the Gospel of Christ, even with total strangers. However, those times I did not understand that aggression was to be directed into prayer, rather than at other people. However, as a responsible adult I have never made the mistake of thinking that physical violence against other people is acceptable. (As a child, I sometimes wondered why we did not forcibly drag people into the Kingdom of God “for their own good”. Answer: Because every human being is entitled to disagree with us, and we are called to honour other people’s dignity as human beings, their free will, their right to choose what to believe even if it is different from what we believe and even know to be true.)
Because the devil does not want us to be successful in reaching Heaven ourselves, or in winning others to Christ, he will throw all kinds of obstacles in our way. Sometimes he will try to frustrate us and discourage us from following Christ ourselves. That is, sometimes the devil might cause things to happen in our lives to make us doubt whether God really does exist after all, or whether God really does love us as much as the Bible claims. We fight against these attacks by grounding ourselves in the Word of God and prayer, maintaining close intimacy with God. We also pray against whatever things the devil might try to bring against us, praying that God will overturn these attacks (initially I accidentally typed “loverturn” just there – God can transform these attacks with His love) or bring them to a swift end, or actually use these circumstances to make us and our faith more triumphant – or ideally all of the above!
Sometimes the devil will impede our efforts to bring the message of Christ to other people. He will do this through attacking us in our health, finances, jobs, in our neighbourhoods. So much does the devil hate God and the hope of eternal life that Jesus brings that he will attempt to hunt us Christians right to the point of death, if he could. In all these things he often will work as before through human agents. Where the devil works through human agents (often well meaning and completely sincere) to attack Christians because they are Christians, to prevent them from getting decent jobs to feed their families, or to oust them from local neighbourhoods, or in a million other possible ways, this is known as persecution.
The way we as Christians would “fight” against the devil’s efforts to stop us preaching the Gospel is by praying, often pre-emptively. That is, we do not wait to contract mystery illnesses, or to inexplicably lose our jobs. Rather than waiting to experience the devil’s attacks, we pre-emptively pray for God’s protection upon our lives, and upon our finances that we will use to live, and our finances that we will use to spread God’s Gospel, and everything else.
It is true that Christians have often caused persecution of other people. This is because Christians are not immune from temptation, for instance to exploit or take advantage of other people, and we are just as liable to succumb to it as anyone else – unless we are grounded in God’s Word and God’s presence. This, along with everything else written in this post, is why a prayerless Christian is a powerless Christian, and a prayerless church is a joke.
As Christians, we are to expect attacks from the devil. If as a Christian you are managing to sail through life without experiencing any setbacks, ever, AND without needing to pray, ever, then that is usually ascribed to God’s favour, a highly desirable condition where God just makes excellent things happen in your life without any seeming effort on your part. While this is not impossible, a further, equally plausible option might be that the devil just does not regard your faith as enough of a challenge to need to attack it. (Remember that every single person in the Bible who carried God’s favour, with the possible exception of Queen Esther, experienced difficulties and challenges. This even included Jesus – and who of us could claim to be as highly favoured as He was? Admittedly His is a very special case in the Bible of course – He had to die.)
The faith of Christ is famous for being a faith of Good News. The further good news to be found here is that God is overwhelmingly more powerful than the devil, and God has empowered us to win emphatically against the devil in all the devil’s evil schemes. However, we do have to fight. We have to fight with all our determination. We have to fight in prayer. We have to pursue God’s Word so that it overflows from our hearts. It is not easy, rather it is all-consuming. Anyone who tries to suggest otherwise is painting an unBiblical picture of our faith. Sometimes in our determination to win other people to the faith it can be tempting to present the Gospel as something “easy” or light, to lower the barriers to entry. It is true that the actual process of becoming a Christian is straightforward and free, and the promise of God’s unconditional love is utterly compelling. However, everyday Christian life is anything but easy – especially if it is lived in accordance with the Bible. However, it is worth it a thousand, or million times over – it is the most worthwhile fight that we could ever invest our lives in 😉
*OK, maybe that is quite a simplistic generalisation. However, if we examine our hearts and our attitudes and actions – (that is, what we know to be right versus what we do) towards such things as clothes made in sweat shops, as sold by most High Street stores, or exotic fruit produced abroad without fair wages going to the labourers as routinely sold in most supermarkets, or meat raised in inhumane conditions**, as would describe most of the meat that we consume, then I think we would agree that the human heart has a phenomenal capacity for rationalising what should not be acceptable, or embracing the concept of “the lesser of two evils”, for the sake of satisfying our own needs or desires.
**Regarding meat, I read this article recently about the life of a Thanksgiving Turkey. Sincerely, I was kinda relieved – it did not seem to be as bad as I had feared. Perhaps I am just becoming desensitised.