He stood in front of about seventy of us, Bible in hand. “The lost are dying, thousands every day. And they’re going to a Christ-less hell. We need the mustering of Christian forces, assaulting the powers of this world, to bring hope to the lost.”
It is a common appeal. It’s built off the idea that Christians are an army advancing into enemy territory. It’s compelling language. It promises hardship, battle, and glory. But is it the right picture for the life of Christians and missionaries? We have good reason to think not.
Why Offense Is More Appealing Than Defense
For many of us, when we’re sitting down and contemplating what comes next, we are often surrounded by the comforts of this life. We are cocooned from injustice, poverty, brokenness, and death. We can isolate and anesthetize and pull up another episode of whatever to fill the void. So, when the battle cry of war cuts through our fog, it makes sense that we are stirred to action. We suddenly sense a larger purpose and vision. Instead of being rocked to sleep and suckled on social media, we can see the trailer of a driven life playing out. We’re on the front lines and living to the full, no longer content to look on as spectators. This type of appeal is to the way of offense. Storming the field and taking the next hill for God brings cold and biting air into our lungs. We gasp from it, but we long for the next breath as well.
The other option is take on a posture of defense, but the common conception of defense is more akin to lethargy. Confined to our peaceful cottage, we see ourselves living out a complacent and visionless day-to-day existence. We wake up and find ourselves in bed again, ready to repeat the day before. This is what many of us experience. We know how it feels, and it eats at our souls. But this is not the defense we’re talking about.
The Bible and the Battle – The Armor of God
In Ephesians 6:10–18, we find another vision for godly defense:
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.
While we are all familiar with this classic depiction of the armor of God, I want to focus your attention on what characterizes this readying for battle. It is not the amassing of armies, the analysis of the battlefield, or the storming of enemy territory; it is the preparation for defense. It is the putting on of armor, each piece of which is meant to protect us and ready us for work. There is a good argument from the Greek that even the sword mentioned here was one worn by garrison defenders, not the sword used by troops that moved out into open battle.
Victory here is not conquest. Victory is “to stand.” Yes, there is battle imagery, but not of invasion. It is an outpost mentality, one that imagines the believer in a castle or fortress built by God to protect his people.
Victory here is not conquest. Victory is “to stand.” Yes, there is battle imagery, but not of
The Long Haul
The benefit of changing how we understand this imagery and vision, particularly for mission work, is that it fits with reality. Life on the field, or life at home for that matter, has no fanfare or trumpets. Keeping our faith alive and ready for witness is often all we can muster. When Jesus sends out the disciples, he does not send them out in might; he sends them out as “sheep among wolves” (Matt. 10:16). We are defenseless, wool-making sheep. We are not hunters or warriors among wild beasts. The “spiritual forces of evil” have flesh-tearing jaws, but we have a death-overcoming faith in Jesus because we have a King that cannot be conquered. And so we put on the armor, every day, to prepare for the onslaughts of this life in enemy territory. We live as ambassadors stationed at gospel outposts in a war-torn land. This kind of battle will not end until Jesus returns. It is the longest of hauls. Surges and offensives won’t change the outcome or overturn the order. What can possibly sustain us for this kind of work?
we have a death-overcoming faith in Jesus because we have a King that cannot be conquered.
What Sustains Us in the Slow Work – Christ Himself
Our life–on mission, in missions, and supporting missions–is built on the very blood of Jesus that he shed on the cross. It’s built on the empty tomb and the parting clouds through which Jesus ascended. It’s manifest in the outpouring of the Spirit and his indwelling of Christ’s followers, the seal that guarantees our King will return as promised. We are called to daily renewal and connection to Christ, to faithful witness in the darkest of places. It’s in this place of tenuous action, where we stand ready for attack and ready for proclamation, that the true battle is fought. Communion with God–deep and abiding connection to the very existence and work of Jesus–is what gives us life and breath and everything else. This is why prayer matters, why churches matter, and why supporting one another in essential community matters for missions near and far. Without this abiding connection, everything relies on our own effort and will, ultimately, crumble around us. Our call is to fight for abiding in Christ, for setting up outposts in the darkness, and for relying on the ongoing movement of God’s Spirit to compel and sustain mission in a broken world.
It’s in this place of tenuous action, where we stand ready for attack and ready for proclamation, that the true battle is fought.