Each year there are moments when we pause and remember those who have fought for our freedom. One such occasion here in Australia (and in my native New Zealand) is Anzac Day, in commemoration of the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. I adapted Laurence Binyon’s famous poem into a song, one version of which you can hear here if you’re interested. This year, and every year before it, I was stirred by the legacy of those who have given their lives for their country and their cause. I salute all those sacrificial souls and bodies, and what follows is in no way meant to dim the light they have shone.
Here’s the thing.
Every day there is another battle being waged against faithful citizens of a great kingdom. And there is no memorial day, or veterans’ day, or any such commemorative occasion associated with them in our mainstream life, that I am currently aware of. Why is it that we do not have a Martyrs Day?
It need not be gory – though it could easily be made so. It most definitely should not be about taking an unholy curiosity in others’ agonies. In fact, it need not even be specifically Christian, if we were talking about creating a community-wide occasion to celebrate those who were so wholly faithful that they gave their lives for their beliefs. (That would be problematic in regard to those who have given their lives in a way that took extraneous people with them.) It is, however, specifically Christian martyrs that I’m thinking of today, and specifically in the context of church events. I’m aware that in Catholic tradition there are saints’ days, and many of the saints were, of course, martyrs. I’m guessing that in the way-back-when, these days would have been feasts in honour of the saint named, and perhaps days of reflection or almsgiving toward the cause each was noted for. But I’m thinking that it wouldn’t be too much to ask my own church to hold an annual vigil Sunday of some sort, in honour of our brothers and sisters who have given their lives for the cause of Christ and His passionate love affair with humanity. At the very least it would raise awareness either for financial relief projects or for directing our prayers.
Martyrs did not die out in the Dark Ages, by the way. There are Christian martyrs – spiritual soldiers – dying every day, and not just a few. Last century it was the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain*, and I’m not even sure how many curtains there are anymore; but they exist. Today, the most persecuted minority on earth is Christianity. The irony is that Christianity, for all its terrible mistakes, in its purest form remains a bastion of love, forgiveness and acceptance that it makes no sense to eliminate. Are not these the supreme values our society longs for? And yes, most of us fall far short of these ideals. But most of us are sincerely growing into them, little by little, as well. And Christianity’s purest form is, of course, Christ Himself. The Christ whose body was destroyed and resurrected, and then succeeded by the ‘body’ comprised of us: the church, the modern-day Body of Christ. We’re bad at it, but we’re at least trying. Why He had so much faith in us, I can’t say, but at least I know that when His Word tells us we can’t come to God without faith, well, He’s put His money where His mouth is, so to speak, and returned the favour.
*Remember when Communism was the boogeyman? Yeah. That.
Spiritual soldiers. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
We have historically sung a lot of ditties in church about “marching together to battle”, meaning, usually, a spiritual battle in which we wage warfare against dark powers with noncorporeal “weapons”. It’s what unchurched people refer to as exorcism, at least in part, if they believe in the spiritual realm at all. The main weapon we refer to is prayer, in which we ask for God’s direct intervention and for strategies to mitigate damage. Paul describes the active Christian ideally kitted out in salvation covering the mind, righteousness defending the heart, sandals of readiness, truth around the whole body, faith as a shield and the Bible as a sword. It’s debatable whether this means we use the Bible for attack or defence, but remember, we’re not talking about attacking people, but spiritual entities – territorial spirits and the like. Frank Peretti’s powerful novels depict spiritual warfare as a battle waged, if you like, by angels and demons in the Reveal Codes dimension lying underneath the text of our daily life. The metaphor works well – that there are overlapped dimensions in which two sets of interdependent events take place simultaneously in real time. It seems ridiculous to speak of angels and demons factually in plain talk and in a blog, but it’s the quickest way to say it, though those terms have become somewhat fantasy-loaded over the years. But few can deny that there are inexplicable things in the world. This is the way the church explicates it.
The songs we sing about such warfare are partly taken from the New Testament, which talks a lot about such weapons being able to pull down spiritual forts or bastions of dysfunctional thinking and being, normally the result of influence or manipulation by dark forces. And they are partly taken from the Old Testament, most notably the Psalms, of which many were for singing in the first place.
Here’s where I take issue a little. I’m not denying the truth that God does fight battles for us in the heavenly realms. I’m not denying that from time to time He saves us from dangers known and unknown. But look at the context. King David writes around 1000BC, “He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bronze bow.” We put this line into a fun little praise song and we forget that David was actually getting up in the morning and going out with his ragtag warband of mercenaries to kill marauders. When Moses writes, “When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: ‘Hear, Israel: today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be faint-hearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory,’” he’s not talking about a lofty spiritual concept. He’s talking to people going out with actual swords and actually facing the prospect of being maimed for life, captured into tortuous slavery, or killed. If the armies of ancient Israel sang Psalms on the way to war, they weren’t fun little tunes to brighten the day – they were cadences. Their idea of relying on the Lord to “help” them wasn’t about overcoming smoking, or deciding on the blue house over the red house, or even bearing up under an arrogant supervisor. Relying on salvation from God was life or death for them. Often, if God did not fight for them, they were sunk. And often, God did.
I think we can apply warfare songs built from the New Testament’s talk about spiritual battles quite rightly. But I think we need a grain of salt when we apply Old Testament physical battle songs and try to make them fit our spiritual battles. Mileage is going to vary, because the situations vary. If God, well, zaps you with a truth from one of those verses – go for it. But if not, be careful about minimising the massive faith it took for those historical people to go out onto the battlefield armed with a belief that God was on their side, even if numbers and training weren’t.
There are, however, spiritual soldiers.
And if we’re talking about spiritual battles, we need to talk about the elephant in the room: spiritual casualties. It’s not a battle unless the possibility of defeat exists. So for all our cheerful singing, there are some battles we lose. And we don’t even know which ones. I suppose these would be people who have been burned out. People who were involved in a battle which we won but some lives were nevertheless lost. And people like Judas, who insisted on serving his purpose.
Are our soldiers ever really lost? Is this a question that’s really tackling the thorny issue of eternal salvation, “once saved, always saved”, versus election, “no one can snatch you out of God’s hand”, versus agency, “… but if you wanted to, you could JUMP out”? If so … we’ll be arguing about that til Jesus comes back. All I can tell you is that if it is up to me, I’m not keen to jump.
I think many of our spiritual soldiers are POWs. These are people who have not quite given up on God, but are stuck in what we would call a “backslidden” state, a not-so-God-honouring-lifestyle. And perhaps there are some of us still in church, who are also prisoners of war in that we are living in unnecessary bondage and don’t even know it. We can be prisoners of bad theology, some of it handed to us but much of it going in pure and coming out poop because our spiritual “liver” is faulty. We all have filters through which we hear things, and sometimes these filters don’t serve us well. They get clogged over the years, coloured by all our experiences and interpretations of those experiences. This is the life we have to work with. And this is why we need direct contact with God: He is Himself the Word and the Sword that can divide between soul and spirit, bone and marrow, truth and nearly-truth.
So I’d like to have some respect for Christians who are no longer with us in church, because, for all that I wish they were still enlisted, they’re veterans of our wars. They’re the walking wounded. If we gave them loving care and medals instead of the back door, perhaps there’d be less of them. Some of them need us to go into the war zone of intercessory prayer and pluck them out. Can we be willing to do that if we’re busy looking down on them as deserters?
The final thing I want to look at today is rescue.
We’ve been talking a lot about prisoners and casualties. I’d like to shift that along just a little and talk about unanswered prayer – people who find themselves prisoners of sickness or traumatic situations. People who fight the good fight and then die anyway.
There are lots of places in the Bible where it talks about ways that God rescues, saves, heals, delivers, and even raises His people from the dead. We love to quote these stories and claim precedent when we need intervention in our own lives. “Standing on the promises”, we call it. Here’s the thing, though: not all of those promises are for every single one of us every single time. They can’t be, because then either God doesn’t know how to keep His promises, or we’d all be living lives with not one single thing ever going wrong in them.
Four months ago, my father-in-law passed away after a long battle with neurofibromatosis, pheochromocytoma, ankle problems, heart problems, lung problems and a host of other comorbidities. Forty years he prayed for healing. If you can name the hoop, he’d jumped through it. He had faith – enormous faith, which wobbled now and then but lasted the distance. His family and friends had faith. He named it and claimed it and confessed it and tested it – you name it, he did it. He received answers to prayer only some of the time. And he could get up in the morning and look in the mirror at a face bubbled over and still say “God loves me,” and that was perhaps bigger faith than anyone I know. And he died, still bubbled.
Now, we’ve all got to die sometime. Even the Bible says this, despite its talk of “never seeing death.” But it’s been very hard for me to process the inconsistency between “some people get completely healed” and “Dad didn’t get completely healed”. All the conditions were met. All qualifications were met. Jesus had no less love for Dad than He had for Lazarus.
In church yesterday, my pastor Kirsty spoke from Jeremiah 29. “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ ” She went on to say that this is a verse often used to comfort people who have little hope. And so it does; but again, as she said, consider the context. This was part of a letter was written to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. And this was the main thrust of the whole message: Rescue is not coming. Not this time. So deal with it. Get on with your life. You can’t see My plan? Doesn’t mean I don’t have one. You don’t like the story so far? Doesn’t mean this is the end of the story. Your imagineers can tell you any fairytale they prefer, and whack My name on the end of it, but that won’t make it truth. So settle in for the long haul.
Just a few chapters back, God was railing against such false prophets and dismissive leaders, saying ‘Because you have scattered My flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the Lord.. ‘I myself will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing.’ And there’s your prisoners of war.
The Bible contains many promising things that may or may not be promises on a given day to any one of us. I think of it as a smorgasbord, I guess, but that doesn’t mean everything on the menu is for me. If we’re going to say it is, then we also have to say all the negative things, curses and so on, are also for each of us at any random time. I believe (and your mileage may vary) that these good things become promises to us if the Holy Spirit impresses them on us, rather than if we simply see them, like them, and try to appropriate them. So for me, rescue is not coming is actually a comfort. It reassures me that God’s acting and God’s not acting are both valid responses from His throne.
Hebrews 11 talks about people of faith who kept going even when there was no observable reason to: “… who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawn in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”
Clearly, some win and some lose, even when all have high levels of faith. If you don’t get healed, it doesn’t mean you missed some boat. Look at Job’s experience: the reasons for his suffering were so far outside of observable phenomenon that his ‘friends’ had to invent impugning explanations to cover it. Sometimes the reasons are just outside our ken, and they have nothing to do with our personal worthiness or even our relationship with God. And for every promise of deliverance there’s a warning of persecution. For every revelation there’s a piece of God’s agenda hidden from us. And, technically, the Creator doesn’t have to explain Himself to His creatures, so it’s a miracle we get the amount of information we do. It becomes a question of am I going to trust that God’s reasons for not acting hold water? Which is really the larger question does God really love me? and by extension is God really love? If I am to answer this question yes, God is love, then it follows that I must trust His love. His love must work all things together for the common good and the personal good, even when it doesn’t look like it, even when He is inscrutable, which is all of the time. For all I know, God could have been saving the best mansion in Gold Street for Dad to occupy for all the aeons of eternity, and that’s why he was allowed to suffer so much for a comparatively-paltry 73 years. I simply do not know. There are SO MANY things I simply do not know. But I can choose. And I vote for love. I choose to believe God is love, and all that love entails. And this is my faith. May I hold it ’til the end, unfallen, as have so many before me.