I don’t think I could ever be a real pacifist. But when it comes to analogies that describe life with Jesus, I’m finding myself more and more turned off by pictures of war.
I became a Christian in a conservative setting, and from the get-go my head was filled with images of war. We were warriors – prayer warriors, culture warriors, warriors of faith… We, the Church, were God’s army. We fought against the enemy and talked about weapons and battle and waging war.
I went off to a conservative Christian college and read a book by John Piper that declared, “Life is war. It is not only that, but it is always that.” The book even went so far to say that if you did not understand this principle that life was war, you would never understand prayer — because, it would seem, prayer is “a war-time walkie talkie.” A means for a commanding officer to get marching orders down to his troops.
I absolutely ate it up. Yes! Let’s be warriors! Take the battle to the world! Crush the enemy! Violence! Swords! War!
To a hormone-driven teenage boy, this stuff was epic.
Now, as a 32 year old father, can I tell you how much I’m coming to dislike that analogy?
Seriously. It just sounds so tiring and exhausting, being in a war every single day, doesn’t it? That’s not what I desire for my life. And I hope to God that prayer is more about a relationship with my Creator than about hierarchical marching orders; otherwise I am more screwed than I thought I was.
Right before I had kids, I was on staff with a church – an amazing community of folks who helped shape who I am today. In one of the staff meetings, the founding pastor passed out an article to us, asked us to read it, and to tell him what we thought. The article essentially was a plea to stop using analogies of war to describe our lives in Jesus and our identity as a Church, and to begin using the analogy of being gardeners instead.
I thought the article was stupid. My response had something to do with how images of war and being warriors were “biblical” and why should we shy away from something that was in the Bible?
I look back at myself five years ago sometimes and shake my head, chuckling.
I love that idea now. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s meaningful. I think it’s something I would like to embrace. And part of the reason why is my kids.
I was vaguely uneasy when my son came home from preschool one day singing the kid’s song, “I’m in the Lord’s Army”. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I loved that song back in youth group (even though it was technically a kid’s song that the youth were too cool to sing). But there was something mildly unsettling hearing a three-year-old singing it. My three-year-old.
Then he learned the words to the old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”, and I really began to feel a tug at my heart. I felt the desire to change the song whenever it came on his CD player. I felt almost… ashamed when he, impromptu, sang the words for a neighbor. And it’s only recently that I’ve stopped to ponder why that is.
I want my son to grow up and be strong. I admit, I want him to be a “man” in most of the traditional senses of the word. But when a preschooler sings about war and the army, something inside rises up in dissonance and gives me pause. And I think ultimately the reason why is because of how it portrays God to my son.
I think I see that as my most important calling as a father: to paint a picture of God for my children that they will embrace and get lost in for the rest of their lives. I don’t want to teach them rules. At the end of the day, I don’t want them to remember doctrine. I don’t want to mold them into perfectly behaving, obedient little robots who never get in trouble (although my disciplinary actions might say otherwise on many days – but that’s something I’m processing as well). I don’t want them to get lost in the weeds, or miss the forest for the trees. I want to teach them about God’s heart and God’s story, and then help them experience both in ways that change their lives and the lives of the people around them.
And because of that, I don’t think I want them growing up approaching prayer as a “war-time walktie talkie”. Or picturing themselves as soldiers in God’s army.
I know Paul talks about wearing the armor of God, and that he says sin wages war within us, and in the book of Revelation Jesus wages war on his enemies. But all of that, I think, is “war” on a much different level.
The issue with being in the Lord’s army, or approaching every day of life as though you are fighting a war, is that war creates a very black-and-white, us-versus-them scenario… and at the heart of that is the supposed struggle between Christians vs. non-Christians. The battle lines are drawn. It’s the saved versus the sinners. Or perhaps more aptly, the Church versus the World. That big, bad, scary world that must be defeated, subjugated, and won for Jesus.
But the other issue, the bigger issue, is that war only destroys, never builds up. I don’t think I could ever be a “real” pacifist because I see and understand the necessity of war in real life on certain occasions. But even then anyone can see that war blows up, rather than builds, homes. Or schools. Or businesses. Or lives. Bombs and guns and tanks and missiles are all designed to do one thing and one thing only: destroy.
That’s not what Jesus was about. And it’s not what we were designed to do.
To say we are the army of God is not only an idea not found anywhere in the new covenant, it is antithetical to our entire mission. We are to be agents of restoration, building up and putting back together again, not tearing apart and destroying. It’s no wonder the earliest Christians laid down their arms and left the Roman military when they began following Jesus.
We win the war that sin wages in our body by the power of freedom and grace, not by engaging in the same warfare it does. And yes, we do have a spiritual enemy in Satan, but he has already been defeated by Jesus and his sacrificial act of love. I don’t have to weary myself warring as a soldier against him. Instead, I work to cultivate faith and love and other Kingdom vales around me… instead of focusing on defeating the negative, in freedom I focus on growing the beautiful.
I am beginning to fall in love with the idea of being a gardener instead of a warrior – and with seeing my boys embrace that as well.