I am a pacifist. This might be the result of of my Dutch nationality; admittedly, the Swiss are better known for being neutral in wars, but I would argue that this is largely because they have mountains, whereas in the Netherlands we are happy to find a hill. It’s easy to remain neutral when no one can actually make it into your country. It’s much harder when you all you have stopping the invading forces is a small canal.
I might be a pacifist for other reasons. I am still trying to figure that out. Up to about ten years ago, I thought that all other Adventists were pacifists as well. Many members of my church in the Netherlands have found themselves in a lot of trouble for refusing to bear arms during the post-war conscriptions of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Some were lucky to get off with replacement humanitarian work – others had harsher punishments.
My views on the relationship between Adventism and pacifism changed fundamentally when I met my wife. She is American, and grew up as what is apparently known as a ‘military brat.’ Her father served for over 30 years in the US Navy as a medical doctor.
I must say that this was quite a shock for me. To think – an Adventist serving voluntarily in the military! That he served in a reasonably pacifist position, medicine, helped me to accept this slightly more easily, but I soon learned that there are also voluntary Adventist chaplains, and even Adventist soldiers. This was (and still is very hard) for me accept.
For Americans reading this lesson, I should probably explain why I found this knowledge so difficult to accept. As a pacifist, I have always had trouble envisioning church as an army. You will not see me singing along to Onward Christian Soldiers with a proud smile on my face. Neither would I march in Pathfinders — but fortunately, in the Netherlands, this is something Pathfinders still do not do.
As a pacifist, I have always had troubles with the verses in Ephesians where Paul asks us to ‘don the armour of the Lord’. Yes, to a certain extent our very existence takes place on the battlefield between good and evil. Yes, we live out our lives on the pages of the Great Controversy. Yes, we need to fight the influences of evil with all our power. Nevertheless, I have always personally felt that Paul could have found a more Christian metaphor to get his point across.
But that is my problem, not Paul’s. If take issue with how a Biblical author explains the gospel, I am the one who needs to grow, and to overcome my presuppositions. I need to open myself to God’s word, and in this case that was quite a challenge. Despite the difficulty that sometimes results from engaging with the Bible, overcoming that hurdle leads to a greater understanding, and sure enough, when approaching this text again recently I noticed things in this passage that I have never noticed before.
With Isaiah in the back of my mind, where we read that the Lord dons his armour for judgement, I realised that the armour of God is not so much the armour given to us by God, but rather God’s very own armour. From this perspective, what Paul is saying in Ephesians is that he actually wants us to dress up as God! Having written that sentence, it seems a tad sacrilegious, but on the other hand it makes a great deal of sense to me. I am sure that we should see this passage in the light of out status sinful mortals, hiding behind the righteousness of God. What good would putting on human armour do is? On our own we could never withstand Satan, but by donning Christ as a garment (cf. Galatians 3.27) we, as children of God, are able to stand strong.
Looking carefully at the description of the armour of God, it is clear that this armour is not for attack, but defence. Admittedly, there’s a sword, but that is the Holy Spirit which is hardly a weapon with which to attack others. Paul calls the Ephesians to wear this armour so that they may withstand Satan’s attack, remaining firm against the powers of evil. Paul also specifically talks of the day of evil, during which we will have to withstand the opponent. It is not entirely clear from this passage which day this will be. With this quarter’s theme in my mind, I would argue that we are led to place this day within the scheme of the Great Controversy. In other words, we are tempted to automatically think of Judgement Day, and assume that Paul is referring to the moment when the righteous are separated from the unrighteous.
I think that only understanding the ‘day of evil’ as Judgement Day sells Paul’s discussion short. As Adventists we have always had a strong understanding of the great controversy between good and evil, but our emphasis is often on discerning the patterns of this struggle in history, and discussing the how this war will unfold in the future. In this we focus on what I like to think of as a cosmological, eschatological interpretation. We look at the struggle on a grand scale, and apply the themes to humanity as whole, rather to each human being individually.
What I mean to say is that there are actually to very different wars going on. On the one hand we have a struggle between God and Satan, which is a struggle for the fate of the universe – but this struggle is a foregone conclusion. God will win, Satan will lose, and good will prevail. On the other hand, we have a much more dangerous battle being fought over the fate of each person. This struggle is by no means decided, and God’s way will certainly not prevail in every instance. Some people will overcome the influences of evil and align themselves with Christ, but some people will not be able to overcome those influences and will be lost. From this perspective each person does not live on the battlefield – each person is the battlefield.
This is a battle that is much more agreeable for a pacifist like me. War is always wrong because we attack other children of God on account of a difference in opinion, ideology or heritage. Generally, there is no guarantee that the person you are attacking in fact has any notion of your difference of opinion. On the other hand, focussing on a personal battle against forces fighting for my allegiance liberates me to focus on what is actually taking place right now. There is a battle within each of us, with our own salvation in the balance.
It is this battle that worries Paul. He knows that God will persevere and that Satan will be defeated, but he worries about his brothers and sisters in the church (and outside of it). It is with regard to this personal struggle he evokes the metaphor of the armour of God, reminding us that the only way to defeat sin is by wearing God’s armour, not earthly armour. The evil day is not some future judgement day, but today, because each of us struggles every day against the influence of the forces of evil.
This is similar to what the writer of Hebrews says when he writes “again he sets a certain day—‘today’” to enter the eternal rest” (Hebrews 4.7). Today is the only day that counts. Today is when each person needs to withstand the temptations of those evil forces. Today is the day we must fasten the truth of Jesus around our waists. Today is the day we should put God’s righteousness near our hearts. Today is the day we take the first steps towards God’s peace. Today is the day we hide behind the shield of trust in the Lord.
Today is the day to wear salvation on your head, and keep the Spirit in your hand.