Spiritual Warfare: memento mori

“In prayer we acknowledge that we are not in control. This is simply acknowledging a basic fact of our existence. Not to pray is to take destiny into our own hands, to falsify our true self as dependent creatures and to deny God as the Sovereign One.” Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology

I often begin my Religion and Philosophy classes with a scene from Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  It is an absurdist play, but Stoppard is true enough to the very catholic source material in Shakespeare’s Hamlet that the wisdom themes from Ecclesiastes that are so prevalent in Shakespeare remain largely intact even in the midst of Stoppard’s cynicism, particularly the theme of the brevity and uncertainties of life. For instance, who cannot see in Hamlet passages from Ecclesiastes such as “it is better to spend time at funerals than parties because everyone dies” (my paraphrase of 7:2).  Stoppard brings that theme of death to a pinpoint focus by addressing our lack of awareness of our own mortality, a very important theme about the contingency of life and our failure to recognize it…the point that we all die which “the living take to heart” (Ibid). Indeed, if we as Christians are to live effectively as warriors and ambassadors of Christ’s Kingdom sent to bring hope and healing in this broken world (and truthfully if we are to live at all), we must come to grips with our own impending death; furthermore, though it is counter-intuitive, when we do so properly, we will find that such remembering girds us in the truth that secures our foundation in the peace of God–the only solid place from which we can “withstand in the evil day” (Eph. 6:13).

So, I begin many classes that I teach with Stoppard (since he is a little more accessible than Hamlet) because we Americans are experts at hiding from death. We insulate and isolate to escape the inevitable; we hide death in hospitals and funeral homes (or else in plain sight in shows about zombies). But at all cost we avoid the call to memento mori  (“remember you die”)…a call which we so desperately need to heed. In relation to the matter of acknowledging our own contingent being, most of us make ourselves bigger fools than Rosencrantz whose near miss of the truth takes place in a moment of intense irony in Stoppard’s play:

“Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood, when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever. It must have been shattering, stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the word for it, before we know that there are words,out we come, bloodied and squalling…with the knowledge that for all the points of the compass, there’s only one direction and time is its only measure.”

Rosencrantz seemingly misses his moment because he doesn’t recognize it while it should be happening. This monologue takes him to the brink of remembrance and then (in Stoppard’s film version) he sits up and starts making paper airplanes.

But the church and the scriptures call us to the discipline of memory. “Remember you are dust,” we are admonished on Ash Wednesday. James tells us–in passages so pressingly pertinent and frequently ignored by those of us blessed with worldly wealth–to glory in our humiliation because we all die like a flower of the grass (James 1:10). Jesus reminds us that we are not capable of adding even a single hour to our lives (Matthew 6:27, Luke 12:25-26).   So much of life and death is beyond our control…so rejoice.

This may be counter-intuitive, but the truth of our own contingency is liberating once it is understood in the scope of the greater truth of the Gospel.   As Simon Chan says in the passage quoted above, recognizing our lack of control over the circumstances of life “is simply acknowledging a basic fact of our existence,” that we are “dependent creatures” and God is the “Sovereign One.” Furthermore, Jesus reminds us in the passage about our inability to add one hour to life that because the Sovereign One loves us, we can really glory in our own frailty. He tells us (Matthew 6:25-26) to consider that the birds are not anxious “for your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Jesus’s question implies a resounding yes that echoes throughout the New Testament and reverberates backwards into a fuller understanding of the Father in the Old Testament. In this truth we can take comfort and live without anxiety.

Still, the recognition of our own contingency…the realization that we could drop dead in the next moment without warning or live to be well over a hundred in the midst of impossible challenges, the understanding that we had no say in our making and have very little in our unmaking…in relation to God’s loving care is not merely a matter of personal comfort. Rather, it sets us in the place we need to be in order to engage the enemy of all humanity in warfare as we are called to do.

As servant of Jesus Christ, the Lord and King, we are called to no longer conform to the patterns of the world but be transformed (Romans 12:2). We are told that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against spiritual dark forces (Ephesians 6:12). We are sent out as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16) so that we can freely give what we have freely received by healing the sick and casting out demons (Matthew 10:8). All this we are to do, following our Lord who, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36, ESV). Moreover, John tells us that if we are to abide in Him we are to walk like Jesus (I John 2:6) and that, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8).

How did Jesus walk and destroy the works of the Devil? Paul tells us that God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15), and that this was accomplished through his death on the cross and validated by his resurrection.  We battle in the same way, by participating in Christ’s death so that we may take part in his resurrection. As John tells us in Revelation, we overcome the Devil, “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11).

Therein is the key to victory in spiritual battle…we love not our lives even unto death. As Jesus tells us, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39).

Why is this such an important point? Why begin a lesson in spiritual warfare from the command to “remember you die”? Because this is how we disarm the enemy.

Paul tells us at one point that we are not ignorant of Satan’s devices (2 Corinthians 2:11). But all too often we are. It is imperative that we understand that his primary weapons are isolation and fear. This can work out in many ways, but to start with is should be clear that Peter’s description of our enemy supplies us with a key insight. Satan goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (I Peter 5:8). How do roaring lions catch their prey? They drive the herd through fear and thereby isolate the weak, the young, the sick, and the old. His success in doing this depends upon us living up to his estimation of us…an estimation that the scriptures reveal in Job: “Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life'” (2:4). His expectation is that we will always act in our own interests for our own self preservation, so when we do otherwise…when we enter into Christ’s suffering for the sake of others…we upset his plans and disarm him. Thus, I Peter 5 hinges on resisting the enemy through humility and the willingness to suffer.

So how are we to do this? How do we resist our enemy through humility? How do we persist in faith through suffering?

Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 about our armor. Our loins (that place of our emotional drives) are to be held together by our belt of truth so that the enemy cannot pull us down from below by our own feelings.  And Christ himself is that Truth which girds us. Moreover he is our Peace…the one who has broken every wall between us and the Father. Our shoes, the things we need in order to “stand firm,” are the preparation that comes from the Gospel of Peace. And central to that Gospel is the understanding that Jesus has made peace with and for us by trampling down death by death. So, we can remember we die without fear, for our shepherd has gone before us in death and defeated it.

There is, of course, much more to say on these matters, and I hope to continue expounding. But for the present I would conclude by bringing our attention to one of the greatest warfare passages in all of the Bible, Psalm 23. For, if we are to go out as sheep among wolves, we must do so with complete trust in our Good Shepherd. He is the one who remains with us when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death so that we fear no evil. Indeed, we are told that he prepares a table for us in the very presence of our enemy.  And we can remember we die without fear…willingly participating in His death…because we are promised that death is not the end. We will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

So, fear not. Memento mori…and rejoice.


Some side notes on warfare during COVID-19.

 Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann notes that “relaxation” is a “truly demonic word” describing an unendurable vacuum that serves as a mere interruption to our inescapable “joyless rush” (For the Life of the World, 49). Is that not an apt description of this time? How many are exhausted by a “joyless rush” even now? How many are harassed and helpless and in constant fear of death? Haw many have no comfort to run to but the diversion of ‘paper airplanes’?

We Christians are called to stand firm in the peace of God having the joy of the Lord as our strength, not merely to sit on the couch and relax, binge watching our favorite shows. We are called to war. We are called to participate in the heart of our Lord who came to seek and save the lost and participate in his death by our own willingness to lay down our lives for others. So, recognizing the hard realities of the evil day in which we live, we must do as Paul says in Ephesians, “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (6:13, ESV). If we are to “stand firm,” we must do so from the right position; that position is a place of peace rooted in truth that our life is not our own but is hidden with Christ in God. We cannot simply duck and cover. We must engage our neighbor, love our neighbor, and serve our neighbor. Nor can we reduce this service to staying home and hiding behind a mask.

The Church is the very physical presence of God in the world…that is what it means to be the body of Christ…so, as sheep sent out among wolves, we must be wise as serpents and harmless as doves–SHREWDNESS, not merely harmlessness, is what love requires of us now.  And such shrewdness is beyond our own wisdom. So, in Ephesians 6 Paul tells us to take up our armor, “Praying at all times in the Spirit.” In these trying times we must learn to take all our fears and frustrations to God in prayer…praying earnestly for those in authority and praying for the wisdom we need to serve humbly those around us in need. 

“In prayer we acknowledge that we are not in control. This is simply acknowledging a basic fact of our existence. Not to pray is to take destiny into our own hands, to falsify our true self as dependent creatures and to deny God as the Sovereign One.” Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology


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