The tragic shooting this past Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas has been a painful tragedy to hear of from afar. I’m upset for the many innocent lives that have been lost and hurt, and I’m angry that someone can just indiscriminately kill other people. Yet just as with the past church shootings in Antioch, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina, in ways that hit close to home, we are reminded again that churches face persecution. The question we face as the body of Christ here in America is “Now what?”
The Battle Belongs to Who?
When I was in college, one of the popular songs during chapel and devotionals was The Battle Belongs To The Lord (if you’ve not heard the song, you can click on the title to hear an a cappella rendition of the song). It’s a song that encourages faith with lines like… “No weapon that’s fashioned against us shall stand [because the] battle belongs to the Lord.” Or, “When your enemy presses in hard do not fear… The battle belongs to the Lord.”
Yet, sometimes I wonder if Christians really believe this? Or have we so compartmentalized our faith that the battle we sing about has nothing to do with the physical life we are living? I ask that because with the news of so many mass-shootings which are now also taking place at church and other religious gatherings, the response of many Christians is not any different from the way the rest of the world responds.
For the past few days the response of many Christians on social-media was the reaction of anxiety expressed in the question of how do we protect ourselves from such harm. Don’t get me wrong! I am not opposed to undertaking measures that protect innocent people from harm but when Christians suggest that the number one concern of the church should be safety is just to lose sight of the gospel. When our anxiety about a mass-shooter coming to our church prompts us to immediately suggest locking all the doors of the church building during worship and/or encourage members to carry firearms, we are letting fear lead us rather than faith. [Whether it is moral/ethical for Christians to carry firearms as a means of personal self-defense is besides the point.]
It seems as though Christians in America have forgotten that following Jesus might mean suffering for the name of Jesus. It certainly has for our fellow disciples throughout history and even today among certain places in the world. So the possibility of suffering for the sake of Christ should not surprise us. Scare us??? Yes, the idea of having an individual or group enter our worship gathering to kill us is terrifying. The question we must ask is how should we respond?
A Christian Response
Consider these words from the Apostle Paul that have been the focus of many sermons on a Sunday morning. Ephesians 6:10-20…
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. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
Exegeting the text isn’t the big issue we face with a text like this. In my experience as a pastor, the problem is that too often we have so spiritualized and privatized this passage of scripture that it doesn’t have any bearing on an issue like the threat of a mass-shooting. That is, we limit the “struggle” (v. 12) to the way Satan may be trying to lure us into sexual immorality, selfish behaviors, bouts of depression, and so forth. Now I’m not denying that any of those issues are real battles we face as Christians. They are real and this passage offers us sound instruction for facing those struggles. However, this text was originally written to Christians who were also facing forms of persecution for being followers of Jesus. So when we hear that a gunman has committed mass-murder inside a church gathering and realize that such a massacre could happen in our church gatherings too, this text offers us instruction for facing this struggle too.
The passage tells us how we, the church, remain strong. Our strength is in the Lord, not in our own fallibility. Putting on the full armor of God then is essentially living as the new creation we are in Christ (Lincoln, Ephesians, p 442). Of course, finding our strength in the Lord as we put on the full armor of God requires faith. That is why v. 18 says, “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.”
When faced with any struggle, our response begins with prayer because it isn’t our battle to fight or win. The battle, as we sing, belongs to the Lord and it is a battle he has already won even though we may suffer. The promise of the gospel is not that we will be without suffering but that through the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ we have a victory now that will be known in fullness when our Lord returns. So when faced with struggles, we respond by praying and lifting our petitions up to the Lord… praying that we can live as his new creation rather than like the old creation that the rest of the world is.
Through such prayers we gain the strength to remain distinctly the church. And when it comes to the threats of violence, it doesn’t mean we ignore safety concerns. What it does mean is that we will act in faith rather than with fear and that by acting in faith, we don’t not consider just our own safety but how we go about our business of embodying the gospel. That is, besides considering how we might develop a protocol for responding to an emergency such as a mass-shooting taking place, we are also resolved to keep loving others, forgive those who wish us harm, and proclaim the word of God more boldly. If our response to danger is not an embodiment of the gospel then we’re not any different from the world and if we’re not any different from the world then are faith is nothing more than empty words we recite on Sundays.
One Final Plea
My fellow Christians, I am not asking that we remain naïve about the world or just throw ourselves into danger. My plea is that we not lose sight of the victory we have in Jesus Christ and that we respond to the potential dangers we face as the victorious people of the Lord. That won’t always be easy but let’s remember… This battle belongs to the Lord!