This is the final post about Paul’s image of the Whole Armour of God, from Ephesians 6: 10-18—the tools we have at our disposal to stand against the spiritual realities working against God’s good will and purposes for our lives, and for the world.
In order to stand against the stuff that works against the world as God wants it—and what God wants is a world that teems with love and justice and righteousness—against anything that threatens that, Paul tells us to put on the Belt of Truth, the Breastplate of Righteousness, the Shoes of Peace, the Shield of Faith, the Helmet of Salvation. And with all that: the Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
And once Paul has us all dressed in the things we need, he says this: Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.
I think it’s excellent that once we’re all dressed and ready for battle, the first thing we are to do is pray. This instruction calls to mind a question that another wise thinker has asked: are we in the world for God, or in God for the world. And the answer makes all the difference.
In a world that’s often obsessed with “doing,” with accomplishing things, with statistics and results, it would be easy to assume that once we’ve got all our spiritual armour on we’re ready to charge into the world and get some stuff done for God. But Paul slows us down. He insists that our first task is prayer. Because it’s only as praying people that we can in keep step with the Spirit. Without prayer, we might do good things; but they might not be God things. As one old preacher put it, “If the devil can’t get you to do bad things, he’ll get you to do almost good ones.”
I mentioned in the last episode that one of the ways we hear God’s word is in prayer. That may seem kind of strange. But most of Christian faith is kind of strange! The fact is that the witness of the saints in every generation points us to God’s willingness to speak in and through us. Sometimes a particular passage of Scripture will come up when we’re in prayer. Sometimes we’ll get a word, phrase, or image that reveals something of God and God’s will to us.
If we return once more to the stories of Jesus’ temptation, particularly Matthew’s version (chapter 4 of his gospel), we get an important insight. Unfortunately, it’s not all that clear in English. It comes when Jesus tells the tempter that we don’t live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. In Greek, the language that the New Testament was written in, there’s more than one word that get translated as “word.” There’s logos, which is a general, universal word or truth—it’s the word that John uses when he begins his gospel by saying that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
But there’s another word rhema, which is a more intimate, direct word. Meant for a specific audience. And that’s the word that Jesus uses against evil. He tells the tempter that what nourishes us and strengthens us isn’t a general word from God—it’s more than memorizing scripture (as valuable as that is). What nourishes and strengthens us is God’s intimate word: whether that’s the Holy Spirit’s work of making the scriptures speak personally to us, or one of those moments when we get a clear sense of God’s will and purpose in our lives, or something particular to us and our circumstances. We need that kind of word from God, if we’ll get in on what God’s doing.
And so, we pray. Christians are a praying people. And there are lots of different ways to pray. We can pray using the Psalms—the prayerbook of the bible. We can use a daily devotional, or the monastic offices. We can practice centering prayer, times of silence and listening. We can pray in unison, or alone. Our worship can—and should—be full of prayer. Paul says in another place to “pray without ceasing” which is to let our whole lives be open and porous to the Holy Spirit. There are so many ways to do that.
If prayer is new to you, or you’re looking for a fresh way to pray, ask around. Pastors and fellow Christians can be great resources. Richard Foster’s book Prayer is a classic. Rich Villodas’ book The Deeply Formed Life is a great resource, and really accessible if this is all new to you.
However you pray, the key is to do it, set time aside, be consistent—there’s a reason prayer is called a spiritual discipline—and then open yourself up to God’s Spirit, that enlivening breath that strengthens and restores. Because at the end of the day, we don’t want to be people in the world for God, running around doing what we think is best; we want to be people in God for the world: living and moving and having our being in union with the One who made this world, who loves this world, and who is making all things new.
May it be so.