The Beautiful Fight

Jan 28, 2011 |Gary Thomas

"Not falling" is not the goal of a spiritual warrior's vocation. It's only the means.  

Are you a spiritual pacifist?

I hope not, because God created you to be a spiritual warrior.

Spiritual pacifism is a pretty common way to approach the Christian life. It defines holiness and obedience by what we don't do and assumes that the goal of the Christian life is to avoid certain behaviors, so your focus is centered on not doing something offensive. Obedience is characterized negatively: How faithful are you to resist sinful temptations? It's a neutral existence, a "spiritual Switzerland" in which you don't bug anybody, and nobody bugs you.

A spiritual warrior takes an entirely different approach. He or she wants to be faithful to God's call. It's what marks the great heroes of Scripture. Have you ever asked yourself why David is called a man after God's own heart? Based on the spiritual pacifism model, an adulterer and murderer certainly doesn't seem to fit the definition of God's servant; but the New Testament gives us a fuller understanding: "I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do" (Acts 13:22). God saw David as a warrior; if He needed something done, He knew He had a servant who would courageously conquer the task and get it done.

Jesus typified this warrior model. He testifies in John 17:4: "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do."

Paul lived with this same sense of calling; near the end of his life, he testified to a secular official: "I have not been disobedient to the vision given me from heaven" (Acts 26:19).

Not falling is the means, not the goal, of a spiritual warrior's vocation. Such Christians realize that faithful soldiers don't get encumbered by civilian affairs, so they avoid activities that might hinder the fulfillment of their duties. The focus always remains, however, on what they are called to do.

Guaranteed to Fail

Spiritual pacifists rarely do well or minister long for a very simple reason: If you define your spiritual maturity primarily by what you don't do, you'll soon grow frustrated. The Bible promises us that "we all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2). If your energy is poured into avoiding something that the Bible says you will do, you're fighting a losing battle. Either the Bible isn't true — in which case, why give your life to spreading its message? — or it is true, and your efforts are doomed to failure. In neither case can you build a lasting ministry.

Worse, you have a spiritual enemy who will try to exploit the inconsistency in your life and thinking. Let's say you've been walking in victory over lustful thoughts for a couple of weeks. You believe God is calling you to ministry, and you're feeling pretty good about yourself and life in general. But then you fall, again. You thought you were past this. You are ashamed of yourself. And your enemy whispers, "You're not qualified to be in ministry because you stumble in many ways. How can God use you if you stumble?"

When James says we all stumble, he's talking to teachers, i.e., leaders within the church! Yet I've seen many young people convinced that they are disqualified from ministry because there is an ongoing temptation in their lives.

A New Paradigm

So what's the solution? Are we supposed to stop trying to grow in grace and not worry about doing something that the Bible clearly forbids us to do? Of course not. I'm not saying morality isn't important. I'm saying that the way we teach morality is ineffective.

One great weakness (out of many) of the spiritual pacifism approach is that it fosters, at best, an uneasy neutrality. Look at it this way: From the perspective of a spiritual pacifist, we could create "instant holiness" by putting every believer in a coma. In that state, we won't lust. We won't curse. We won't steal. We won't lie.

But will we be truly holy?

Now, contrast the comatose approach with spiritual warriors. I can focus on not looking at vile things on the Internet, or I can offer up my eyes to be God's servants so that instead of seeing a young woman as a sex object created for my sexual gratification, I see her as a daughter or a sister or a mother, dearly loved by God and one that should be honored as such. I look at boastful people and see insecurity instead of bravado — which stops me from gossiping or judging. I look at myself as no more important than anyone else (the basis of humility) — which counteracts sinful pride. When I see as God sees, everything around me changes.

That's real transformation.

In the same way, I can focus on not listening to vile music. Fair enough; there's no reason to poison my mind. But why stop there? Why not pray, "Lord, how do I offer up my ears to hear Your voice in the midst of the din? How can I learn to hear what others are truly saying? How can my ears become Your servants?"

And then I can offer my mind to think God's thoughts, and my heart to feel God's passions, and guess what? Over time, this conscious offering makes me far less likely to lust. The end result is what the spiritual pacifists are after — not lusting — but the method is radically different. I'm on the offensive, not the defensive, in my faith.

We were created with hearts that need to be enlisted in a cause much, much bigger than adhering to a list of dos and don'ts. Through Christ, God has made a remedy for our sin; we need to use and apply that remedy so that we can fulfill God's call on our lives.

I'll be honest with you; the truth is, if you're a single adult, it is going to be very difficult for you not to have inappropriate sexual thoughts. I'm not saying you should just give in to them; I am saying that just about everyone your age is going to struggle dramatically with this temptation.

But if you learn to live in Christ's presence and fellowship, if you learn to offer up your eyes to see people as Christ does, to hear God's voice, to feel as God feels, to think as God thinks, over time, it will be just as difficult for you to have an inappropriate sexual thought as it is for you now not to have one. I'm not saying you won't sin sexually; James 3:2 applies to middle-aged people every bit as much as it does to teens, 20-somethings and 30-somethings. But I can attest in my own life how certain sins do lose some of their seeming certainty.

For me to revel in an inappropriate sexual fantasy, I'd first have to stop living in the awareness of God's presence (which I've spent the last couple of decades trying to cultivate). I'd have to close my ears to hearing His voice. I'd have to shut His thoughts out of my mind. And I'd have to stop my heart to feeling His pure and true passions.

Sadly, from past experience I can tell you that I am more than capable of doing all this — but it's not easy, and that's the key: By offering the members of my body to God in transforming worship, obedience becomes more natural than disobedience (in a sense). Just as purity and fidelity may feel "unnatural" to a young believer, so blatant disobedience becomes all but abhorrent to a maturing believer. An immature believer avoids sin because he's afraid of it; a mature believer refrains from sin because it's repugnant to him.

This takes time, and it doesn't necessarily reach all levels of our soul and body at once. You can be mature sexually and immature with how you handle food or alcohol. You can be the very picture of health gastronomically, while having a weak mind or a loose tongue. But once you learn to grow in one area, you can apply the same process to grow in other areas.

The apostle Paul used this with Timothy when he told the young leader to live in such a way that "everyone may see your progress" (1 Timothy 4:15). This sentence alone assumes that Timothy isn't a perfect leader (otherwise, no progress could be made!). But Paul wants to know that Timothy is growing; if he will watch his life and doctrine closely, and give himself fully to the ministry to which God has called him, others will notice the progress he makes in his spiritual life.

Leadership then, doesn't require perfection, but it does require progression.

Spiritual pacifism or a comatose faith simply do not fit in this paradigm, because they are based on a perfectionist model. Growing in your ability to see others as God sees them, to hear God's voice, to live with God's mind — these are things that take time to develop, cultivate and surrender to.

Copyright 2007 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.

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