The Good Fight
It is fascinating to see how St Paul looks back over his Christian life in face of his fast approaching departure from this world. Writing to Timothy, he describes it as a race to be run, a faith to be kept and also as a fight to be fought (2 Ti 4.7). Each metaphor sheds its own light on how we understand our new life in Christ. It involves endurance: ‘The one who perseveres to the end will be saved’ (Mt 24.13). It requires fidelity – both to the doctrines to which we have been committed (Ro 6.17); but also to the kind of life to which they call us (Eph 4.1). It is, however, also a life that entails combat.
The fact Paul describes this fight as being ‘good’ should give us pause for thought. When we were sent off to school for the first time, many of us can remember being told by our parents, ‘Don’t get into any fights! – Walk away!’ Fighting is generally deemed to be not good. And even when it is right to fight – in just war and for the defence of the safety and rights of those who cannot defend themselves – it is usually in the sense of its being ‘a necessary evil’. So, when Paul explicitly describes the fight of faith as being a ‘good fight’, what does he mean?
At the most basic level it was what had defined his life of faith from the very moment of his conversion. In a way that displayed the divine irony on the one hand and the depths of the conflict in which Paul was involved, on the other it is hard not to smile at the fact that victory in this conflict began with a decisive defeat. When he set out for Damascus, Saul of Tarsus was on the warpath against God. Although he had clearly persuaded himself he was actually seeking to oppose Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, his mission was born out of a heart refusal to bow God himself. So, when the exalted Christ appeared to him in blazing light and booming voice that day, his question was, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ (Ac 9.4). When the full force of that question struck him, Saul had no answer.
When Saul was led into the city and God sent Ananias to meet with him in his lodgings in Strait Street, as he was told in advance of the new mission God had in store for him. He was to exchange the conflict of fighting against his God and Saviour for the suffering that came from fighting for him and his cause. This prophetic glimpse of what this would mean became clear all too quickly. First in the opposition he faced from his fellow Jews in Damascus from whom he had to flee for his life because he preached Jesus as the Christ. Then from his newfound Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem who refused to believe he really had become a Christian, until Barnabas intervened. And on it went from there: harassed and tried by the Jews, beaten and driven out of cities by Gentiles, tried by the Romans and now facing death for the sake of Christ under Nero.
The apostle captured the essence of this life of faith poignantly when he described his experiences in Macedonia: ‘Fighting without and fears within’ (2Co 7.5). And even more pointedly earlier in that letter with the words, ‘We…are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake’ (2Co 4.11).
None of this really came as a surprise, because Christ himself had made it clear repeatedly in his manifesto of Christian discipleship. He calls his followers to a life of cross-bearing (Mk 8.34). He made it clear, ‘I have not come to bring peace; but a sword’ (Mt 10.34) He brings conflict into families, communities and the world at large through the gospel. Those who hear his call to believe do not have the luxury to remain neutral and those who do believe are guaranteed to face the hostility – even through passive aggression – from those who do not.
It is hardly surprising that the conflict that defined the life of faith for Paul was to open up on many different fronts. Some of them, as we have noted already, take place on the ‘front line’ of where the gospel meets the unbelieving world. There are, however, other fronts that are less obvious, but more sinister.
The most serious of these is the battle that rages within the heart of every true believer against temptation and sin. Paul speaks openly about this from his own experience in Romans (7.14-25). With disarming candour he admits that, even as a pastor-theologian and missionary-apostle, too often he was losing rather than winning in this battle. The hiddenness of this front in our spiritual warfare makes it all the more dangerous. The admonition of the proverb, ‘Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life’ (Pr 4.23) should be before us every day.
Paul also speaks about the battle for the mind. He as much as we found himself in the midst of a spiritual propaganda war in which the ‘fake news’ of things that sounded passably biblical but in reality were not, was all too real. Once again it was a particular issue for the Corinthians in the cosmopolitan world in which they lived. So it was to them he said, ‘…we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against God, and we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ’ (2Co 10.3-5). Paul was no spiritual pacifist, nor did he believe in the ‘Christian siege mentality’ so prevalent today. He knew that the best form of defence is offense – daring to take the gospel into the very heart of enemy-controlled territory. Because, only then will we discover how potent a weapon it really is.
Through it all, the apostle never lost sight of why this battle matters. He looked forward to ‘the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on the day – and not only to me, but also to those who have longed for his appearing’ (2Ti 4.8). Although he would depart this world with his body bloodied, bruised and headless, his welcome into the world to come would be glorious beyond words. And he had this confidence because he knew his precious Saviour had walked that path not merely before him, but ultimately for him. Through Christ Paul was sure of final victory.
I have often been struck by the wording of the order for baptism in the Book of Common Prayer. It includes the prayer and exhortation that the baptised person would ‘fight manfully against the world, the flesh and the devil’ (even girls and women are enabled in Christ to ‘fight like a man’!) This really is ‘the Good Fight’.