Jericho falls after a band march around it (Joshua 6)—perhaps leading us to imagine they finally after seven days figured out the modular frequency of mortar so their trumpets tumble stones from atop one another. Jehoshaphat places the choir on the frontline (2 Chronicles 20)—perhaps making us wonder just how bad their last performance was that the King ‘rewarded’ them with a position in the vanguard.
We could find many more examples. Music, and more broadly the worship of God, play a decisive role in the warfare of Israel. Is it the same for us as New Testament believers?
I think it is—we usually need a reason to think something isn’t continuing as a principle from the Old to the New Covenants, but when things do continue, they are usually transformed.
Think of it like this: as I write the most prominent war in the world is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The current invasion has been going on for about six weeks (as I write—as this is published over three months), though we tend to forget that this war between Russia and Ukraine has been waging quietly on the frontiers of Europe for over eight years. Here’s the question, can our worship stop Russian aggression? Can we intervene in this conflict through what we might do as a gathered church directed towards God in heaven?
It’s pretty obvious that the answer is “no.” Our worship cannot stop the war. Though, let us never forget, our prayers can.
That being said, if the principle works the same way for us, what is our warfare against? As is so often the case, what is physical in the Old Testament is spiritual for us.
So, we’re waging war ‘spiritually’ as we worship God. But who, or what, are we actually fighting?
Or to frame the question a different way: I’ve been reading the Psalms a lot recently. I’m trying to learn how to pray them. One of the challenges I’ve encountered, especially in Books 1 & 2, is the proliferation of enemies. I’m always coming up against them. It’s easy enough to see who David’s enemies were, but if I’m supposed to then appropriate these prayers as my own, I need to know who mine are.
And, tempting though it is, I don’t think other humans who have upset or hurt me personally fit the bill very well—especially not that other guy in your church who upset you. There’s a different remedy here than asking God to smash the teeth in his mouth (Psalm 58).
Not that some people who’ve wounded me personally haven’t made themselves my enemies—I’m quite comfortable thinking that the cowboy builder who ran away with my savings and left me with a home on the verge of burning down is my enemy, but my warfare against him has to at least begin with forgiving him (Matthew 5).
We struggle with this, in part because we’ve drunk of niceness until we’re sick, but mostly because our lives are comfortable. The church has enemies. But, we are told, our real fight is not against flesh and blood (1 Corinthians 10). So, what are we fighting? Here are five initial suggestions.
1. To believe the church is the bride
Sometimes getting to church on a Sunday to worship God is an absolute mission. I don’t mean the challenges of getting everyone you need to out of the house in vaguely appropriate clothing on time to make it before the meeting actually starts. I mean that sometimes church doesn’t feel like a place of safety: it’s the source of your hurt. Sometimes church feels like a place full of well-meaning people who rub your pain in your face with a bright smile as though they’ve doing you a favour. Sometimes it just feels impossibly hard to go somewhere where you’ll be confronted with the presence of God, or with his silence.
I get it. I’ve been there. I would think many of us have.
When you make it, despite your misgivings, and choose to worship God, you are declaring that your experience of pain from this church or another one is not the whole story. You are declaring that the church is God’s bride, his plan A for the world, and that she is (slowly) maturing into beauty.
And when you don’t make it, know that you are not condemned, and the war is not over. Come back and fight again next week.
2. To believe that God is God
When we worship God we are declaring that he is God. Which is tautologically obvious. But if God is God, he is worthy of worship, however I’m feeling.
Which means we bring the mess of our week, our failings, our hurts, our suffering—we bring the ash of life with us. Don’t leave it at home to worship God in fake civility, there is literally no point. Take the ash of what your life has wrought, rub it in your tears to make a paste, and smear it on your cheeks when you come to God. I’m speaking metaphorically, but if doing it literally helps then channel Ash Wednesday and do it for real.
Then in the reality of your mess, sat down with Job in the tatters of your life, and worship God anyway, for he is worthy of worship. Perhaps with tear-stained cheeks and hoarse shouts, but worship God. Sing, pray, listen, eat. Because he is God.
3. To believe that God is good
And take a step beyond that, friends, and choose to believe the impossible: that all the things we say about God are true. That he is good, despite the evidence you have to marshal for the prosecution. That he does love you. That he does want to bless you, even if blessing doesn’t mean what you first thought it did—and it probably doesn’t, and it’s probably better.
These are impossible truths. But the word says they are true. To worship God is an act of defiance against the ten thousand drips of life that erode our confidence in who God is and what he is like.
4. The powers of darkness
We read that our warfare is not against flesh and blood (1 Corinthians 10), that Christ died to vanquish the powers (Colossians 2), and that we armour ourselves against them (Ephesians 5).
We have enemies. The Bible often calls them the gods, or the powers, or the elemental principles of the world, or dragons. We might have other names for them too. But they want us to lose, they want Jesus’ name rubbed in the dirt and self-salvation projects to paper our lives like the street after foxes have been in the bins.
That dragon loses when we declare—in song, in prayer, in preaching, in Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper—that Christ has conquered on the cross: won by losing; and that Christ is risen from the grave so that the teeth in the dragon’s mouth have been smashed, irrevocably. May he break them again.
5. Our own sin
As we think about the grand powers of the world and the way our worship of God is light in the midst of darkness, we must also think of ourselves.
When we choose to worship, we fight our own sin. When we choose to believe that God knows what he’s doing and declare so in song, we help to bolster our soul’s conviction that to fight temptation and embrace holiness is worth is. We fight the lie that all the ways we’ve fallen short disqualify us in any way from the embrace of the Father who loves us.
Let us fight
A small plea from me to finish with: worship leaders, play songs we can fight to. We’ve all sung plenty of gentle songs that sweetly teach us the truth, and there is a place of that, but do also give us big songs that declare big truths that we can bellow. It will help us to fight.
Preachers, preach gently knowing the battles your people fight, but declare victory firmly and every week. As you preach one of your weekly tasks is to prepare the dying for death—which turns out to be all of us—remember to do so, and declare that dragon ended.
Pastors, as you lead and pray and administer bread and wine, give us words with which we can fight. Remember that hope is hard work, hard won, and hard learned. Teach us the disciplines.
But most of all, dear friends, fight.
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