Third of four parts.
From St. Paul to the writer of the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Christian writings over the centuries have depicted the journey of faith as spiritual “warfare.” In such an analogy, it takes little imagination to identify our principal enemy as Satan and his fallen angels.
Part 2 of this series offered Paul's description of the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:10-17) and David's conquest of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:37-49) as a way of understanding the Catholic Church's view of itself and other Christian and non-Christian faiths. This installment will continue to lay out the comparison.
Despite his profound physical size and strength – which his armor only reinforced – Goliath was vanquished by David because he declined to use his shield and thus left his forehead exposed to David's slung stone. In his pride, Goliath essentially cast off part of his personal “whole armor,” figuring that nothing could defeat him. Armed only with the power of God, a slingshot and a few stones, David faced down Goliath's threat to his own survival and the national survival of Israel.
Satan likewise threatens us humans with spiritual defeat and death. But Goliath's arrogant attitude should warn us against arrogant pride in our ability to meet the enemies who threaten us in our journey toward heaven. Martin Luther famously summarized those enemies as “the devil, the world [sinful humanity] and our sinful self.” How can we hope to win against such an array of foes?
Let's look once more at Ephesians 6:10-17 (Revised Standard Version):
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
We would face more equal odds in our spiritual battle if we faced only a mere human being with merely human capabilities. We do battle “flesh and blood” – that is, our imperfect human nature, created good by God but wounded by sin and inclined to oppose God. But the odds – if one discounts our divine allies in God and His angels – truly are stacked against us.
Paul uses “principalities” and “powers” in his letters to describe both God's loyal angels and the rebellious demons. Each group enjoys power in their respective places. Because of Adam's sin, Satan and his angels are the “world rulers” and “spiritual hosts of wickedness” with whom we also must contend – as if our own human weaknesses and the sinful nature of our fellow human beings weren't enough!
Against these fallen angels – created stronger than humans in the time before Adam and Eve were created and then fell – we cannot stand without the aid of our Lord. So what has God given us, through Christ, with which we may do spiritual battle as we travel toward our final goal of eternal life with Him?
Nothing less than “the whole armor of God” – that is, the full range or “panoply” (the English form of the Greek word panoplia that Paul uses here) of spiritual weapons and defenses that we absolutely must have in order to prevail!
What constitutes God's “whole armor”? The following, based on the meanings of the original Greek words in the Ephesians passage, give us a more complete picture of our armory. (The English translations of those Greek words are italicized in the quotes below; relevant portions of the Greek definitions are in boldface.)
“Gird your loins with truth”: In the center of the human body, one finds the power to seed (male) or bear (female) new life. What's more, major blood vessels also are located in the groin and thighs. Satan attacks our spiritual center to twist and distort every new human life – and sometimes to prevent that new life from being born! To parry his thrusts, we are “to equip one's self with knowledge of the truth” – the words, deeds and very presence within us of Jesus Christ, who alone is Truth.
“Breastplate of righteousness”: A sword or spear thrust into the chest or stomach area can literally bleed the life out of a person, causing him or her to stumble, fall and never rise again. Satan seeks to mortally wound us in our hearts, our guts, our very spiritual being. To fight back, we need the “breastplate” St. Patrick sang of: Jesus Christ, who comes to us through His Word, the teachings He left behind and the sacraments He instituted. And in the Eucharist (Holy Communion), as Catholics contend, we receive His very own “body, blood, soul and divinity”! He enters us and stands beside us to reinforce our spiritual defenses with the attributes of righteousness – “integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness (and) correctness of thinking, feeling and acting.”
“Shield of faith”: The shield reinforces many vital but vulnerable parts of our body. (The Greek word for “shield” refers to “a large oblong, four-cornered shield.”) But in Biblical times, the shield was the only defense for the front of the head. Satan literally “gets in our head”: No, God isn't real! He doesn't care! He can't save you – so do what you want! We fallen humans are too weak to resist Satan without faith – that is, “a strong and welcome conviction or belief that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom we obtain eternal salvation in the kingdom of God.”
“Helmet of salvation”: The helmet crowns the defense of any soldier against the spears and arrows flying about him. Similarly does God crown His defense of His people with “the protection of the soul which consists in (the hope of) salvation.”
“Sword of the Spirit, the word of God”: Thus fully protected, God equips us to go on the offensive against the “world rulers” and “spiritual hosts of wickedness” with His Holy Spirit. And remember that the Spirit works through God's Word – not merely the actual words of the Scriptures but Jesus Christ, the “Word” identified in the first chapter of St. John's Gospel! Such weapons indeed are mightier than “a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) against the devil, who looks for any weak point in our body where he may strike to bring us down.
These are the elements of God's “whole armor.” So where do we find our spiritual weapons? In the heavenly armory that Jesus left behind for us: His Church, the very Body of Christ. There we find an unbeatable arsenal upon which we can draw – and all of it a free and undeserved gift from the God who created us, redeemed us and sanctified us!
And yet we humans persist in asking: How many pieces of armor do we really need?
Can we really do without any of the armor God has given us in our spiritual battle to conquer sin and walk with God all the way to heaven? Can we go part of the way down the road and decide we can throw away the sword? What if we cast away the shield or the breastplate? Or we fail to protect the loins? What if we go into battle without several of these pieces? Or we walk forward boldly with no armor at all?
It's in considering the many ways that humans cast off God's “whole armor” that one can best understand the Catholic Church's view of itself, of non-Catholic Christians and of non-Christian religions. The final part of this series will elaborate on this statement.