Faith is a battle… …the greater jihad.

As I shared previously, we’re called to battle against evil forces and toward justice, kindness, grace. And I promised to reflect on the principal field over which we battle. To do so, I want to turn to a word of truth I learned from a leader of another faith.

Years ago, shortly after the terrorist attack of September 11, the local church I served as an associate pastor invited a local Muslim Imam in to our congregation to share about Islam; to teach our members about Muslim Scripture and faith. Bringing his family and others from his faith community, he presented a moderate understanding of a different faith that shared much in common with our own. He also pointed out how, just as it has been and is true in Christianity, there are particular extremist groups and individuals that take particular aspects of the faith further than others.

During the question and answer period, it inevitably occurred that someone from our congregation challenged the Imam on the nature of “jihad” as presented in the Quran (or at least this individual’s understanding of what the Quran said about it via media portrayals). As I remember it, the Imam paused for a moment, and then answered the question, indicating that the Quran did indeed talk about different forms of “jihad”, and that there were passages that called for “jihad” against what was seen as impure or infidel. But then he continued by emphasizing that although such passages existed, there were more passages that emphasized that is called the “greater jihad.” This particular “holy war,” he taught, was not fought openly against people of other faith, but was the internal battle that all Muslims were called to fight on their road away from evil and toward holiness. In his own view, the majority of Muslims knew and saw that engagement in this “greater jihad” had to be the first and forefront battle of their faith; and only extremists pursued “jihad” against people of other faiths or nations.

Despite the fact that my memory of the day’s conversation is likely incomplete and faulty, the image of the “greater jihad” and the teaching/implication that it should be primary and completed before any other “jihad” begun, has stayed with me. I believe this is because, in no small way, the idea expresses what I believe should be a priority for Christians, as well. I’d articulate it simply: before we go to battle against anyone else, we ought to settle the battle within ourselves.

Jesus might have articulated it this way, too. After all, he did teach us…

let he who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7)

and

why do you look to the speck in your brother’s eye, when there is a log in your own? (Matt 7:3)

I wrote earlier that “faith is not a battle… except when it is.”

Now I would suggest that the primary battlefield on which we are called to suit up and take up shield and sword is within us. Our primary battle is to take a strong stand against the evil influences of this world – whether you want to name these forces as the devil, or original sin, or somehow psychologically explain them as our natural bent toward doing what is self-centered, wrong, and/or hurtful to others.

I would suggest that we are all engaged, all the time, in this battle. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, if we have given our hearts and lives to Jesus Christ, in some form our internal “spiritual self” is at war with our alive, alert, awake, walking-around, real-life self.

I believe that the greatest good we can do in the world – the greatest achievements for justice and kindness for all – are in part the result of the hard work we do within our hearts as we seek to be transformed after the example of Christ. It is from this internal battle – this “greater jihad” whereby our hearts stand firm against self-interested and greed and all the other evils of this world in the interest of being Christ-centered – that our transformed lives are then able to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in meaningful ways. It is from a heart transformed that justice, mercy and kindness most readily flow to others.

That this is a battle I can share from my own spiritual life and journey. The easiest example is to cite that the fruit (or aim?) of a life in Christ seem ever far from me:

“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

If these are what is wrought within a heart and life given over to Christ, then I am far from being the Christian I would long to be.

In so many ways, I am constantly embroiled with an ongoing spiritual battle. And, despite the encouragement of Paul that I am equipped to stand firm against the forces that would corrupt and battle against me, sometimes it feels as though my “spiritual” self simply comes only alongside my “real” self in its defeat. That is, it feels as though my personal spiritual yearnings are not quite strong enough to engage in, let alone succeed at, the battle. I hope for rescue, for salvation.

It all reminds me of a particular story / image, actually:

The brave young doctor climbs onto the pyre as it is being lit, insisting that if his sister is to be burned as a witch, he will stay by her side. Suddenly an arriving ship stirs up a commotion, and two figures walk toward the fire:

Mal: Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?

Zoe: Big damn heroes, sir!

Mal: Ain’t we just?

(Firefly episode, “Safe”)

(What? You were expecting a Biblical story?)

So… if I often feel I’m losing my spiritual battle… if I am failing in my “greater jihad”… if my spiritual self is giving up and climbing onto the pyre along with my real self to await fiery destruction… who is going to swoop in and be my “big damn hero”? Who will rescue me?

“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)

(there it is!)

The battle of faith we are daily engaged in is directly related to – and dependent upon! – the good news that is unique to Christian faith: our salvation is by the word and gift of God (e.g., the very definition of “grace,” which C.S. Lewis once wisely indicated was the single unique aspect of Christianity). Left to our own devices, we invariably would fail in said battle; we would succumb to the powers of evil and sin that ever lie in wait in both the world and the human heart.

But, as Paul reminds us, thanks be to God that through faith in Jesus Christ we are not left alone! Sure, we are invited to

“work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12)

but that is in partnership with the Lord, whose initiative of grace precedes and prefigures our own initiative. In this way, the old saying/song “the battle belongs to the Lord” is right on. The battle we are called to and equipped for is first and foremost the successful work of God.

“he who began a good work will carry it on to completion…” (Phil 1:6)

In this sense, faith is a battle.

This ongoing battle is the “greater jihad” we are called to. It is the very work of grace in our lives. God is at work in and through us as preventing grace calls us to faith, as justifying grace brings us forgiveness, and as sanctifying grace continually works toward our transformation.

And yet, as pointed out above, we are invited to do our part. Some action is necessary for us to come alongside God in this battle.

Sadly, it is all-too-easy for me to forget that this battle is the Lord’s, and instead think that the battle is mine alone to fight. I easily fall into the trap of thinking and acting as though it is my own actions that are necessary, and that it is my own work that saves me.

Yet the actions most necessary are simply those that help me to connect with God’s ongoing presence and work. I am called to use the means God has given us, called the “means of grace,” to nurture my personal transformation through works of piety and engage in the transformation of our world (social holiness) through works of mercy.

I do not believe that we are called to view our faith as a “battle” with others. Rather, I believe we are called to a battle that takes place within the human heart, and specifically our own. As we are transformed within and become more aligned to the will and direction of God – through works of piety and mercy – we wage an ongoing battle against the “evils” that antagonize every person (once summarized within our tradition into 7 principle, “deadly” sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony).

This battlefield is the very same I have written about before, and which so preoccupies my own spiritual journey, for it is also our journey toward purity of heart; it is our inner and outer transformation as we work towards grater Christ-likeness. This is the “greater jihad,” an ongoing battle within and for our hearts; a battle at the core of our identity that then influences all we do and say in the world around us.

Friends, may you know the presence and power of God through your faith in Jesus Christ;
may the grace of our Lord empower you to “fight the good fight” against whatever evils lurk in the shadows of your heart;
may you know Jesus as a “big damn hero”;
may the means of grace sustain, equip, and encourage you;
and may you strive to fight another day.

I want to share a related observation that does not fit quite so neatly above.

Remember Paul’s word of encouragement to the Christians about the “armor of God”? I want to point out that we are equipped for our battle against evil powers with primarily defensive means:

  • Defensive (5): the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace for our feet, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation.
  • Offensive (1): sword of the Spirit / word of God

Although the Spirit / word of God is described as a sword, I would observe that it is not intended to be a weapon against other people. Unfortunately, all-too-often some people misuse Scripture in such a way; blasting away at others’ views with salvos of proof-texts. As I read the metaphor in its context, I would observe that the Word of God is to be used as a weapon against wickedness. (And perhaps it, too, is meant to be used defensively.)

Jesus gives us an example. In the story of his own temptation as found in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 4. After each one of the three temptations that he experiences, Jesus responds with a word of Scripture that serves to parry the temptation. When beset by evil, Jesus stood faithful, and only replied with portions of the word that encouraged and sustained him.

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