Back to Index

It's Tough Out There
August 21, 1994


William Willimon, Chaplain of Duke University, was speaking in Texas and, in the discussion period after his sermon, the host pastor said, "You seem to have such a negative view of the world. I believe the world is a place of God's love." Willimon suggested that the pastor leave his church burglar alarm turned off that night and see how loving a world this is!

On his way through the parking lot, Willimon encountered a group of women in animated conversation. "We're talking abut you," one of them said. "We wonder if you preachers know what we're up against in the schools." He asked them, "Like what?" "Like an eight-year-old who is addicted to cocaine," said one. "Like a sixth grader who has been abandoned by her parents, both of whom are physicians in this city," said another. Willimon said, "Well, your preacher believes this is a great town!" "Of course he does," they replied, "he's never visited one of our middle schools."

It's tough out there! It's not easy for our children and youth. There are pressures, temptations, struggles unheard of in my day. It's tough out there for adults. Not everyone you know or meet is concerned for your best interests. Not everyone is your friend. Some will try to cheat you, exploit, use, manipulate, and defeat you. Some may even try to destroy you. Besides individual people out there who are not acting in your best interests, the New Testament assumes there are unfriendly forces as well as unfriendly people. In the Scripture lesson read today, Paul lists some of the unfriendly forces, Ephesians 6:12, For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. That's all we need! As if we don't have enough to contend with!

These ancient phrases--cosmic powers of this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, rulers, authorities--are not familiar to us, but let's not throw out the baby with the bath. Instead of a naive belief in goodness, as expressed by the pastor in my opening story, it is far more helpful to be careful, cautious, and prepared. There are evil forces out there. Institutional evil, racism, sexism, discrimination. There are viruses seeking to invade your body. Cancer is constantly lurking about seeking whom it may devour. Greed and pride seek to motivate you. Alcohol, tobacco and drugs seek to enslave you, to make you an emotional cripple. There are philosophies, religions, and cults seeking to control you. Violence is practically a religion in our society, with a creed and devoted adherents, preaching that if you're strong enough and violent enough, you can control violence. Now we even have a bill before the state legislature, with serious debate, believing that if you hit kids hard enough, if you cane them, they will not write graffiti! Violence only creates more violence. Hitting, spanking, and caning create sullen, belligerent kids who wait for their turn to get even.

Yes, there are evil forces out there, whose only aim is to destroy. A kindergarten teacher wrote a song about popcorn, taught it to the children, then had them crouch down on the floor to sing it. At the appropriate point in the song, all the children POP UP. The teacher had them popping all over the classroom. One day, during the popcorn song, the teacher noticed that one little boy remained crouched down when all the other children were popping up. "What's wrong?" asked the teacher. "Why aren't you popping like the other children?" The little boy replied, "I'm burning on the bottom of the pan." Don't you feel like that some days?

There is another alternative. There is another option. Rather than popping up, reacting to every force that comes along, rather than burning on the bottom of the pan, Paul tells us to put on the armor of God. Christians have a dress code. There is a proper, effective attire for us. Paul wrote, Ephesians 6:13, Take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

When you dress in the morning, and prepare to go out into the world where it's tough, put on the belt of truth. Make honesty and truth, your core, your foundation. Wear truth as a foundation garment--your girdle--in order to keep you trim. The Roman soldier wore a breastplate to protect his heart from swords and spears. Paul says to wear the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate of righteousness is a right relationship with God. Righteousness means to get right with God. Put right living, dedication to high standards, integrity, honesty, and truth, in total commitment to Christ, at the center of your being.

Put on the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith to protect you. We don't see many people with shields. A shield is a novel idea to us. We are taught to be open, to let it all hang out, to be vulnerable. But, sometimes we need to be protected, to hold off the fiery darts, the flaming arrows of the evil one. When someone gives you the finger, or hollers out the car window at you, hold up the shield of faith. When someone cuts you down, or berates you and rains curses upon your head, wear the helmet of salvation. When someone tells you you are not good enough, or smart enough, or capable, hold up the shield of faith. Wear the helmet of salvation, the certainty that you are among the saved, the chosen, the redeemed. Your salvation is a gift from God; no one can take it from you. You are not just anybody, you are a child of God; created by the Creator, redeemed by Jesus, and powered by the Holy Spirit.

Besides protective gear--a shield, breastplate and a helmet--put on offensive gear. Paul challenges you to take the offense. The Christian life is not just protective and reactive. We are not to wait for things to happen, and then resist or fight. We can make things happen. Don't just react to your environment, create your environment. Take the initiative.

Put on shoes, Paul says, that enable you to move to proclaim the gospel of peace. Go and do God's work. Proclaim shalom. Teach shalom. Live shalom. Take the sword of the spirit and attack, Paul urges. Paul says the sword of the spirit is the word of God. Hebrews 4:12, For the word of God is alive and active. It cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword. Go forth to do battle in the confidence that God will give you the right word at the right time. Have you ever found yourself in a situation when much was expected of you, and suddenly you found yourself capable? When it really counts, expect in faith to be given the right word, so you can stand any test and be victorious. A familiarity with the Scriptures, with the word of God, helps you discover the right word, the right action, for the right time.

Wearing your shoes of peace, with the sword of the spirit hanging on the belt of truth, go forth in prayer. It is interesting how Paul ends his description of God's armor with prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times, Ephesians 6:18. Prayer is more an offensive than a defensive tactic! Prayer is not only a retreat from the battle of life. Prayer is the call to arms. Prayer gets you in shape, gets you mentally ready. Prayer sharpens you, focuses you. It is like discovering that elusive state of flow that athletes talk about--where the whole body, the whole mind, and the whole spirit are completely engaged and perfectly coordinated. Prayer gives you flow. When it happens, look out world, here you come!

Wearing the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, helmet of salvation, shoes of peace, carrying the sword of the spirit and the shield of faith, you are unbeatable. It may be tough out there, but you are tougher!

© 1994 Douglas I. Norris