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THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE

From Brazilian Culture to Biblical Thinking

bandeira_brasilIn the first part of this blog, we took a look at how the Brazilian culture thinks about, speaks of, and experiences LIFE in terms of BATTLE. This structured way of thinking, speaking, and experiencing is also one way Christians conceive of discipleship or LIVING THE CHRISTIAN LIFE.

According to David J. Williams, the Apostle Paul talks about both his own life and the Christians’ lives in terms of warfare. Sometimes, says the author, Paul “felt himself to be more like a soldier at war than anything else.” In such warfare sometimes the enemies are “human antagonists” (2 Corinthians 7:5) in the world; some other times, the human nature is the enemy to be overcome – in the inner conflict between “the flesh and the Spirit of God” (Romans 7).[1] Also, the devil is seen as an enemy who, such as the world and sin, has already been defeated by Jesus’ work, but “is still able to cause great distress.”[2]

This said, and taking into consideration what was presented in the first blog article, I suggest that THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE is a metaphor which might foster the biblical teaching about the Christian life in the Brazilian culture.[3] In this metaphor, then, the Christian is located within implied narrative relationships appropriate for a soldier of a given nation at war. Such narrative relationships can be clearly visualized by the Actanctial Models which follow this paragraph. Unlike in the first model presented in the first part of this article (see Figure 1), Figure 2 places two Actantial Models next to each other so that the correspondences of each actant in both the source and the target may be clearly seen.[4]

The Christian Life is a Battle

Figure 2 (Vertical Actantial Models in the Source and the Target[5])

In approaching the Christian life in terms of a battle, then, just as the Ruler or King wants to provide survival, protection and peace to the citizens through the soldiers, God wants to preserve life and to provide protection, help and care for the needy through the Christian.

And, while in the source the enemies, the soldiers’ exhaustion and their lack of hope oppose the soldiers, in the target our sinful nature, the devil, the world and the lack of trust oppose the Christian. Such oppositions intend to hinder the delivery of the Object to the Receiver. And that is way the function of the Helper is so important. Just as the commanders and good strategies help the soldiers to overcome the opponents and to deliver protection and peace to the citizens, the Holy Spirit and the Bible, for instance, help the Christian fight against his selfish sinful nature and, thus, care for his neighbors in their needs. The function of the Helper, therefore, is fundamental in the present metaphor.[6]  

o_cristo_redentorAnother fundamental point for the purpose of the present reflection is that the actant/ actor who does something for the Receiver is the Subject. Although the Sender sends the Object to the Receiver, the Subject is actually the one who does what has to be done in order to deliver the Object to the Receiver.

Therefore, the structure of the narrative relationships leads to the conclusion that protection and care for the needy, for instance, is something which comes from God and, still, that the Christian is the one who protects and helps the needy – the believer is the one who performs these works. When his or her selfish and sinful nature drives him to care only for himself, or when, in fighting against sin, he gets exhausted or even fails, he can resort and cling to the Helper.

Having in mind this clear understanding of the metaphor, Brazilian pastors could speak of and teach the Christian life in such a way that the good works performed by Christians are clearly understood as made not towards God – for God is not the Receiver – but towards their neighbors. This reinforces the distinction between justification and sanctification.  As Gustaf Wingren has puts it, God does not need your works, but your neighbor does.[7]

At the same time, in pastoral situations such as the ones elucidated by the hypothetical plea for help from a parishioner (described in Part 1), pastors can, in a very proclamatory way, affirm the presence of the Holy Spirit and point to Him as the one who will help and lead the parishioner during his or her times of struggles in life – The Holy Spirit will never abandon you! – They could say to their parishioners. Therefore, THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE metaphor is able to render the Gospel and foster proclamation.

Avoiding Theological Confusion in Interpreting the Metaphor  

In the present paper,  the importance of who is doing what for whom and how in the narrative relationships of a given metaphor resides in the fact that in the salvation narratives central to Lutherans, for instance, God (probably in the person of Jesus) will always be the active Subject while we will always be the passive Receivers. In the Christian life narratives, on the other hand, the Christian might be the active Subject, which does not compromise the biblical salvation narratives. As Rossow has already pointed out,

Though Christians may be told to “fight the good fight” (1 Tim 6:12) or to “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor 9:24), the narrative structure of these metaphors for Christian living, with believers in the Subject position, will not set aside the passive nature of salvation highlighted in the more central metaphorical blend of courtroom/sacrifice, where believers are clearly placed in the Receiver slot.[8]

Earlier, we assumed that confusions between narratives (salvation and the Christian life) might create also theological confusion. This is one of the reasons for such an assumption: If one situates God (any of the three Persons) as the Subject in THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS BATTLE metaphor, then he or she will have to place the Christian as the Helper. The Christian would then help God do his works. Such an idea – that God needs our help to accomplish his works, can lead to theological confusion, and might be not so comforting for a believer in his or her daily struggles against sin and difficulties in life, when his weakness is made evident, along with his necessity for someone who is stronger than him to help, and not the other way round.    

And, if the Christian is placed in the role of the Receiver in a warfare metaphor (such as the one we are working with here), then the narrative has been changed from the Christian life narrative to a salvation narrative, in which Christ fights on the cross and wins the battle for us – in this case we are indeed the Receivers. This victory is independent of our struggles – it does not depend on us at all.

In explaining the warfare metaphors in Paul, Williams makes a clear distinction between these two narratives:

The decisive battle was “out there” on the cross. But “in here,” in terms of our thoughts and words and deeds, the battle still rages. The flesh will not “lay down its arms” and is fighting a stubborn rearguard action. Thus, we must strive, under the command of God’s Spirit, to overcome the flesh by refusing to carry out its desires.[9]

The non-distinction between these two narratives (and their narrative relationships) has apparently caused a theological problem in some Neo-Pentecostal churches in Brazil. On the basis of Theology of Glory, leaders and members of Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal churches believe that the Christian life is a life of victory only, in which there is no room for defeat.[10] Perhaps a more comprehensive study of Theology of Glory could provide a more detailed description of the given problem, but for the purpose of the present paper it should suffice to say that the complete victory as a result of Jesus’ work – an eschatological victory, is being understood by Neo-Pentecostals as something to be enjoyed here and now, which configures the so called over-realized eschatology.

Another way of putting this would be to say that the final and complete victory as a result of Jesus’ work – salvation narrative – is being located in the present only, and being applied to the Christian life in the sense that instead of facing daily struggles in life, a true believer (supposedly) experiences daily victories.

How could, then, the present reflection help respond to such a view of the Christian life? Before attempting to give an appropriate response to the problem at issue, it would be important to look at David Maxwell’s study The Resurrection of Christ: Its Importance in the History of the Church. The study is about the Old Testament narratives that have served as the frameworks for understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was was presented at the 17th Annual Theological Symposium, September 19-20, 2006, “Recapturing a Full-Bodied Theology of the Resurrection: Christ’s and Ours.” Maxwell’s conclusion paragraphs in his study helps us to trace the most relevant aspects of the paper for the purpose of our investigation:

The Day of Atonement narrative sees the cross as satisfying God’s wrath over sin. The problem with the Day of Atonement narrative is that it has no obvious place for the resurrection. The Passover narrative understands the cross as a victory of death because the blood drives the Angel of Death away. The resurrection is also seen as a victory over death because through it God leads His people out of bondage to Egypt and crosses them over to the Promised Land. […] In the stomping narrative the cross is seen as a temporary victory for Satan, but resurrection reverses this victory, crushing the serpent’s head. This narrative works well for dealing with the experience of defeat in the Christian life.[11]

By approaching these three narratives and showing how some Church Fathers and Luther worked with them Maxwell addresses the “zero-sum mentality that says if the cross saves us, then nothing else can.”[12] Maxwell’s study comes to meet our reflection because of what he calls the “stomping narrative”, which, in his own words, “works well for dealing with the experience of defeat in the Christian life” (as quoted above).

Maxwell identifies this narrative in Luther’s sermon on Mark 16 in which the reformer says that the resurrection saves (and not only the cross). In order to come to such a conclusion Luther refers to Genesis 3:15, where God affirms that “he [the offspring of the woman] will crush your head and you [the serpent] will strike his heel.” On the basis of this text, and viewing sin as an “enemy power,” the cross is described as a defeat and the resurrection as the victory; Satan and sin seem to win but, at the end, they are defeated by Jesus’ resurrection.

This salvation narrative allows us to see Jesus experiencing defeat before the final victory, the resurrection, and thus, leads us to expect the complete victory only in our resurrection. While we are in this world, however, we will experience both victories and defeats in our daily lives. Independently of whether a Christian has more defeats than victories in life, the final and complete victory has been guaranteed to us by Jesus’ resurrection.

In this sense, Paul says that God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15: 57). This text is within a resurrection setting in which it is made clear by Paul that such a victory will come to a completion only at the end, in Jesus’ second coming, “at the last trumpet” (15:52) on the day of the resurrection.

Therefore, in expecting only victories in their lives, Neo-Pentecostals are mistakenly locating the complete victory achieved by Jesus’ resurrection here and now, while Paul locates this victory at the last day – at the resurrection. At the same time, both Paul’s understanding of the Christian life as well as the Brazilian culture drive us to reaffirm that the Christian life can be helpfully seen as a battle, in which there are daily victories and defeats and also the eager expectation for the final and complete victory, just as a soldier expects for the day when the war comes to an end.

Testing the Limits of the Metaphor

            “Metaphors both reveal and conceal important aspects of any Target Domain,”[13] says Rossow, as he suggests that, in working with metaphors, pastors might find necessary to test the limits of a given metaphor so that misinterpretations may be avoided and important things may be added to what is being taught and proclaimed – this is one of the four metaphor moves for preaching.

THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE metaphor might be useful for both the catechetical and homiletic tasks and also for pastoral counseling in Brazil. And, in any of these three pastoral tasks the given metaphor move may help the pastor use the metaphor more effectively. This is due to the fact that the culture the parishioners/ hearers are in might drive them to draw wrong inferences from the metaphor. These are some possible misunderstandings which Brazilian pastors should be aware of:

  • Since we are living in a very individualistic culture, parishioners/ hearers might think that they have to fight for themselves and not for others. This idea is opposed by what the Actantial Model (See Figure 2) shows – that a soldier fights for the best of the citizens, and so the Christian fights for the best of his neighbors, and not for himself only.
  • Since the Bible talks about demons possessing people and Jesus casting the demons out as well as about the devil as an enemy, some people might think that the world is a battle field in which there is a fight between good and evil, and that we have to help God (the good one) fight against the devil (the evil one).
  • Since the world is portrayed also as an enemy in the Bible and, therefore, occupies the position of opponent in the narrative relationships, the parishioner might forget that the world is, at the same time, the focus of the mission of the Church, “For God so loved the World […]”, and Jesus told the disciples “to make disciples of all nations”. Therefore, in using the suggested metaphor in a sermon or in catechesis it would be very important to explain these aspects of the term world.

In sum, in order to avoid these wrong inferences, Testing the Limits of the Metaphor provides a way for pastors to talk about those kinds of things concealed by the present metaphor. Such things might be other important aspects of the Christian life, or even some aspects of Jesus’ work on the cross for our salvation (the objective fight), referring then to a salvation narrative without confusing them.

This way, pastors can, in testing the limits, remind their parishioners/ hearers that, although the war is not over yet, our enemies have already been defeated and that when Jesus comes again the war will come to an end; then, the Christian’s enemies will be finally destroyed. Also, pastors can emphasize that our struggle continues not because God needs our help, but because our selfish nature needs to be fought so that our neighbors may be protected and helped in their needs. 

Conclusion

the_boxer_4LIFE IS A BATTLE is a conceptual metaphor in the Brazilian culture. By such a metaphorical concept, and taking into consideration Saint Paul’s way of speaking of the Christian life, we have seen that THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE is a metaphor which might render the biblical teaching of the Christian life and foster the Christian proclamation to Brazilians.

Also, it was seen that the use of actantial models for both the source domain and the target domain placed next to each other allows us to see the correspondences of the two domains; we can see how they are related. Along with this, the narrative relationships of the metaphor at stake, clearly visualized by the actantial models, might help Brazilian pastors/preachers work with the present metaphor, making the proper distinction between the Christian life narrative and salvation narratives.  If in salvation narratives God is always the active Subject, in the (implied) narrative of THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE metaphor, the Christian will be the active Subject.

At the same time, as seen above, this metaphor provides a way to talk about the Christian’s fight against sin and about the good works performed by them as being made towards their neighbor, not towards God. This reinforces the distinction between narratives or, to put it in systematic terms, between justification and sanctification.

Finally, THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE metaphor, along with the “stomping narrative” of Luther, can help us address the problem of an over-realized eschatology in which Brazilian Neo-Pentecostal Christians understand the Christian life as a life of victory only. Seeing the cross as a defeat and the resurrection as Jesus’ victory against Satan, as Luther did, along with Paul’s understanding of our resurrection, leads us to locate the Christian’s final and complete victory at our resurrection, on the last day.

To speak, therefore, of a complete victory is something that belongs to a salvation narrative in which Christ has already fought, alone. In the Christian life narrative approached in this paper, however, the Christian is seen as soldier who will continue fighting until the war is over. But the Christian is not alone, for just as a good commander never abandons his soldiers, the Holy Spirit will never abandon the Christian.



Notes

[1] David J. Williams, Paul’s Metaphors, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers (1999), 213.

[2] Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, (1998), 211-213 – Divine Warrior.

[3] The idea of working with the given metaphor in this paper is not to use a specific Bible passage but the general biblical understanding of the Christian life in terms of warfare. When using one specific passage in which the warfare metaphor is played, then the pastor could work with the expressions and development of the given text. In Romans 7, for instance, “waging war” and “making me captive” would play a very important role in the development of the sermon.

[4] Rossow, Preaching the Story Behind the Image: A Narrative Approach to Metaphor for Preaching, 54. Rossow suggests this way of placing the two actantial models next to each other so that it may be more clearly seen “how the two domains relate to each other.”

[5] Rossow, Preaching the Story Behind the Image, 55. In presenting the actantial models this way, Rossow provides a clear visualization of how “relationships and outcomes assumed by the source are intended to correspond to relationships and outcomes in the target: Helpers align with Helpers, Opponents with Opponents, and so on.”

[6] This explanation of the narrative relationships is not, of course, what pastors/ preachers will explain in a sermon, if they use the present metaphor. In preaching, the source domain, for instance, should be evoked in such a way that the preacher not only tell things but show those kinds of things in the source which will help the hearers make the proper inferences in the target. Since in the present metaphor the Helper has a fundamental role, in evoking the source the preacher could, for example, emphasize the soldiers’ exhaustion and lack of hope in a battle along with the importance of having a good commander, who never abandons his soldiers. This will lead to the inference that the Holy Spirit will never abandon the Christian in his daily struggles.

Since the goal of the present paper is not primarily to work with the suggested metaphor in a sermon, but to show how the conceptual metaphor LIFE IS A BATTLE might be helpful for speaking of the Christian life to the Brazilian culture, we are not going to provide examples of how this metaphor should be played in a sermon.

Still, we consider Rossow’s suggestion as fundamental for the homiletic task, as one works with metaphors in preaching. The four metaphor moves suggested by Rossow may serve for structuring the progression of a sermon and for its development, as rhetorical units. https://justinrossow.com/the-basics/preaching-metaphors-we-live-by/ (accessed February 10, 2013).

[7] Gustaf Wingren, A Vocação Segundo Lutero, Canoas: Ulbra, Porto Alegre: Concórdia, (2006), 21.

[8] Rossow, Preaching the Story Behind the Image, 210, 211.

[9] Williams, Paul’s Metaphors, 214.

[10] Ricardo, Mariano. “Neopentecostalismo: O Novo Modo de ser Pentecostal,” in: Márcio Fabri dos Anjos, Sob o Fogo do Espírito. São Paulo: Ed. Paulinas, 1998, 19-37.

[11] Maxwell, David. “The Resurrection of Christ: Its Importance in the History of the Church.” Concordia Journal 34 (January–April 2008), 35.

[12] Ibid., 31.

[13] Justin Rossow, “Preaching Metaphor.”   (accessed on February 09, 2013).

About fuhrmanns2013

Samuel Fuhrmann is a Brazilian Pastor who is currently going to school at Concordia Seminary - St. Louis, pursuing a PhD degree. He has served as a Pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil (IELB) since 2010. He received his bachelor's degree in Theology (2007) from the Lutheran University of Brazil - ULBRA, and his MDiv (2010) from Seminário Concórdia - São Leopoldo/ Brazil. Samuel and his wife Vivian thank God for all the blessings he has given to them.

2 comments on “THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A BATTLE

  1. It is good hear from you, pastor Samuel! Thanks for your research. Thanks for this paper. We need this kind of reflection. Hope to see you soon.

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