The Subtlety of the Battle

Why are we? Why do we exist? What are we for? These are the questions that are at the heart of every other question. I don’t often quote Nietzsche, but he once said “He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” There is a profound truth in this. As an educator, whether in a classroom, in a gym, on a field, or just in life and encounters, there are a lot of demands to be met. It can be an overwhelming thing, especially as I get ready for a new year. Many of us are looking at our classes, our lesson plans, the standards to be covered, the work to be done. It’s a lot, no doubt. That, however, is a distraction. What I can do, I will, what I can’t, I won’t. Where I really need to focus at this point, is on why I’m doing the work in the first place.

In the simplest terms from the Baltimore Catechism, we are for God. We are created to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. These two things are not separate statements, but they also aren’t cause and effect. They are both answers to the question of why we are made. They are our two purposes. Every other purpose, every other thing we accomplish, are steps towards the ultimate end of true relationship with God. Yes, even the mundane tasks of daily life serve that purpose. 

The Church is made up of three parts: The Church Triumphant, The Church In Waiting, and The Church Militant. The Church Triumphant is the faithful in Heaven, the Church in waiting is the faithful in Purgatory waiting for Heaven, the Church Militant is us, the Church on Earth. Why are we called the Church Militant? Why use that term? Quite simply, because we are still in the midst of the battle. The Church Triumphant and in Waiting both have their fate decided. They have, as St. Paul called us to, “run so as to win the race.” We, on the other hand, are in the midst of the race. Where we will spend eternity is still a question for us, and there are no uninterested observers. God, in His loving mercy, desires above all else that we should be with Him for eternity in Heaven. This isn’t wishful thinking on God’s part, or an empty, idle hope. God is working to help us to that end. For crying out loud, He literally died to make it possible.

Now then, like a conversation with a curious two year old, I’m bringing back the why question. Not the more obvious why, though, which is why would God go so far? I’ll address that one quickly. He does it out of love for us. At the core of who God is, is love. His love for us motivates Him to do things that seem absurd to us. The why that I want to ask, though, is why is so much effort necessary? Would you give your life for another person? I think I would, sure. For my family, the people I love, I think I would be willing to die to save them. It wouldn’t be my first choice, though. If I could save them without dying, then yeah, let’s do that. The fact that Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, gave up, even temporarily, heaven, came to earth to live as a creature, died a torturous death, and continues to offer Himself to us in the even humbler form of bread and wine seems like pretty strong evidence that God isn’t the only one interested in the ultimate fate of our souls.

There is an enemy, and he is real, and he is a threat. Not to God, no, but to us. God allows us to choose Him, and to choose freely. Evil desires us to misuse that freedom and reject Him. Misery loves company, and those existences which have rejected God and so lost heaven desire our suffering to join theirs. One of my favorite movies is the Usual Suspects, and there is a great line delivered by Verbal Kint, the lone survivor from a scheme orchestrated by the mysterious criminal kingpin, Keyser Soze, a figure viewed by many in law enforcement as a myth. “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” When thinking about the devil and demons, it isn’t uncommon to adopt one of two extreme positions. Some people think them inconsequential, or perhaps even doubt their existence, treating them as a rationalization or excuse for the evil tendencies present in human beings. Others see every sinful act and choice as a direct result of demonic activity, removing the reality and impact of human will and choice in the things we do.

As is often the case, the reality is to be found between these two extremes. In CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, a book written to simulate one half of the correspondence between a senior demon advising his junior in the field, there is a part where the junior demon is apparently considering revealing himself to the person he is tempting, and there is a valuable insight in the advice the senior demon gives him. He says, essentially, that while there have been successes in the past through open revelation, in the modern day, the greater success has been found in subtlety. Let the “patient,” as they refer to him, believe that all his ideas are his own, and he is less likely to question their wisdom.

In our spiritual battle, we have one great disadvantage over evil. We are way less skilled at playing the long game. We have a much harder time recognizing the impact and importance of our small, daily decisions. The enemies of God know that they are more likely to keep us from God by small steps. If we were face to face with God and Satan, surely most of us would choose God as the obvious right choice. Instead, though, our ultimate choice becomes a result of billions of small decisions, choosing to serve God or not. Like Brandon has said more than a few times, Satan seeks to turn us, not 180 degrees from God, but 1. Again, he plays the long game. Knowing that, if he can get us to turn that 1 degree over and over again, he can steer us away from our heavenly home.

That is our disadvantage, but we also have one great advantage. It can’t be overstated. It is THE advantage. God desires our good. I said earlier that evil is a threat to us, but no threat to God. That is the truth. All the work of Satan, all of his petty, small victories in beginning to turn us away from God, can be undone in a single instant. The impact of those single degrees is an even greater source of hope than Satan is able to make them a threat. At any point in the journey, no matter how many degrees we have turned from God, if we turn a single degree back towards Him, we will find God ready and waiting to restore us to our proper place. But that awareness requires something from us. It requires a thoughtful, reflective, and honest assessment of the choices we’ve made, the choices we are making, and the choices we will have to make. Satan is counting on our laziness, our inattentiveness, our carelessness. We have to wake up, recognize that we need a savior, and then turn back and let Him save us.

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