Is life a battle to be won?

Dear friends,

Is life a battle to be won? On these days, it sure seems like an urgent and mighty battle for many to choose love, joy, nonviolence, and hope instead of fear, resentment, violence, and despair. Political chaos aside, during COVID—whether mail-carriers, nurses, administrators, or parents—everyone is, as the quote goes, fighting a great battle. So be kind. Or maybe the language of inner conflict needs to be retired altogether?

John of Patmos, the visionary-mystic behind the book of Revelation, certainly viewed his hearers as engaged in a conflict. John himself is an island-exile (with gorgeous ocean views, photo below from modern-day Patmos) writing in a post-war landscape. In 70 A.D., Roman soldiers—after four years spent suppressing a Jewish rebellion—marched on Jerusalem and burned the Jewish temple to the ground (see this book). It’s from within such oppressive contexts that Jesus, his followers, and even John of Patmos affirm and enact what may perhaps always be an alternative vision in a world of rage, scapegoating, and violence: the realm of love, compassion, and diversity-within-a-greater-unity. White supremacist rioters wage hatred, and Jesus followers wage peace. That’s nothing new; it’s what Jesus’ followers have always done.

John’s letters to the seven churches have an eightfold structure (Revelation 2–3), says scholar Eugene Boring: they begin with an address to an angel, name a particular city, reference an attribute of the Cosmic Christ from 1:12–16, offer specific insight to each congregation, and end with a promise to those “who conquer.”

To every everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” —Revelation 2:7

John often takes over Roman imperial language and twists it for a different purpose. Conquer, for John’s hearers, is not what Jesus-followers will accomplish through military force, but what they will do inwardly through the Spirit. Hang in there, John tells. Keep the faith. It’s hard right now, but it will not always be this way. Do not let your love for God and people grow cold. John pairs this with his frequent rejoinder to “patient endurance” (2:1), which is better translated as nonviolent resistance. John’s message is not a call to arms, as Caesar’s “conquer” was, but pastoral encouragement during crisis.

The spiritual life has often been described as a fight or battle. One church I attended for several years believed sincerely that the life of prayer involved combat against the demons they imagined were behind every lustful or angry thought. If we could just pray powerfully enough in the name of Jesus, these would-be demons would retreat. Rather than empowerment, the result in myself was simply a paranoid spirituality. It took a while to recover and rebuild.

The desert fathers and mothers, some of the most cherished mystics in the Christian tradition, were notorious for their showdowns with demons. One rather extreme desert monk named Antony (4th century) famously took his fasting and prayer to the tombs near a small village, where he faced down demons through the night. His experience became modeled as an ascetic “archetype” that the devoted desert-dwellers should seek to embody themselves. I can understand why many progressive Christians disavow such “combat” language. There’s plenty to disavow.

Unfortunately, framing the spiritual life as a great battle is typically interpreted as a way to war against the body or sexuality. The devil showed up quite often to those male desert monks in the form of a woman. Christianity has for far too long perpetuated belief systems of shame about embodiment, ironically and disastrously for the religion of the Word made flesh! Such dualistic rejection of the body results in a tragically disembodied spirituality, along with the trauma that comes from believing an essential part of our humanity is “fallen.”

Strangely enough, though, I find myself drawn to the interior battle once again. The most sensitive of such desert monastics matched their belief in “inner spiritual combat” with breathtakingly savvy psychology. If we can peer underneath and behind the drama of demons, we can learn from such hard-won inner wisdom.

Evagrius (4th century) is a sort of theologian-father of desert fathers. After falling in love with a woman in the imperial court, he fled a promising theological career and took up life in the desert. He wrote short, pithy wisdom sayings about anger, lust, vanity, depression, pride, and more, all to support the monks’ spiritual development. Here’s Evagrius on pride, from this book: “The demon of pride is the cause of the most damaging fall for the soul. For it induces the monk to deny that God is his helper and to consider that he himself is the cause of virtuous actions. Further, he gets a big head in regard to the brethren, considering them stupid because they do not all have this same opinion of him. Anger and sadness follow on the heels of this demon.”

Leaving the demon out, can you see the brilliance? We all do this. We try to take credit for the virtuous good that we do; it’s far easier for me to turn to God when things are not going well than when they seemingly are. Such pride then leads to judgmentalism, and when I set myself above or against another, then anger, sadness, and disconnection from the other than I have judged is a result.

The interior battle is to pay attention to the rhythms in which our hearts are turned in on themselves and to offer that very paradox to God. When we do, our hearts open to grace. As we saw this week in Washington, D.C., the world is desperate for such inner transformation.

Together through revelation,

Mark Longhurst

Apocalyptic culture moment:

Octavia Butler saw it coming.

Apocalyptic quote of the week:

The more one studies his [St. John’s] book, the more convinced one feels that it was deliberately composed as a coda or finale to the whole canon. —Northrop Frye

Image credit: Patmos, with thanks to @louverstudio

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