There are three things I’m teaching about at church this morning: the Great Litany, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and Ephesians 6:14-18. The topic is spiritual warfare (which has generally been the theme I’m working with throughout Lent), and the specific question today is how we defend ourselves and how we fight.
The famous “armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6 lists a few tools we’ve got for our spiritual warfare:
The belt of truth – belts hold everything together: your trousers, armor, scabbard. Thus, the truth of God is what keeps us from falling apart. This is where good doctrine and right belief play their role: it’s not a front-line sort of tool for combating evil, but if we have confused beliefs, everything else will be messy and loose and less effective.
The breastplate of righteousness – breastplates protect your front, but not necessarily your back. The metaphor here is excellent: when we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, we can face the devil head-on without fear. But when we sin (thus turning away from God somewhat) the devil can attack our unprotected back and injure us. So we must constantly repent of sin and turn back to God.
The boots of the gospel of peace – boots are our grounding; they allow us to stand firm without having to look down at our feet all the time. The Gospel is a message of peace; God is seeking to redeem and restore, not punish and destroy. If we stand on a different gospel then our feet are unshod and we’ll get hurt.
The shield of faith – shields have to be used to be useful. This reminds us that faith is not a passive trait; it’s an active thing we exercise and exert. One way to put it is, “faith without works is dead.” Another angle on this is that we have to meet the enemy’s attacks with faith, and not be surprised at the fiery trials we’re experiencing.
The helmet of salvation – helmets protect you from certain mortal wounds. Where the shield has to be used to be useful, the helmet just has to be worn to be useful; this is a passive defense. That’s because salvation is entirely from God. Because of God’s work of salvation in our lives, the devil cannot simply cut off our heads and snatch us from God’s hands.
The sword of the spirit – this is our only offensive weapon. Interesting that our only weapon is God himself, isn’t it? That should remind us of our place in the course of things. Also, we find in Ephesians 6 that we wield this sword through prayer and through action. It seems that there’s a dual relationship focus here: prayer points to our relationship with God, and action points to our relationship with others.
Just like the Two Greatest Commandments, love for God & neighbor comprises our spiritual weaponry! As in most things biblical, spiritual warfare can be boiled down to love: if we love God and neighbor rightly, we will be better in touch with God’s power and authority over demons and sin and such.
But how about some practical tangible examples of what this “prayer in the Spirit” is all about? So let’s compare a brief outline of the Litany and St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
The Great Litany
1 Trinitarian Introduction
2 Pray against our & others’ sins
3 Invoke Christ’s deliverance
4 Intercede for the Church, the World, the Needy, and for Sinners
5 Christ-centered prayers
6 Supplication: relationship with God
St. Patrick’s Breastplate
1 Invoke the Trinity
2 Invoke Christ’s deliverance
3 Invoke Angels & Saints
4 Invoke Creation
5 Invoke relationship with God
6 Christ-centered prayers
7 Invoke the Trinity
There are some striking similarities here. They both begin by calling upon God explicitly as Trinity, they both call upon the deliverance Christ brought about through his entire life (incarnation, birth, fasting, temptation, suffering, death, resurrection, etc.), they both bring the rest of the Creation Order into the picture (angels, saints, the world, etc.), and then wrap up with some meditative prayers on Christ and on our relationship with God.
The similarities go even deeper if you look at the more direct translation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, cos then you’ll also find a section of prayers against the evil works of the devil and his followers, very much matching section 2 of the Litany.
What we learn from these two prayers, then, is that there are some common ingredients to a powerful prayer life.
- As they both start off with invoking the Trinity (as does the Eucharist service, by no coincidence), we learn that our whole lives, not just our prayer lives, are rooted in the divine life of the Trinity.
- As Christ’s deliverance features prominently in both prayers (and again in all Christian worship), we learn that the incarnation & ministry & sacrificial work of Christ is what bridges the gap between the divine life of the Trinity and ourselves. We are saved – brought into the life of God – through Christ alone.
- But then, it isn’t just you who’s saved, but you along with everyone and everything else that is in Christ. Angels, saints, the world, and everything in it are not what saves you, but insofar as they’re in Christ, they’re part of God’s plan of redemption and potential (when not explicit) tools in God’s hands for bringing about that redemption. The worship & service of angels and the prayers of other Christians are both part of the Christian life of war against sin, death, and the devil. Powerful prayer not only the individual’s place and role among this full creation order (as in the Breastplate), but also lifts them up in prayer (as in the Litany).
- Recognizing, also, the devil’s forces of sin & evil at work in the world, we also pray against them. Just as we “bind to ourselves” all that is good, we also “bind away from ourselves” all that is evil.
- And then, in varying orders, the two prayers close with Christ-centered meditations and prayers that express our relationship with God in its various facets. I think it’s important to learn from this that powerful prayer is not all flashy, wordy, and cool. Powerful prayer is also very simple: “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” Not much to it on the surface, but its depth is enormous. Sometimes known as centering prayer, this sort of thing is a lost prayer form among Protestants and often misunderstood even by those who practice them. Perhaps in the context of the Litany or the Breastplate, we can start to re-learn their value and strength.
Satan is only standing between us & God. If we turn away from God, Satan won’t be in our way much. But if we do turn away from God (by sinning), our back is exposed to Satan’s attack, and we’ll get hurt.
Therefore, press on down the straight path.
Obedience learned through spiritual disciplines helps us stay on the right path. This is why things like the Daily Office, fasting & abstinence, tithing & alms-giving, study, etc. are so valuable.