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Veterans of Inner Wars

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 7, 1999


Readings

Psalm 144 The Lord trains my hands for war

Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me.

O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.

Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke. Make the lightning flash and scatter them; send out your arrows and rout them. Stretch out your hand from on high; set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters, from the hand of foreigners, whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.

I will sing a new song to you, O God; upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you, the one who gives victory to kings, who rescues his servant David. Rescue me from the cruel sword, and deliver me from the hand of foreigners, whose mouths speak lies, and whose right hands are false.

May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars, cut for the building of a palace. May our barns be filled, with produce of every kind; may our sheep increase by thousands, by tens of thousands in our fields. and may our cattle be heavy with young. May there be no breach in the walls, no exile, and no cry of distress in our streets.

Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall; happy are the people whose God is the Lord.


Matthew 10:34-39 Not peace, but a sword

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.


Arcana Coelestia #3696.2 The inner war of temptation

When we are being spiritually reborn, at first we experience a state of serenity. But as we move into our new life, we move into a state that is not serene. This is because the evil and false things that we had previously made a part of ourselves then come and show themselves. They trouble us so much that we go through temptations and trials brought about by the devil's crew, who constantly try to destroy the new life we are beginning.

Despite this, we are at peace deep within ourselves. Without this inmost peace, we would not put up any fight at all, since in all the conflicts we experience, we see that peaceful state as our goal. If we did not have that goal in mind, we would never have the power and strength to fight. This is also what enables us to overcome. And since this is the goal that we have in mind, we also enter a state of peacefulness when our conflicts or temptations are over. It is like the spring, which comes after autumn and winter, or like the dawn, which comes after evening and night.


Sermon

Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle (Psalm 144:1)

What a warlike verse! What a warlike God it describes! This past Thursday, I read this Psalm for an opening meditation that I gave to begin that day's Field Education Supervision class, which I am taking at Andover Newton Theological School. Afterwards, another minister in the class thanked me for the meditation, saying, "That was always the kind of Old Testament passage that I would just pass right over when I came to it."

It is hard on our modern sensibilities to read Bible passages describing the Lord as a God of battle, who trains people for war and commands them to conquer their enemies. Although war is certainly not a thing of the past, we would prefer to leave the God that commands and blesses war firmly in the Old Testament. Yet even in the New Testament, Jesus--whose birth was heralded with a chorus of angels singing, "Peace on earth to people of good will" (Luke 2:14)--said, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

What is all this war talk? And why is it in the Bible? With Veterans' Day approaching, this is as good a time as any to address these questions. And the 144th Psalm gives us a perfect way to do it. I would like to take a journey through this Psalm with you this morning, from its warlike beginning to its beautiful and peaceful conclusion. The Psalm begins:

Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle;
My rock and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
My shield, in whom I take refuge,
who subdues the peoples under me.

Swedenborg tells us that in the Bible's spiritual meaning, wars represent "the temptations of religious people, which are nothing but battles and wars with the evil things within ourselves, and therefore with the devil's crew, which stirs up these evil things, and tries to destroy both religion and religious people" (Arcana Coelestia #1659.3).

We have all experienced these inner wars. Perhaps some of us are experiencing right now the battles that rage in our hearts and minds when what we want to do and what we know we ought to do are struggling to control what our hands will do; when our commitment to love and care for one another struggles with the bitter foes of jealousy, apathy, and despair; when the voices of our friends, our family, and our God are telling us that they love us and care for us, but hellish voices from within are telling us that we are no good, destroyed beyond repair, that we might as well give up and give in. And we have experienced the even more bitter struggle when we believe that all who have ever loved us--even God--have turned their backs on us.

Psalm 144 begins by reminding us that it is God who trains and teaches us to face such battles, and it is God who gives us the strength, support, protection, and power to win them. God also gives us spiritual weapons to use in these battles. Paul describes these weapons beautifully in his letter to the Ephesians:

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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.
Therefore 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. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)

Yes, it is with the weapons of truth, righteousness, and faith that we can do battle against all of the enemies within us and around us, which seek to destroy us from within outward. These spiritual weapons are gifts from the Lord. We may think we are not worthy of them--and the Psalmist seemed to feel the same way when he wrote:

O Lord, what are human beings
that you regard them,
or mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a passing shadow.

The feeling of our personal insignificance in the face of mighty material and spiritual forces is not new. When we contemplate the vastness of the physical universe in which we live, or when, with the scientists, psychologists, and mystics, we peer beyond the surface of the human mind and gain merely a glimpse of the unfathomable depths within, how can we help feeling small and insignificant in the face of such vastness?

Yet, God cares for us so much that it is not too much to ask for God to exercise the tremendous power of the Divine against our spiritual enemies. The Psalm continues:

Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down;
touch the mountains so that they smoke.
Make the lightning flash and scatter them;
send out your arrows and rout them.
Stretch out your hand from on high;
set me free and rescue me from the mighty waters,
From the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hands are false.

God makes that tremendous power available to us, not in some xenophobic way to rescue us from literal foreigners, but to rescue us from everything that is foreign to our true, spiritual nature. God can rescue us from lying words which tell us that money and possessions are the most important thing in this life; that we can find rest for our souls in some bottle or box; that feeling pleasure this moment is so important that we should ignore the "idealistic" and "unrealistic" dictates of religion and ethics. God can rescue us from every lie that we tell ourselves when we are trying to justify attitudes, words, and actions that we know in our heart of hearts will lead only to pain and suffering.

As we equip ourselves with the spiritual armor and weapons that the Lord offers us to struggle against these lies, and as we use them to overcome all that is false within us, we begin to feel the joy of victory. We begin to overcome those parts of ourselves that had always held us back. As a veteran, not of foreign wars, but of inner wars, we feel the joy of spiritual victory. The Psalmist celebrates that victory with us:

I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
The one who gives victory to kings,
who rescues his servant David.
Rescue me from the cruel sword,
and deliver me from the hand of foreigners,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hands are false.

When we have been rescued from the hand of evil influences that are foreign to our true, spiritual nature, we begin to feel the fruitfulness of spiritual life. Previously, our days had been a battle zone in which we were never satisfied with our lot in life, never happy with the blessings all around us, never joyful simply to be alive. Now, as God's love and truth begin to take hold within us, we find ourselves blossoming in ways we had never thought possible. In place of our former conviction that life on earth is a struggle that ends in death, we find new life and new joy in ordinary, everyday things. We find deeper satisfactions with our family and friends. There is a new fullness to life, expressed beautifully by the Psalmist:

May our sons in their youth
be like plants full grown,
Our daughters like corner pillars,
cut for the building of a palace.
May our barns be filled,
with produce of every kind;
May our sheep increase by thousands,
by tens of thousands in our fields,
and may our cattle be heavy with young.
May there be no breach in the walls,
no exile, and no cry of distress in our streets.

We find that our love and affection for the people around us grows stronger and stronger, until it is like a pillar that sustains a spiritual palace of mutual understanding and support, where before there was a slum of mutual distrust and discord. Our mental and emotional crops of insight and inspiration come in so thick and fast that we can hardly store it all; we simply must share it with those around us, so that everyone may be full and satisfied.

This is the beauty of spiritual warfare. In literal warfare, what is left when the battle is over is a field strewn with bodies and soaked in blood. But when we engage in the inner, spiritual battles to which the Lord calls us, there is no such bloody end. Instead, as we conquer our inner enemies, we find that the demons within us that continually try to drag us down will gradually melt away under the greater power of God's love and wisdom. We will find that the longer we resist them through the power of faith and prayer, the weaker will be their hold over us, until the clash of inner battle eventually becomes a faint echo.

In the place of a spiritual battlefield, we will find vast pastures dotted with the sheep and cattle of love and kindness. Our mental storehouses will be full to overflowing with rich crops of faith and understanding that can sustain us through our inner winters, when our love and enthusiasm cools off and we need to draw on the spiritual gifts we have stored up within us. We will find that the Lord has blessed us with more than enough for a full and happy life, whatever our outward circumstances may be.

We may want to shrink from the battles that life puts in our way. We may want to leave them for another day--to simply coast along on our past accomplishments. But it is only when we face those battles, and gain victory through the Lord's power, that we can know the joy of true spiritual life. It is only when we have become veterans of our inner wars that we can know the deep peace and satisfaction of living in single-minded love and kindness toward everyone around us. It is only when we have conquered our inner demons that we can know the serenity and the joy of living up to our true, spiritual, God-given nature.

These are joys and satisfactions that we can know only when we turn fully to our lives over to the Lord, and struggle against everything that blocks the Lord from coming fully into our lives with all the blessings that infinite Love can bring. And as the Psalmist concludes:

Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall;
happy are the people whose God is the Lord.

Amen.

 



 

 

Music: Conversations With My Soul
1999 Bruce DeBoer