Metaphors can make you or break you, friends. A good metaphor can take the superstructure of a complex theology and fold it up into something portable, something you can stow in your pack as you journey in and out of those shadowed valleys, then erect with a whip and a snap to climb and escape the teeth of wolves. But it works both ways. On the one hand, you can take the spirit of the Law, the workings of Grace, and our relationship with the Father and make them soluble enough for the mouths of children via the parable of the Prodigal Son. On the other hand, you can take a metaphor that’s been folded up on your back for years and expand it into something systematic, something with servo armatures and telescoping limbs with steel pincers, something that delicately prunes trees and weeds gardens while smashing up houses.
Take military metaphors, for example. The Apostle Paul uses several in his epistles, referring to fellow missionaries as “fellow soldiers” (Philippians 2:25, Philemon 1:2), describing the equipment of the Christian walk as the Armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18), and most notably describing the hardness of a life spent following Jesus as the life of a soldier:
Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. — 2 Timothy 2:3-4
It’s a perfect metaphor for the perseverance and singleness of mind required of the follower of Jesus. It’s a two-dimensional construct you can fold up into your back pocket. You can whip it out, snap on the Armor of God, and face whatever terrors creep at you from the shadows. But here, friends, is where the danger lies, where that metal monster can come to life, all limb and pincer, gently weeding as it scorches the earth.
Google “armor of God” and you’ll find many, many images of soldiers in armor, some medieval knights, some Roman legionnaires, many some fantastical cross between the two. The majority have one thing in common: aggression. The soldier in his armor is in an offensive pose, dashing toward some unseen enemy, shining sword lifted high or pointed toward the viewer (sometimes on fire), armor polished, helmet usually plumed, the light of God breaking through the clouds over his head (it’s usually a he), winged angels sometimes watching, the background clouded in the dust-fog of war. Oh, and he fights alone. Always alone.
Here’s the problem, friends. I don’t believe this is the image Paul has in mind. Remember his most concrete metaphor in 2 Timothy, the one that goes beyond mere imagery and actually draws a parallel in lifestyle between a follower of Christ and a legionnaire on the front lines. He doesn’t use the metaphor to encapsulate righteous aggression. He uses it to describe…
I believe Paul’s image of the soldier is not of one charging the enemy in gleaming armor with an over-sized sword swung with over-sized biceps. I believe it’s an image of a soldier blooded and soiled, bone weary yet standing his ground, taking blow after blow alongside his brothers-in-arms for no other reason than his commander told him to do so. In other words, I think Paul imagines a foot-soldier, not a centurion. This may seem like nit-picking, but I believe the distinction is an important one because one image remains a metaphor while the other matriculates into idolatry.
Both images depict not just moments in time or reactions to particular events, but lifestyles. While Paul’s soldier metaphor in 2 Timothy emphasizes a life of perseverance and focus, the image of the unstoppable pseudo-Roman gladiator-for-Christ emphasizes a life spent honing combat acumen. While Paul’s soldier emphasizes obedience, steadfastness, solidarity, and suffering, the soldiers we paint emphasize offensive prowess. Please don’t mistake me, friends. We are certainly engaged in spiritual warfare, and it’s a war our Father intends us to win. The problem here is not that one metaphor emphasizes defense or pacifism while the other emphasizes offense or conquest. The problem, I believe, is that each metaphor suggests victory by different means, and only one of those means leads to the Cross. And as it is with all things, friends, the watershed between truth and idolatry is at the Cross. Jesus’ entire life on earth is indeed an offensive against the dominion of the devil, against the Fall, against everything that separates us from the Father — the greatest offensive in the greatest war ever fought — but his death on the cross is a victory via patience, via faith, via endurance. Via suffering. So, friends, if we base our lives upon the sufferings of Christ Jesus, the soldier metaphor remains just that: a metaphor for suffering. Because the metaphor of “soldiering on” through suffering can only lead to Jesus.
The problem with the metaphor of the charging gladiator, however, is that it does not always lead to Jesus. I believe the gladiator image becomes a lens through which we read scripture, instead of the other way around. We take the charging, well-muscled warrior as our foundation and build an assumed lifestyle of Jesus upon it, rather than taking the lifestyle of Jesus and condensing it into the metaphor of the suffering but steadfast soldier. I believe the distinction becomes more clear when we read the rules of engagement from our commanding officer:
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. — Luke 6:27-31
Which brings us, friends, to the toughest thing you’ll ever do.
It’s notable that Jesus addresses the Golden Rule at the level of a slap, rather than at the level of a sword thrust or a castle siege or the conquest of an empire. Perhaps it’s a matter of scale: if we shouldn’t return an insult to an enemy, it may follow that we shouldn’t return anything greater either, whether eye for eye or life for life. But perhaps, like all the best theology, the opposite is also true. Perhaps the slap, the insult, the personal affront, is the starting point of the Golden Rule not because everything else is worse, but because nothing else is worse. I don’t mean to say a slap is worse than taking an eye because it’s more grievous (although Jesus does say that calling someone a “fool” is worthy of hell-fire), but because it’s so much easier. Because it’s so natural.
For most of us, taking life requires not just training, but conditioning. Not only do you have to learn how to do it well, you have to learn how to get over it. But a slap on the cheek, the biting comeback, the Facebook post of justice, the “standing up for yourself” in the face of social or familial tyranny, is a skill every man and woman is born with. It has to be actively restrained. It has to be unlearned. This, friends, is why I believe Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek — his rule of engagement with the enemy, his standing order for every one of his soldiers — is so upside-down difficult. This, friends, is why keeping our mouths shut can be harder than pulling a trigger. In fact, I think it’s why triggers are so often pulled.
And this, friends, is where the gladiator version of the military metaphor fails us. Every one of those bright plumed helmets says, “Strike.” Every beam of sunlight gleaming on a bronze breastplate says, “Strike.” Every glint on a sword point, every red cross on a shield, every wind-rippled cloak, every mouth open in war-cry says, “Strike.” But Jesus says, “Die.” Paul says, “Die.” Every military metaphor in the New Testament says, “Die.” Like a good soldier.
And friends, that kind of victory — with its weary marches in battered armor, its long waits with short rations, its dust-cloud and mud-caked anonymity — is so much more complete, so much more certain, and yet so much harder to wait for.
It’s the hardest.