Boys today are no longer expected to become warriors as a rite of passage to manhood. And that’s a good thing; I’m grateful that my sons did not have to physically kill an enemy to be considered men.
Yet there was something very healthy and wholesome about boys needing to lay their lives on the line for the protection of another. Fighting to defend the weak has a way of developing a lad’s sense of worth. And the Bible certainly encourages lads to become fighters.
Christians are warriors
God, in the beginning, told Adam to “work [the Garden] and keep it” (Gen 2:15). The verb “keep” used here appears again in Gen 3:24 to describe what the angel at the entrance to the Garden was to do after Adam’s expulsion: with his flaming sword that turned every way he was to “guard” the way to the tree of life. We might think that the Garden was a place of peace void of danger, but omniscient God knew Satan had rebelled (or perhaps would yet rebel) and would attack his world. The man Adam was mandated to guard his territory and his home – and that involves fighting. The fact that he failed dismally in defending his home and family from outside attack does not free his offspring from the same responsibility.
In line with that mandate from the beginning, Paul reminds the saints of Ephesus that Christians continue to “wrestle” (6:12) – a term that catches the concept of hand-to-hand combat. He adds that the battle is “not against flesh and blood” so that it needs to be fought with fists or guns, but is rather against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” – all terms that describe the very same devil and his demons that attacked mankind in Paradise. That’s why Paul instructs every Christian to “put on the whole armor of God” (6:11) and why Timothy was told to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim 6:12). It’s fact: Scripture mandates men to fight.
I see two implications:
- Men need to see themselves as fighters and so actually get out there and fight. Those for whom they go to battle are first of all those entrusted to their care – and that’s primarily the family. There’s our role as Dads!
- The boys in the family need to be trained to become tomorrow’s fighters.
That’s the question we will explore: how do we train our sons to fight?
Those who join the military must undergo rigorous training. The training invariably involves two aspects: classroom theory and physical practice. The same is true of Christian trainees preparing to fight the fight of faith. We commonly call the classroom theory “doctrine” and the physical practice “lifestyle.”
These two elements to good training are obviously inseparable. Getting the classroom theory right is the first step in getting the fight right – and the second step is lots of practice. It’s striking that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians contains 3 chapters of doctrine and then 3 chapters of Christian lifestyle – with the two sections connected by the hinge-word “therefore” in 4:1. The word “wrestle” (mentioned above) appears in the second section on lifestyle. If we are to master the field instruction of the “wrestling” of Eph 6:12, we need first to get the classroom theory of the first 3 chapters straight in our minds. That is true for mature fighters (in this article we’re applying that to the fathers) as well as for future fighters (that’s the sons).
Paul ends chapter 1 with the glorious proclamation of Christ’s ascension into heaven and his enthronement as King of kings and Lord of lords. Then he moves to chapter 2 to describe what enemies Christian fighters will encounter out in the field. What he says is highly instructive for Dads (and Moms) training their sons to be fighters.
Says Paul: that future fighter yet in the cradle is (contrary to appearances) not angelic and innocent but is instead “dead in sin” (Eph. 2:1,5). From infancy, our dear little Johnny lives in step with the passions of his flesh, and from birth he carries out the desires of his body and mind (Eph. 2:3). We hate to admit it, but all of us who have ever lived for any length of time with a toddler in the house knows from experience that that little child is inherently selfish and wants to press on those around him that he’s the king of the castle – and you better listen to me now. That’s the passions of his flesh….
Adding to the challenges of that depravity, Paul continues, is the impulse of “the world” (2:2). That’s the fallen creation in which that child lives with its anti-God patterns of thought and behavior. From birth little Johnny is inhaling that hostility so that he’s as perfectly comfortable in this anti-God system as a fish is in water. More, because of his own deadness in sin, Johnny hungers for that anti-God system; it’s his food and drink.
Furthermore, “the prince of the power of the air” – that’s the devil – is “at work in the sons of disobedience” (2:2) – and that definitely includes our dear little Johnny! And Johnny is absolutely wired to follow the devil’s work in his surroundings and in his heart.
My point: we fathers (and mothers) need to train our boys from infancy to fight the sin within and battle the influences of the world attacking them. Those little children are not angelic but are in fact – as I heard someone put it – vipers in diapers. The fact that God claims Johnny for himself in his covenant of grace does not change this tragic bent in little Johnny’s heart nor does it change the fact that he’s daily inhaling the toxic anti-God pollution of the world in which he lives and it does not diminish either the hellishly subtle schemes of the devil and his demons against him. My conviction: in the classrooms of life we need to teach our children from infancy to think in terms of those three sworn enemies, the devil, the world and the infants’ own flesh. And as our children grow from infancy into toddlers and from there into childhood, we need to keep training them in the fields of life how to fight these three mortal enemies. There’s a reason why the PLO let children play with guns; their fathers wanted their sons to become fighters – and excel in the battle.
In the field
God’s instruction manual would have Dads train their children to “put on the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11). Dads do that by systematically reading the Bible with the children and speaking about God’s promises and obligations as caught in that passage (see 6:14-17). More, Dads pray with their children and for them (6:18).
And they train the children – yes, children! – to turn off the TV when the program has foul language or nudity or selfishness (see 5:3-14). They train the children to cease the video game when the game turns to violence or murder or assault. Dads stop the program to make the children take the advertisement apart in order to weigh what was actually communicated. Dads do it because they know some foul language and a bit of nudity and the odd murder and some playful violence are devilish ploys to make our children think that evil is normal and a bit of evil is harmless. That’s the reason why Paul writes that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (5:3) and adds the instruction to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (5:11). These are instructions fathers need to train sons to follow. As the boys are attacked by the devil in the stuff of daily life, they learn to fight temptation and evil.
Is there a problem?
Of course, young soldiers will not follow where the general fears to go. In the family, Dad is the general. That becomes the question: when the children sneak out of bed to peak into the den, what do they see Dad watching on TV? Brothers, our children simply won’t buy into our training if they don’t see us fighting in step with the training we give them. Anybody who has parented for any length of time knows that our children figure out what actually happens in the secret corners of our lives. And they figure out too where we fail to engage the battle whole-heartedly. My point is this: it is we Dads first of all who need to put on, and keep on, that full armor of God – and that’s a reference to Bible study, committed prayer life, serious about living the faith. The children need to see that we are seriously wrestling with the enemy in our own decision-making, our own choices, our own tastes.
More, the children need to see that we Dads are actively defending the domain God entrusted to us – and that’s first of all our own homes. We cannot close the windows of our homes so securely as to keep out the toxic air of the world outside and we cannot lock the doors either so tightly as to keep the demonic spirits of the air away from our children. In other words, we cannot prevent that the enemy lobs his bombs our way.
But we can alert the children to Satan’s attacks and dress them in a way that ensures minimum damage. More, we can teach our children – through instruction and example – how to fight back and, in God’s strength, to say No to the enemy. That involves more than putting internet filters in your home; it involves also discussing issues with the children, answering their questions, analyzing a movie together, showing the children the two sides of a political or social issue and how to come to a God-pleasing solution, etc. It involves showing the children how you wrestle yourself with the issues of life, and how you respond when the enemy gets an arrow under your armor. It involves fighting beside your son, debating with your son, praying with him. Where we aren’t fighters ourselves, we can’t expect our children to become fighters!
A version of this article first appeared on the Smithville Canadian Reformed Church blog where Rev. Bouwman is a pastor of the Word.