On recent Sunday mornings we’ve been singing “Never Once” by Matt Redman. Take a minute to review the lyrics…
Standing on this mountaintop
Looking just how far we’ve come
Knowing that for every step You were with us
Kneeling on this battleground
Seeing just how much You’ve done
Knowing every victory
Was Your power in us
Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say
Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful
Now pause and look back at the two lines that are bold. How many of you could easily make two columns and file your life experiences under either the header “Mountaintop” or “Battleground?” Both are common metaphors we use to speak about our spiritual journey.
The mountaintop is a prevalent faith metaphor for those sublime times in which we acknowledge that life with God is good. A mountaintop vista means we can clearly see what we have climbed over. Here we can fill our lungs to tingling, release clenched fists and to stand tall. The end of an uphill trudge is certainly to be celebrated!
The slowly-fading pain of the battleground is perhaps less euphoric than a mountaintop, but no less significant to our faith. Whether or not they are outwardly visible, many of us bear scars which remind us of earthly wars we wish we could have avoided — abuse, betrayal, deceit, broken relationships, [fill in the blank]. It’s fitting that Redman used the word kneeling with the battleground image. Truly victorious people are often weak-kneed with the knowledge that they were a hairs-breadth from death. Gratitude makes us kneel as we acknowledge that something (or someone) beyond our individual (or our battalion’s) capabilities stood in the infinitesimal gap between our necks and the edge of the sword.
Why do I bring this up? What does this have to do with Holy Week? This week is an opportune time to reflect on these metaphors, perhaps in a new way.
The longer I sit at the feet of Jesus, the more uncomfortable I grow with the dichotomy we draw between the mountaintop and battleground. Too often I’ve heard fellow believers judge the faith of another who is in the midst of a battle.
She’s always saying how hard her life is. Why has it been so long since she’s been happy like me? What is wrong with her? Where is her faith?
It’s as though the mountaintop is the only trustworthy thermometer of a vital spiritual life. But what if we learned to see the mountaintop and the battleground not as contrasting but interchangeable spiritual planes?
What would happen in our spirits if we understood the battleground as the mountaintop?
Jesus has a lot to say about spiritual warfare. As a Holy Week spiritual discipline, I encourage you to read John 15:18-16:33 each day. Listen deeply to Jesus teaching in the days and hours before his arrest. Notice how frankly he speaks to his disciples about the battles ahead. Grief, suffering, shunning, ridicule, hatred, persecution, death – these are the coming realities for his followers. (Just as they were for Jesus himself.) Jesus is not harsh or indelicate; he pulls away the film of naïveté from his disciples’ vision so they could understand that a God-honoring life is lived on the treacherous planes of a spiritual battlefield.
Despite these chilling facts, Jesus is still the good news bearer we met in earlier chapters. He didn’t leave his followers low in depression or despair. Hear both his motivation and encouragement in John 16:33, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world!”
This is not a trite response given to trembling followers. “Have overcome” is literally “conquered” or “carried off the victory”. Jesus is using battle imagery! He’s foreshadowing events that will come soon, events that will culminate in the ultimate spiritual battle – the fight for the redemption of humanity and all creation. Where was this battle fought? On a cross – a place of humiliation and torture.
A torture device as a battlefield? Yes.
Suffering and death as a battle strategy? Yes.
And this leads to a victory? Yes!
Through his sacrificial death and his miraculous resurrection, Jesus defeated the power of sin and death. His actions may not have been logical, but they were victorious. This is why we should see our battles as mountaintop experiences – because God can accomplish the greatest victories even when we are at our weakest. Tribulations can be times of praise because victory is owned by the power of God.
Jesus told his followers to rejoice and be glad when they are persecuted (Matthew 5:11-12). It’s a crazy request…unless you understand that the battleground is the mountaintop. We can rejoice despite the battle because Jesus did not leave his disciples defenseless. He armed us with supernatural weaponry –
· Jesus’ continual presence through the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15)
· Protection by the power of God’s name (17:11)
· Jesus’ joy (17:13)
· God’s word (17:14)
· God’s glory which enables unity (17:22-23)
The first point is the battle cry of the Christian life. God sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Advocate” on the battlefields of life (16:7). The title Advocate is a legal term. It describes one who pleads a case before a judge, acting as an intercessor for the accused. (Forgive the shift in metaphor, but the battlefield and the courtroom do complement each other.)
Our lives will have tribulation.We will often feel like defendants being falsely accused by people we once thought friends. Rather than feel defeated, fearful or inadequate by a spiritual battle, we can see our trouble as a sign of spiritual vitality. Our confidence is in the Holy Spirit, in whom we have the best legal counsel possible. The Spirit defends the truth of our testimony and, like the savviest lawyer, turns the tables on our accusers. Our Advocate has the power to get our charges thrown out, saving us from both sure conviction and the death penalty!
Think about the many spiritual metaphors we use to describe the spiritual life – the battlefield, the storm, desert wanderings, and famine. Each of these experiences is also a mountaintop because we are infused with the presence and almighty power of Holy Spirit. This is the hope we cling to in shadow of the cross.