Looking about the tattered landscape of our modern world, we find ourselves at a loss to explain the unexplainable horrors about us. Terrorism, hunger, violence, gangs, drugs all threaten to bleed into our living rooms. It feels like we live in a war zone.
And that’s how we like to speak about it—as a war. We figure that if we call it a war, that means that we’re serious about it. Whatever problems we face, we imagine the most committed response we can make is to declare war. So back in the 60s the country declared a war on poverty. Then in the 80s the country turned its martial attentions to the drug problem, and it was no time before the U.S. had a war on drugs. After 9/11, we’ve waged a war on another abstraction—terrorism.
As consumers we are constantly being asked to wage war on those unwanted pounds and on those unsightly gray hairs. There used to be a commercial that showed an adolescent's face, called it a war zone, and sought to persuade pubescents horrified by acne that if they were serious about getting rid of pimples, they needed to “oxycute ‘em.”
We like the imagery, don’t we? If we declare war on something, we feel committed to the prospect of defeating whatever nefarious element it is we’ve declared war on. It occurs to me that the reason we declare war on everything from zits to fleas and ticks to other human beings is because we feel out of control and war is a way of feeling like we’re taking back the reins of power, restoring an order we’re comfortable with. We get scared, we feel like we’re losing control, so we declare war.
In the garden God says, “Do what you want, but stay away from that tree over there.” The serpent whispers in our ear, “Who’s God to tell you what to do? Who’s God to control your lives? This is a free country, and God’s trying to take away your freedom. You better take back control of your life.”
So we wage a covert war against the God who would dare ask for control of our lives. And we feel justified, because we've convinced ourselves that we have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of whatever we think will bring us gratification. And if God doesn’t like it, so much the worse for God. We have put ourselves at odds with the God who created us. The way Paul puts it is that we were enemies with God.
The amazing thing, though, is that, according to Paul, God was not satisfied with our little war. We were anxious to seize control of our lives, but God wasn’t content to let it go at that. God wasn’t pleased to be our enemy in this unilateral skirmish we declared. In fact, in a unilateral move of his own, God declared war on the sin and death that separated us from him. Without ever asking our opinion, without considering what we wanted, without regard to our claims of self-government, God sent his son to meet us in our rebellion, and God surrendered. Into the thick of our obsession with ourselves, God surrendered his son into our hands. And having declared war on anything or anyone that would presume to limit our control of our lives, we executed him.
Therein lies the great irony of course: In delivering Jesus into our hands, God committed the ultimate act of surrender. And it was in that surrender that God won the war.
We were determined to own ourselves, determined to be enemies with God, determined to wage war on God, and in sending his son to die at our hands, we lost the war. We wanted so badly to have life on our own terms, loving only ourselves, “But God proves his love for us,” Paul says, “in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us . . . For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:8, 10).
The goal of war is to win. We declared war on God, but by the grace of God, that was the war we lost. And in winning the war God set the terms of peace. The terms of peace dictated to us . . . total and unconditional surrender to the one who first surrendered to us.
The goal of war may be to win, but in the economy of the reign of God, the war we lost might save our lives.