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Do you ever feel like the Christian life is a struggle? Do you feel that it’s hard, day after day, to keep going? Do you find it hard to trust God, to live for Jesus, and to speak about Jesus with other people? Maybe you look at other Christians—at church, or online, or in sermon illustrations or books—who seem to have it all together and who seem to be able to live victorious Christian lives, happy and largely free from struggles. And then you look at yourself and ask: “What’s wrong with me? Why is it all such a struggle for me?”
Whether or not any of that is part of your experience, this part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has something very important to say to you. Struggling is normal for Christians. In fact, it’s not just normal. Christians should be struggling, and if we’re not, there’s something wrong! The Christian life is a struggle. Struggling is vital for Christian life and ministry and mission. We need more struggling Christians. We need more people who are committed to the tough, hard slog of trusting God, living for him, being transformed and changed, and sharing Jesus and our lives with others.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the normal Christian life as a spiritual “struggle” (Ephesians 6:12). The word translated “struggle” was originally used to describe close combat. It’s about standing our ground against an opponent who wants to throw us down, and grappling with everything we’ve got to keep our place. It’s a spiritual struggle against spiritual powers, but this struggle is not primarily about uncanny supernatural events. This spiritual struggle takes place in the daily struggles of the ordinary Christian life. It involves living, speaking and trusting the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it’s a struggle that all of us need to take part in:
Stand, therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the armoured vest of righteousness, and having wrapped your feet with the preparedness of the gospel of peace—in all things having taken up the shield of faith, by which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.Ephesians 6:14–16
Here, Paul is expanding on “the full armour of God” he mentioned back in verses 10–13. He’s taking things that he has talked about previously in his letter, and describing these things as military equipment for a spiritual struggle. As we look more closely at these items of armour, we can be encouraged and emboldened to keep going in that struggle.
The struggle to live for the gospel
Firstly, Paul says to “stand” in the struggle, “having girded your waist with truth” and “having put on the armoured vest of righteousness”. Those words “truth” and “righteousness” are a summary of many of the things Paul has already said in his letter. As we learn Christ, we learn to be like him and so “to be renewed by the Spirit of your minds and put on the new humanity, which has been created according to God in the righteousness and devotion that come from the truth” (Ephesians 4:23–24). Which truth? The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as Paul has said near the start of his letter: “In Christ, you too—having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and also having believed in him—were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). So, Paul is saying, we need to keep reminding each other of this gospel truth, and we need to keep seeking to live it out and growing day by day in it. Living for the gospel will be a lifelong struggle. And yet, we can be confident in that struggle, because it’s a struggle Christ has already won for us.
In fact, “righteousness” and “truth” are things that belong to Jesus Christ first and foremost. The words Paul uses come from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Isaiah describes God’s King, the Messiah, being equipped by the Spirit of the Lord to bring justice and salvation and judgment to the world (Isaiah 11:1–5). The Messiah has “righteousness” girded around his waist and “truth” around his ribs (Isaiah 11:5; see also Isaiah 59:17 where God himself wears this armour). So, Paul is saying, we are to “stand” in the things that belong to Christ already, and which he shares with us. The struggle of the Christian life is not a hopeless struggle, or a struggle where we don’t know the outcome. Nor is it a struggle where we have to use our own resources to capture new territory from the enemy. Rather, it’s a struggle to stand our ground in the territory Christ has already won for us, using the resources Christ has already provided for us in the gospel. This should give us great confidence and hope, even as we struggle, day by day, to keep putting on what Christ has already given us.
The struggle to speak the gospel
The struggle of the Christian life also involves struggling to speak the gospel to others. Paul describes Christians as those “having wrapped your feet with the preparedness of the gospel of peace”. Once again, these words remind us about Christ and what he has done. Paul has already described Christ as a missionary: “Christ came and preached the gospel: peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were close” (Ephesians 2:17). And yet, since Christ is now in heaven (see Ephesians 1:20), he does his missionary work through others. Christ preached the gospel through the apostle Paul (Ephesians 3:8). Christ preached the gospel through God’s holy people equipped by apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11–12). And here, we see that Christ preaches the gospel through all of us: believers prepared to run with the gospel of peace. Yet again, these words come from the prophet Isaiah, who says:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”Isaiah 52:7 ESV
Just as the Christian life is a lifelong struggle, so evangelism is a lifelong struggle. Of course, it helps when we have encouragement and training and strategies and support for evangelism. But even if we have all of these things, we shouldn’t expect that evangelism will suddenly become easy. We shouldn’t stop sharing the gospel with our friends or family members or colleagues just because it’s hard. Evangelism will be hard; that’s just what we should expect. Yet we should keep struggling to do it. Why? Because ultimately the proclamation of the gospel is not something that is up to us and our own strength. Evangelism is something that Christ does through us. He has prepared us to do it, by giving us the gospel and his Holy Spirit. The struggle is to know that gospel more and more, to live it more and more, and to share it. It’s a real struggle, but as we struggle, we can be confident that Christ will achieve his purposes to bring people to know and trust him through the message that we proclaim.
The struggle to trust the gospel
The core struggle of the Christian life is a struggle of “faith”. We are to stand “in all things having taken up the shield of faith”. The word “faith” means believing in Jesus who is revealed to us in the gospel: relying and depending on him. It’s about trusting in the many things Paul has said in his letter about who Christ is and what he has done for us. It’s by faith that God brings us to salvation (Ephesians 1:13; Ephesians 2:8–9), and it’s by faith that we stand firm in that salvation, because through faith Christ is with us (Ephesians 3:12; Ephesians 3:17).
By this faith, says Paul, “you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”. These “flaming arrows” are the lies that work against the truth of the gospel, the temptations to do wrong instead of living rightly in line with the gospel, and the temptations to give up and feel that knowing and following Jesus isn’t worth it. Sometimes we want to give up, don’t we? It’s not easy to keep going, and it’s a struggle. But it’s worth it. Paul wants us to see that. This is, in fact, a large part of what Paul has been doing in his letter to the Ephesians. He’s been seeking to encourage the faith of his readers, to help them to lift their eyes and give them resources to fight that battle and help them to stand.
So in these verses, Paul is reminding us that our struggles as Christians aren’t something strange or unexpected. We will struggle. That’s what happens when we take part in God’s great plans for the universe in Christ. God’s plans are cosmic plans, and they involve cosmic powers, powers that are themselves caught up that great plan of God “to sum up all things in Christ: things in heaven and things on earth, in him” (Ephesians 1:10). And we’re caught up in that struggle.
Sometimes we can forget that living the Christian life is fundamentally a struggle. We can think it’s about flourishing or advancing or comfort or career. When that happens, there are two possible results. Either we can despair, because our lives aren’t comfortable, and we think they should be. Or we can become complacent, because our lives are comfortable, and we want them to stay that way. But when that happens, it means we’re in great danger. The danger is that we give up the struggle. Yet if we stop struggling, we are no longer living for Christ and his purposes. The Christian life is a struggle. It’s a struggle to live for the gospel. It’s a struggle to grow in the gospel. It’s a struggle to share the gospel with others. Yet it’s a struggle that we have confidence to engage in, because Christ himself has already won.
Where do you feel the struggle to live as a Christian most deeply at the moment? Is it a matter of knowing Christ, or living for Christ, or sharing Christ with others, or trusting Christ?
How does the gospel of Jesus Christ help you to keep going in that struggle?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.