Last week I continued my exploration of the themes of Identity & Activism. I ventured off into a discussion on the imagery used by the Apostle Paul of the “Armor of God,” and acknowledged that I have in the past mistakenly dismissed the power of this imagery.
That’s one of the things that’s really cool to me about the truth that lives inside of the pages of Scripture. It’s always there, waiting to be discovered in new, fresh, and timely ways. What seems insignificant in one era of life can take on deep meaning in another. That has happened for me with this particular passage, and I am going to continue exploring some of the nuanced meanings that have been jumping out to me.
When Paul introduces the imagery of the Armor of God, he starts here: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist…” (Ephesians 6.14)
This is one of the places where the flannel graph version of the imagery failed to capture the full meaning for me. When I pictured the belt of truth, it looked something like this graphic. It wasn’t much different than a waist belt I’d wear to work… just with a fancy Cross buckle to make it more Christian-ey.
But if that is the only imagery we can summon for this verse, then we will miss the whole point of this metaphor. A modern day picture that would get a lot closer to the original meaning is that of a giant construction belt. For a carpenter, this is the most indispensable piece of the uniform. Every core tool that he/she needs hangs from this belt.
Paul is referencing the uniform of a Roman soldier in Ephesians 6. When he talks about a belt, he is describing something that looks more like a giant leather slip than the narrow waist belt we might wear today. It was what allowed the rest of the military equipment to remain attached and at close range.
So what is the significance of the “belt of truth” in relation to the rest of the Armor of God?
It’s helpful for me to remember that just a couple of verses earlier Paul puts this in context by saying, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (v11). The term “devil” literally means liar/deceiver, which draws a sharp contrast with the armor of God and the “belt of truth” that we are supposed to buckle on.
Said another way, everything in the spiritual life comes down to a battle between Truth and Lies. The devil is a schemer, deceiver, and liar. He creates confusion, chaos, and distortion. Jesus said that the native language of the devil is lies, and that is his one and only trick (see this post for more on that).
In contrast to the lying nature of the devil, Jesus consistently described himself as Truth incarnate. He called the devil the “father of lies” (John 8.44), and in the most starkly opposite way possible, then referred to himself as the “way, the Truth, and the life” (John 14.6). It’s no exaggeration to see the battle for life coming down to whether we believe in the Lies of the evil one or the Truth of Jesus.
That’s why the imagery of the belt of truth is so significant. Without seeing the embodiment of Truth in the wisdom and person of Jesus, we are not able to experience personal or social breakthroughs. At the root of almost every problem we face is a series of lies.
For instance, I’ve counseled a lot of people over the years that struggle with low self-esteem, and I’ve watched the myriad of ways in which that lie plays havoc in their lives. Sometimes it comes out in seemingly benign ways, like working too hard or putting all of their value in some form of artistic triumph. Often times it comes out in more obviously destructive ways like extended depression, body image problems, eating disorders, cutting, and even suicidal tendencies.
Every one of these examples ultimately trace back to lies. Part of the human condition is a struggle to internalize the Truth that we are wonderfully and divinely made, and that we therefore carry tremendous value and meaning. The lies of the evil one put even greater distance between us and the Truth, and when that gap remains for too long hope begins to disappear. We need the belt of truth.
It doesn’t stop there. One of the endeavors that I’ve given my life to is the identification of and (hopefully) dismantling of racial injustice. You don’t have to go far down this road to realize that many of the oppressive structures that are in place have decades and centuries of history behind them, and that there are few simple answers. Yet even as I acknowledge that, it’s easy to see that it still comes down to a bunch of lies.
There are all kinds of systems and structures in our society that exist that oppress some people while lifting up others. When you start to whittle away at them you discover that they didn’t begin as systems and structures – they began as individual human beings. Systems and structures reflect lies that begin at an individual level, and then become institutionalized over time.
What kind of lies? The most basic lie is at the root of all racism. It’s a lie that some people carry greater worth than others. It’s a lie that some people have the right to feel superior to others, while others are destined to feel inferior to those in power.
Not everyone buys into this particular lie, but it’s also not the only one in the arsenal. Another set of lies come in the form of apathy and blindness. Many people of means get pulled into this sleepy haze where they turn a blind eye to the need of those in suffering, and find ways to justify their lack of concern. I could give lots of examples of people that I personally know who are otherwise very fine people, yet get sucked into a semi-conscious collaboration with systems and structures that violate their own core values. When enough people participate in a set of lies like this over time, it no longer just an individual problem. It morphs into structures and systems, and becomes increasingly difficult to overcome.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Apostle Paul reminds us that what we fight against is far more than a human set of lies. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6.12)
That is precisely why I have come to such a strong personal conviction that we are all in such desperate need of Jesus. None of us is exempt from the power of lies. None of us has the strength on our own to consistently avoid the deceit and live squarely in the light. We need the One who is Truth himself to guide us, to train us, to equip us, to fill us with life.
I’m pretty certain that’s what Jesus was getting at when he rang out these famous and important words in John 8.31-32:
“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
May we be people who know the truth, and who are set free by the truth.