Surrounded, but Not Cut Off

  • Nathan Schneider
Snowy trees

In December of 1944, Nazi Germany launched their last major offensive against the Allied forces, who had been slowly be steadily gaining ground and advancing their lines through northern France and into Belgium. Germany had been strengthening their lines with reserve troops and amassing a sizable force in the cover of the Ardennes forest. This area was heavily wooded and mountainous, which made it an unlikely spot to launch a large-scale attack. Thus, the unsuspecting Allied forces were taken by complete surprise when the German lines thrust forward on the morning of December 16. As the Allies were pushed back, Germany ended up forcing a massive protrusion into the Allied line in what has become known as the “Battle of the Bulge.”

For some time, a portion of Allied forces, comprised mostly of the 101st Airborne, became completely cut off. They held a position surrounding the important crossroads city of Bastogne. The fighting for these men of the 101st was dire. Rations and ammo were in short supply, as was critical medical supplies. The line was extraordinarily thin. The frigid cold of the Belgian winter caused numerous cases of frostbite and hypothermia. Up until General Patton’s Third Army broke through the German line on January 3, 1945 there was no clear direction as to the fate of those men who had been cut off from the rest of the army. Numerous attempts to airdrop supplies, including much-needed ammunition, had to be called off because of fog, which obscured the drop zones and put the supplies at risk of falling into enemy hands. It was a desperate situation that still haunted survivors of the battle some six decades later.

This scene—one of desperation, limited resources, and dwindling strength in the face of an overwhelming enemy—isn’t limited to war. In fact, when we read the words of the apostle Paul, we get a similar sense of hardship, desperation, limited resources, and dwindling strength: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9). These are the words of someone going through the crucible. Life’s not “fun” for Paul. He’s dealing with extraordinary hardships, which he alludes to later when he talks about his “qualifications” for apostleship (11:23–27). And to top everything off, the church he’s poured so much time and energy into has turned on him. They’ve embraced false apostles who are accusing Paul of being in ministry for money, for doing what he does for sexual favors, etc. These false apostles are, as Paul identifies them, a “thorn in the flesh” and a “messenger of Satan” (12:7).

So how does Paul do it? How can he go through these things and yet still say, as he does at the beginning of chapter 4, “Having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart”? (4:1). How can he experience everything he’s going through and yet write, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed“? Paul seems to be seeing a different angle to all this. He sees something going on here that’s outside of his own specific circumstances. He has access to power that is beyond his own inherent strength to withstand what he’s going through.

When we compare that to Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 6:10–20, it makes sense then how Paul can encourage believers to be strong and stand firm against Satan and his schemes. It’s because Paul’s been in the middle of it! His hardships and afflictions and betrayals by a church that he loves is all part of the various “schemes of the devil” that are launched against God’s people. Let’s face it, the enemy—not the people of this world, but the spiritual forces of evil—is real, is powerful, and is highly organized. Paul calls them “the rulers…the authorities…the cosmic powers of this present darkness…the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12). They are a hierarchy of demons who are loyal the Satan and who plot and scheme and strategize at how to assault believers in order to neutralize them and get them out of the fight. Their desire is to discourage, to cause doubts, to sidetrack, to derail, to morally compromise, etc., all to get you off the battlefield. And like those boys from the 101st who were surrounded outside Bastogne, cut off from the line and under assault by the enemy, we too find ourselves in hostile country, far from home, surrounded by the enemy who presses in at every angle, taking advantage of every possible opportunity, and exploiting every weakness.

But there’s one key different between us and those men who fought in the bitter cold of the Ardennes: the Christian is never…I repeat never cut off from his supply line. There’s never a time when the believer has nothing to draw on, no strength to go on, no ammunition to expend, and no armor to protect him.  Every divine resource is always at the immediate disposal of the believer, so that even when our human strength has ended, we draw upon a strength that’s not our own. Thus, Paul can say from his own personal experience, “Be strengthened in the Lord, and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:10–13).

Do you hear the sovereignty in all that? The Lord Jesus Christ, the general of the army, the King of kings who will return victoriously and smite every enemy with the breath of his mouth (cf. Rev. 19:11–16)—he has provided for every believer the spiritual resources necessary to stand firm, to resist the devil, to hold position and not give up. Because the armor we have is not made of metal and kevlar—those things can never stop a flaming arrow from the evil one. But the shield of faith can. Being strengthened in the Lord is putting on the armor God has provided, and taking up the weaponry that is not “of the flesh” but instead has “divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). It’s not waging war according to the flesh (10:3), but instead “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18). It’s not relying on own our abilities to push through hardship on our own, but instead recognizing our weakness, depending on the Lord, and realizing that God’s “grace is sufficient for you” and that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). No wonder Paul could come to the place where he could say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).

See, as a believer, there’s no separating you from Christ. You’ve been made alive in him, raised with him, and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:5–6). In him, we are blessed with every spiritual blessings in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3). And likewise, in him we are sourced with unlimited spiritual strength to endure to the end every spiritual assault that comes our way…if only we use the resources he’s supplied. They’re sitting right there. There’s no need to wait for a supply drop. Take the ammo from the can and load up. Take the armor from the box and suit up. It’s there; it’s yours; and it’s far more powerful than anything else out there. Without it you don’t stand a chance, as our ancient forefather Adam discovered when he tried to go head-to-head with Satan in the garden and fell hard. If he—yet uncorrupted by sin—wasn’t a match for the cunning of the enemy, what makes us think we have what it takes on our own to take on the god of this world and the prince of darkness? But through truth and integrity and faithfulness, through the peace that comes from the gospel and the surety it brings, through the protection that comes from living in righteousness, through our faith in Christ and the shield it gives for us, by our salvation, and by the sharp, two-edged dagger of the Spirit’s sword, that shatters the thickest of armor, and by constant and vigilant and dependent prayer on the God of all power and strength, we can and will stand firm. We can resist the devil so that he flees from us (Jas 4:7; cf. 1 Pet. 5:9). We can say with Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8–9).

Or to bring it full circle: “Surrounded, but not cut off.”