Know the Terrain

We may distinguish six kinds of terrain, to wit: (1) Accessible ground; (2) entangling ground; (3) temporizing ground; (4) narrow passes; (5) precipitous heights; (6) positions at a great distance from the enemy.
Sun Tzu

In April of 1242 the Northern Crusades were still in full swing and the Teutonic Livonian Order was making a push into neighboring Novgorod Russia in an attempt to expand Western Christendom into Eastern Orthodox realms. Novgorod was reeling from repeated incursions by Mongol forces and the Teutonic Knights intended to seize the opportunity for more land, power and control. The Teutons began their march eastward from a fresh victory at the fortress in Dorpat, Lithuania, intending to cross Lake Peipus at its narrowest point and press further into Russian lands. Because the lake was still frozen, crossing it was expected to be simple and so it proved as they neared the far shoreline. But as they set foot back on solid ground the Russians made a surprise appearance. Several thousand militiamen began pushing the Teutons back onto the slippery surface of the frozen lake. After hand to hand fighting long enough to wear out the Teutons, the Russian commander, Alexander Nevsky, ordered his archers to pour arrows into the fray as his militia pulled back. The Teutons began retreating in disarray and Nevsky then ordered his cavalry to give chase. It is likely that the Russian cavalry did not pursue the Teutons very far, because legend says that the ice began to give way on the western shore and several Teutonic knights drowned in the lake.

There are conflicting accounts of how important the Battle of the Ice was. The Russians, to this day, celebrate the battle and believe it to be the point at which the Northern Crusades by Western powers ended (though it certainly did not stop French, Swedish and German attacks over the next few hundred years). On the Teutonic side the loss was played down significantly though. Losses were reported as very low and stories were told about how lopsided the ratio of belligerents was in favor of the Russians. To be perfectly honest, regardless of how it was viewed and reported by the two different sides at the time, it established a very clear border between Russia and the West.

The lessons that can be learned from this battle are fairly impressive however. A military man can look at Nevsky’s use of the three major components (infantry, archers and cavalry) of a medieval army and learn the power of their proper use. A historian can analyze the effects of the decisions made on both sides and hypothesize how things could have been different. And the everyday man can use it as a powerful analogy for daily life.

My thought is that the most important thing that can be learned from this battle – nearly 800 years later – is the simple lesson of how important it is to know your terrain. After all, the Teutons should have realized several things about the terrain and made plans accordingly: 1) they were moving into Russian home turf (we all know how helpful home field advantage is), 2) they were unaware of where the Russian army was at the time, nor how quickly the Russians could arrive on the scene, 3) they were required to cross ice (for Pete’s sake!), and 4) a simple examination of the opposite shore when they arrived at the lake would have revealed a wooded hillside which could both obscure enemies and provide them with the high ground. So we could take these lessons physically and literally by saying, know well the place where you fight, hike or camp – for your own safety’s sake (rather a droll moral to the story). Or it can be used figuratively by stating that you should know your terrain when in a job interview, contract negotiation, traveling, hanging out in a sports bar, or when walking around an unfamiliar neighborhood (less droll). But I tend to view things from a big picture. This ultimately means that, with my worldview, I try to attach importance to lessons by how applicable they are to spiritual life.

I have mentioned before (here) how important I think it is to realize that we, as Christians, are behind enemy lines in a very real sense. We are partisans working to disrupt the work of the controlling power of this world. We do this by loving people who are unloved. We do this by alleviating the pain and loss of those affected by the inherent injustice of an evil regime. We do this by defending the defenseless from the wicked. We do this by lifting up and perpetuating the things that are good, beautiful and honorable. All of these actions stand in sharp contrast to the darkness and depravity of our surroundings.

Moreover that is where the analogy bears the most fruit: we have to realize and acknowledge how dark, depraved, evil and ugly our surroundings are in order to be fully effective in our mission. If the Teutonic Knights had taken a moment to recognize their surroundings they would almost certainly not have moved without knowing the position of their enemy … or walked so carelessly onto ice … wearing their heavy armor … to cross a lake in full view of a hillside which could obscure an enemy who would have the high ground and the drop on them. Similarly, if we do not want to be defeated in the mission which we carry forward behind enemy lines, we must see the moral terrain for what it is and we must be cognizant of the actions and movements of the enemy.

We were even warned of the situation quite clearly by Christ. In the space of only five chapters in the Gospel of John Jesus used the term “prince of this world” to identify Satan three times. Note the words:

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. 12:31,32

I will not say much more to you, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold over me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me. 14:30,31

When [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin because people do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and about judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. 16:8-11

The first statement was as Jesus predicted His death immediately after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus understood exactly what the spiritual terrain showed. He had just been proclaimed King and welcomed into the city with palm branches and hosannas, but His spiritual eyes discerned the true hearts of the people. He knew they would turn on Him less than a week later and demand His death. Jesus’ eyes were on the spiritual terrain, not the fickle words and actions of some vacillating hordes of Sanhedrin-puppets.

The second statement was part of an answer to a question from one of His disciples: “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world” (14:22)? His answer boiled down to a statement about the condition of this world and the hearts of those who did not believe in Him as God’s Son. Jesus started with, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them [reference to the Holy Spirit’s coming arrival]. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (14:23) and ended with the passage quoted above. Since the majority of the world does not love Jesus, the world falls under the rule of Satan. Jesus said this forthrightly. He was stating forthrightly that He was beginning a rebellion behind enemy lines.

The third statement comes at the end of a long passage of words by Jesus in which He points out that the world hates the disciples. In chapter 15 He says, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (15:18,19). It is interesting, but not surprising, that Jesus would finish up with His statement about the Holy Spirit showing the world to be wrong about sin and righteousness (16:8) because it is arguments about sin and righteousness which separate the two armies in this spiritual battle. We are daily waging war against the prince of this world on the battlefield of sin and righteousness and we must fully understand that the fight is on the home field of the enemy … and that the enemy hates us.

With this in mind, I say enough of the silly and pedantic tomes about “getting along” with the world. Enough with the philosophical sophistry that makes a case for a live and let live theology. After all, what relationship has good with evil? If something is evil, call it so. The hesitation of the righteous to point out the snares of the prince of this world is a contributing factor to the losses sustained in the battle for life. Isaiah said, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (5:20, NIV). Does it require a prophet of God to bring down a woe upon you to make you be unequivocal in your pronouncements of good and bad? It is the feckless warrior who is the most dangerous … not to his enemy but to his friend. The margins for error are razor thin behind enemy lines and the uncommitted first cause damage to their “friends” before succumbing to the will of the enemy who knows the terrain.

This is the reason that Jesus spoke His famous words to the Church in Laodicea, “So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16). The churches which claim to follow God but attempt to mingle His clearly written instructions with the erratic vacillation of societal norms, are walking into battle without either weapon or armor … and they do so while disregarding the intelligence on the whereabouts of the enemy and the tactics he employs.

My charge is therefore brutal but truly necessary: If you intend to follow Christ, then be willing to praise good and fight evil. Point out every move of the enemy that you see. Stay focused on the fight. Educate yourself in God’s goodness, so that you are able to juxtapose the darkness of the enemy against His marvelous light. Be certain in your convictions, but be graceful and merciful in your forgiveness. Speak powerfully for truth and call out lies for what they are. Continually seek out opportunities to refine your faith because it makes your armor and weapons more effective. And never, ever shrink from a fight.

Amongst it all – the fiery darts of temptation, the barbed words of the unrighteous, the painful experiences of life (sickness, loss, and death) – do not, under any circumstances forget that Jesus has begun an invasion to win back the world which He created and we betrayed away to Satan. Now that we have been forgiven and washed clean by the blood of the Son of God we are partisans for His sake behind enemy lines, hemmed in by the slippery ice of the lusts of life, weighed down by our own humanity and charging into formed ranks of the devil’s choice warriors. But we do not, under any circumstances, fight the battle alone or unarmed. We wield the sword of the Spirit, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the sandals of readiness and the shield of faith (Eph 6). We stand on the battlefield of an evil world, do not hesitate to fight it.

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