When God created Adam, He gave him a twofold task: to cultivate the Garden of Eden and to guard it (cf. Gn 2:15). Unfortunately for us, his failure to do the second crippled his ability to complete the first. But this twofold task has continued for man, and especially for those in the Lord’s service. The prophet Jeremiah’s vocation contained something of both battle — “to root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish” — and cultivation — “to build and to plant” (cf. Jer 1:10). When Nehemiah restored the walls of Jerusalem against her enemies, he trained the workers to build with one hand and hold a weapon with the other (cf. Neh 4:11).
It should not surprise us, then, that when Our Lord speaks about the cost of discipleship He does so in terms of building and battling (cf. Lk 14:25-33). To be a disciple of Christ means, first, to build something: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion?” (Lk 14:28) Scripture commentaries indicate that the tower in this case would have been for a vineyard, to help keep watch over the property. So there is a defensive purpose already for the tower. But the ultimate purpose is not defense. It is, rather, the cultivation and growth of something beautiful and pleasing.
Our attention should be first to the growth of Christ in our own souls. That life, first planted or established within us at baptism, requires our constant attention and care. We should be cultivating and building up that initial grace. We have a construction project also outside of us — to build up the Church and others. We should use our prayers, words and actions as construction materials and tools for this building project. Thus St. Paul exhorts us to edify our neighbor (cf. Rom 15:2), to speak only what builds up (cf. Eph 4:29), to “Let all things be done for edification” (1 Cor 14:26).
And yet … we must be willing to do battle as well. Our Lord also describes discipleship in terms of a “king marching into battle” (Lk 14:31). We have enemies who threaten our construction project. Some enemies come at us from the outside — that is, the threats and temptations of the world. The forces of the world do not take kindly to our construction. We should have a healthy awareness of the constant battle between what St. Augustine termed the City of God and the City of Man. But the more dangerous enemies come from the inside — namely, our own vices. If we do not do battle with them, they can bring down the whole house. Indeed, these enemies pose the greater danger because they are the most immediate threat and require more courage to oppose.
To build and to battle — that is the Christian life. Not two separate tasks as much as one task with two dimensions. We must unite both efforts. Those who try to build without battling will soon find their work undone. Those who battle without building leave no lasting legacy and indeed do the Faith a disservice with a belligerent attitude.
And there is a hierarchy to these efforts. Building, ultimately, is the greater thing. We battle only because we need to — because sin has entered the world, has disturbed God’s creation and threatens our work. We build because the Lord has created us for that purpose. And our ultimate hope is to have rest from the battle, to dwell in that temple not made with human hands, eternal in heaven.