Handle Hard Times
Dr. Jim Denison
In a recent interview, General Norman Schwartzkopf was asked if he thought we should forgive those who helped perpetrate the atrocities of September 11. His answer: “I believe that forgiving them is God’s function. Our job is simply to arrange the meeting.”
Many Americans resonate with his sentiments. Terrorism has come home to our country. New York City is planning now its memorial to those who were murdered nearly a year ago. The most recent defense budget request includes a $48 billion increase with an additional $14 billion supplement to the 2002 budget, both to fight terrorism. Americans know how persecution feels.
Christians always have. Our Lord assumes that his followers will take risks for their faith. This morning he will teach us what to do when Christianity costs us, and when it does not.
Jesus’ words are literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and now are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his followers would suffer for their commitment to him. And they did.
They were “insulted” (v. 11), the objects of gossip, slander, and ridicule. Enemies of Christ said “all kinds of evil” against them.
Because they shared a meal which symbolized the body and blood of Christ, they were accused of cannibalism.
Because they called this meal the “love feast” and welcomed prostitutes into their churches, they were accused of sexual perversion.
Because they would not bow before a bust of the emperor and say “Caesar is Lord,” they were accused of atheism and sedition.
Persecution was a daily fact of life for them.
Before he was crucified upside down, the apostle Peter wrote: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).
Jesus warned his disciples, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).
William Barclay: “All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the most tender parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to lengthen the agony. These things are not pleasant to think about, but these are the things a man had to be prepared for, if he took his stand with Christ” (Matthew 1.112).
Persecution has remained a fact accompanying the Christian faith across all the centuries from their day to ours.
70 million believers have been murdered across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Jesus. More believers were martyred in the 20th century than the previous 19 combined.
Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate our commitment to Christ as Lord. Secular culture does not understand our convictions.
And Satan hates us. Jesus called him “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Peter warned us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
600 years ago Thomas a Kempis observed, “The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead, therefore cease not to prepare thyself for the battle, for on thy right hand and on thy left are enemies who never rest.” He is still right.
Evaluate your courage
If you’re like most of us, you may be a bit uncomfortable right now. It is a biblical fact that Christians should experience persecution for their faith, but many of us in this room do not.
We read about Heather Mercer and Dana Curry and rejoice in their safe return from Afghanistan imprisonment.
We mourn the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall at Columbine, the believers who died at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Martin Burnham’s death this summer while serving as a missionary in the Philippines.
But few of us have ever faced such suffering for our commitment to Jesus. People at school may make fun of us if they learn that we are believers. Co-workers or clients may shun us if we won’t join ungodly activities. We may lose money or status when we refuse dishonesty or immorality. But by and large, we live in a community which expects us to be nominally Christian. Nothing extreme or intolerant, of course. But religion in moderation is accepted and even welcomed.
So I’ve asked myself a hard question this week: why don’t I face more suffering for my faith? If indeed my fallen world is opposed to my commitment to Christ, and if Satan is my mortal enemy, why doesn’t my faith cost me more? In the spiritual battle being waged for the souls of humanity, why don’t we suffer more? Here are the reasons which seem clear to me.
Some of us have withdrawn from the battle. We don’t know many non-Christians. We spend so much of our time in the huddle that we have little contact with the other team. At a previous pastorate, our church was preparing “Friend Day,” each member bringing a guest. But the chairman of our deacons objected: “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go to church.” And the other deacons nodded. We’re no threat to Satan unless we get on his turf.
Some of us look like the enemy. Jesus called us the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). But if we lose our “saltiness” or hide our candle, the world doesn’t feel our salt sting or see our light. We can be one person at church but another at school, at work, at home, with friends. A foot in both worlds. Church language and world language. Church ethics and world ethics. Church masks and world masks. When we look like the enemy we cost Satan nothing. He’d rather leave us where we are.