“If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or we die, we belong to the Lord, for to this end Christ both died and lives again, that He might be the Lord both of the dead and of the living.”
“You will be betrayed even by friends and family, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all men because of Me, and not a hair of your heads will perish.”
I’m writing this right now because I read a line about how someone was an amazing hero of the faith one too many times. People talk so much about how amazing some martyr was; how heroic some missionary was. They talk about being inspired by the courage of the “heroes of the faith,” and other such things. They talk about how, unlike how the world thinks, meekness isn’t cowardice, but strength under control, a form of courage. I remember once, years ago, when I said that I enjoyed reading about the lives of other Christians and God’s work through them to a lady who had been telling me about someone who was preaching the Gospels to thousands at once in one of the many countries where this is often rewarded with persecution, torture, and death. She said to me, “Yes, it’s amazing what these people are willing to do.” I almost stepped backwards. “No, actually,” I said. “What’s amazing is what God can do.”
The conversation about meekness made me think that this deplorable situation is caused by a compromise with the world. Worldly values – worldly categories – worldly ways of thinking – these are all allowed in the church; is it because we use “church” for outreach and think “church” should be outreach friendly? At any rate, Christian meekness has to do with recognizing our place before God; it is about having the right relationship with God and therefore with our fellow men and the rest of creation. We live on His strength and do not pretend to have any of our own. In fact, in the Christian life there is no such thing as courage. Courage, as it is normally understood, is a thing of the world. (There are some contexts and some writings in which courage means seeing God’s love, provision, and will in everything, and not fearing earthly sufferings because one knows that they are insubstantial and have no power to do any harm; not only do they prepare an eternal weight of glory but in the present itself the Spirit of God and of glory rests upon us.) Courage is when men boldly face what they fear, when they face danger, risk, and harm for something they want or love. It depends upon the existence of a threat, on fear, on the danger of loss or harm. As Christians, there is no such thing as real danger or harm or loss. In everything, God is for us – not only in the future, not only in heaven, but right here, right now, God is for us and is working in everything for our good. It is wonderfully told in the passage from Matthew quoted above. “They will put some of you to death. Not a hair of your heads will perish.” In other words, no matter what happens to you, however horrendous, however despicable, however painful, however evil, you will not suffer even insignificant harm – you will not be harmed or damaged in something as minor and seemingly unimportant as a single hair of your head. This is staggering, and it rules out all possibility of what the world means by courage. The whole value system of the world is built on men trying to be gods unto themselves, to find strength, meaning, purpose, power in themselves; as Christians, all of this is done away with (and we must be willing to accept it; we must not fight it when the world scorns us, we must not try to convince the world that we are not really so weak and pitiful as all that, but we should accept its scorn and disregard with joy, rejoicing that we have been counted worthy to be counted among the scum of the world, the off-scouring of all things, with our Savior, going to Him outside the camp). We recognize how completely weak and helpless we are as creatures and we rely on God’s strength and God’s care. We are strong when we are weak not because there is some strength that works through the appearance of weakness, some strength found in weakness which is stronger than strength, some secret power in weakness, but because when we are weak then God’s strength can be displayed in us and all the glory will go to Him. When we are weak, God can show that He is mighty in us, for our weakness does not interfere with His power but makes it clearly visible. The power is not in our weakness, but in God, and He wants all the glory, so He uses the weak to put to shame the strong.
One example of how God uses the weak to put to shame the strong is that He takes cowards, He takes the most cowardly of cowards, weaklings with absolutely no natural courage or determination, unable to keep the softest resolution, and He fills them with such knowledge of Himself, such delight in the unrivaled pleasures that at His right hand and the rivers of delight found in Him, that they show confidence and joy before horror and evil that totally puts all the jaw-clenched courage and determination of men, fighting to be strong without God, in the shade. I do not understand the focus on the so-called heroism of the martyrs (but it cannot really be heroism, for they have nothing to lose and everything to gain; for martyrdom is honor and reward and in it no harm shall come to us). It is a distraction from Christ, their Strength and Joy and Salvation and ours. In Hebrews, after the so-called Hall of Faith, it says, “Since then we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw aside everything that distracts and the sin that so easily entangles us, that we may run with endurance the race marked out for us, setting our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God until the day when His enemies will be made His footstool. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” The martyrs and all who have gone before are witnesses – only witnesses, if we can say so, for it is an honor beyond all our deserts, yes, it is an honor of which no righteous, sinless creature is worthy, but of which we are worthy in Christ, to be His witnesses. They point to Him – to His power, to His worthiness. We should not keep staring at them, but turn to Him – otherwise, we are guilty of a kind of idolatry and will be to their grief and sorrow. It is Jesus Christ who is our motivation. It is to Him that we look so that we will not grow weary in our struggle against sin or our race for perfection. It is precisely because we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses that we turn our eyes from them and to their Lord and Salvation and Reward, and ours. It is not because of their sanctity in Him but because of the same One through whom they won the race, because of His holiness, because of His perfection, because of His cross, because of His resurrection, because of His ascension, because of His presence with us, that we persevere – as they did.
What is amazing is not the endurance or the joy of the martyrs. What is amazing is not the willingness of Christians to die for their Lord: what is amazing is that their Lord died for them, sinners. Knowing that God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us, it is obvious that we would gladly die for Him. The least we can do is to consider our lives not our own but His – He bought them with His blood. We are only slaves dying for our Master, creatures dying for our Creator, redeemed sinners dying for the Perfect Sacrifice and Savior, pardoned rebels for our King. That we should both live and die for Him is nothing. What means something – what staggers belief – is that the Master died for His slaves, the Creator died for His creatures, the Perfect One for defiled sinners, the King for rebels and traitors. Both the endurance and the joy of the martyrs makes perfect sense when you actually think about it (if you know their Lord and Savior). If the King of Glory has suffered and died, is it not honor and privilege unspeakable (which is not to say that any honor or privilege is greater than the one that you have; in fact, I think the question of which honor and privilege is greatest is both nonsensical and stupid)? If you are to increase in knowledge and communion with God Himself, the God – Almighty, needing nothing but giving everything, owing nothing but deserving everything, the Only One Who Is, by whom you live and move and think, God, the Majestic Glory, the One who does not exist for you but for whom alone you exist – is it not cause for joy beyond all joy, no matter what the means through which this abundance of all good things is to come? If you are to see the One who died to save you and lives again and whom alone you love, after a long exile, seeing only darkly in a mirror, while you feel like you are dying within with longing to see Him face to face, will you moan and grump or walk forward with joy unspeakable and full of glory?
What is amazing is God. He is so amazing that all the witness we can offer Him does not even scratch the surface of how wonderful He is. That God Himself – but how will many of you understand me, for Western culture has no concept of what God means, no understanding of what a King is, no concept of glory, of majesty, of holy, of something terrible and above all, of that before which no one has any rights but which has all rights, though of course all Christians will begin to understand, and some will understand more fully than I, for they know this Holy Terror with which I am so in love and by which I am so enthralled and with me all of creation – that God Himself, YHWH incarnate, died on a cross for sinners – that is astonishing, that is amazing, this is staggering, that is beyond belief. The joy and perseverance of the martyrs is the least you would expect. If anything about the behavior of Christians is amazing in the blinding light of the matchless wonders that God is in Himself and the matchless wonder of what He has done, it is not that we gladly live and die in His service, rejoicing to give our lives for Him, but that so often we do not live like saints.
Copyright 2018 Raina Nightingale