Called to Suffer

Within the last couple of years, I’ve come to realize something that has eluded me somehow for my entire Christian life. For more than 15 years, I did not realize that, as a follower of Christ, I’m called to suffer.

It’s expected of me.

God never says, “I want you to suffer.” I believe our suffering pains Him, just as the suffering of Jesus did. But this truth is implied throughout the New Testament. Followers of Christ will suffer.

A couple of examples:

Luke 9:23 – Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (This verse is about sacrificing ourselves more than suffering, but suffering is implicit in the act of taking up a cross and walking to our deaths.)

Romans 8:17 – Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Paul’s entire ministry is marked by imprisonment, sacrifice, danger, and suffering – as he points out here.)

There are many more, but these were two of easiest to use in this context.

We are expected to suffer for the cause of Christ. Scripture assumes that – when we live as followers of Christ ought to live (i.e. as Christ lived) – we will not be comfortable. When you accept Christ, you accept suffering.

What does this mean for American Christians? Let’s face it. We don’t suffer for the cause of Christ in America. We are not persecuted. We are not in danger because of our faith (yet). In fact, as I have mentioned in this blog before, security (financial and physical) is arguably the primary goal in the life of the American Christian (just as it is in the life of American non-Christians), and it is an achievable goal. At least our idea of security is. Does this mean we’re missing something integral to the experience of being a child of God?

Yes, I believe we are, myself included.

So, what do we do about this? Move to a foreign nation where Christians are hated and persecuted and killed? This may be God’s call for some of us, but true followers of Christ are needed in this nation just as much – if not more – than they are needed in nations where the Church is forced underground. There is vibrancy, a depth in these churches that is sadly absent in most American churches. As some have observed, we’re a mile wide and an inch deep.

I believe a good first step is to find a way to share in the sufferings of those who suffer for the cause of Christ.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

Matthew 25: 34-40

I believe we are correct in referring to anyone in need as one of “the least of these.” However, I think an even more correct (if that’s possible!) application is to apply this to our brothers and sisters in Christ, since the King in the parable does so (v. 40).

My personal not-quite-complete application: Help your fellow Christ-followers who are sick, hungry, thirsty, lonely, hurting, or imprisoned for the cause of Christ. Give money, food, drink to the poor. Help out a struggling church at home or abroad. Go to the Voice of the Martyrs Web site and check out some videos and stories about the persecution our siblings are suffering at the hands of those who hate Jesus. Invest your time, your money, and your heart in them. If you can’t think of an organization to support, investigate some of the ones I’ve linked to.

Above all, don’t just read stories or watch videos about someone’s suffering. Do something.

They are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. In this way, so can we.

Advertisements

We Have Forgotten God

I recently read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It honestly wasn’t an enjoyable read (then again, I don’t think it was supposed to be), but Solzhenitsyn is considered such a great thinker, I had to give it a shot.

He paints a pretty convincing portrait of the bleak life of a prisoner in a 1950s-era Siberian work camp in the Soviet Union. It’s freezing cold. The food they’re offered is unappetizing, to say the least. The most striking aspect of the novel, though, is Ivan’s attitude. More than once, he says something like, “This is the good life!” when he gets an extra hunk of bread or bowl of mush. And he takes pride in his work, even though he will get absolutely no benefit from it – just more mistreatment from the guards.

But the thing that hit home with me the most was a passage near the end of the book in which Ivan is speaking with a character called Alyoshka the Baptist. Here’s an excerpt:

“The thing is, you can pray as much as you like but they won’t take anything off your sentence and you’ll just have to sit it out, every day of it, from reveille to lights out.”

“You mustn’t pray for that.” Alyoshka was horrorstruck. “What d’you want your freedom for? What faith you have left will be choked in thorns. Rejoice that you are in prison. Here you can think of your soul. Paul the Apostle said: ‘What mean you to weep and to break my heart? For I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Ivan is without hope. He’s in prison for no good reason, and he doesn’t understand Alyoshka’s perspective. Ivan’s world was full of cruelty, self-preservation, and grief.

The cruelty of that society was summed up by Solzhenitsyn himself in a speech when he said, “We have forgotten God. That is why all this has happened.” The Soviet government had forgotten God. Therefore its only purpose was to create an order that served the nation’s power-mongering leaders. Since they only cared about themselves, their government could be as cruel, suspicious, and tyrannical as they wanted it to be.

Subsequently, the people of the Soviet Union forgot God and lost hope. That’s what we see here in the passage. Alyoshka hoped in the Lord. He knew there must be a purpose to his imprisonment even if he didn’t know what it was. He knew that Christ holds everything together, that all things work for good for those who love Him. If God wanted him to be imprisoned or even die, he was joyfully ready (hence his quotation of Acts 21:13). Ivan didn’t have this hope.

While we don’t see this level of cruelty and paranoia in the US, we can still see the effects of the same attitude. In its subtlest form it has invaded the church. The very thought of going to prison for the cause of Christ is foreign to us. True, that doesn’t happen in America, but think about this. If we attempt to do something for God and it ends badly, most commonly, we think, “It’s hard. God must not want me to do it.” So many of us believe God’s greatest goal for us is financial security. We avoid suffering at all costs. We don’t go to places like Haiti because the political environment is too volatile. It would be dangerous for us. And when someone decides to go to a dangerous place for the cause of Christ, we often criticize them.

We have no hope, no reason to risk, no thought that suffering could be the right thing to do. Why?

America has not become like the USSR, but it’s coming. Attitudes in this country have already shifted against Christ. And while we fight to change those attitudes (and I believe we should), our church is slipping further away from His teaching, and our nation is becoming less and less tolerant of us. (I believe those two are interconnected, by the way. See “Hated and Highly Regarded.”)

But maybe that’s what God wants. Look at places in our world where the church is persecuted. It is growing. The people are serious about Christ – in many instances serious to the point of their own death. This attitude is alien to American Christians. We are like Ivan – looking for an extra bowl of mush when the glory of God’s kingdom is waiting for us if we’ll only hope in Him and take a chance. So what if they put us in prison? So what if they kill us? They cannot kill the soul.

But instead, in this nation where we are more or less accepted, we have become content, complacent even. Possibly complicit in our own downfall.

Why are we this way? Because we have no hope. Because we have forgotten God.

Hated and Highly Regarded

Nestled in amidst the passion, boldness, love, persecution – the absolute beauty – of the early Church, we find in Acts 5:13 the words, “they were highly regarded by the people.” It’s true that Jesus said, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26) So, what’s the catch?

This passage in Acts is interesting because we see a dichotomy – not in the behavior of the Church, but in outsiders’ perceptions of it. A verse earlier, we read that the people saw miracles performed by the apostles. We also see the early Christ followers gathering in Solomon’s Colonnade – that’s part of the temple, the seat of Jewish worship. The Jews – all the people – saw them together in fellowship and worship in this very public place.

We can probably infer as well that the people saw how the members of the early Church lived on a daily basis – that they refrained from sin, that they treated people with respect, that they spoke with boldness about the One who made them different – Christ.

I believe this is why the people held them in high regard. Outsiders daily saw these Christians not just living by the rules, but they saw Christ living through His Church. It was evidenced by authentic worship, charity, love for each other. They saw there was something special.

But verse 13 also reads, “No one else dared join them” in the colonnade. Nobody wanted to be seen with them. Despite the fact that these followers of the Way healed people, showed kindness to one another, lived pure lives, nobody wanted to be too closely associated with them.

Which is to be expected. And yet, in Acts 4:14, “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.”

They lived as they should, shared grace and love with one another, lived by the Word of God. They scared people, made outsiders want to avoid them, yet this Church was highly regarded, and its growth was unrestrainable.

I’m reminded of a message by Francis Chan in which he referenced the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9). Jesus sat by the lake. Large crowds gathered. He told them this parable that, in all likelihood, made no sense to them. His disciples had to come ask Him what He was talking about! When the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke to the people in parables, He responded, “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” (Matt. 13:13)

He taught in parables so they would not understand. Only the ones who cared enough to chase Him down and ask for the answers would understand.

Francis Chan said, “If Jesus had a church…, His church would be smaller than mine.” Why? Because we try to teach so everyone can understand. We shy away from teachings that may be hard to understand or that step on toes. We try to draw people in with events and programs. But Jesus taught so that people would not understand unless they sought Him out! And that comes through an act of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus didn’t obsess over the next great method for getting people to listen to Him. He drove them away!

So why are we so obsessed with reaching the most people possible? Because that’s the way our world works. The measure of success in this world is, “How many people bought my product?”

But Christ is not a product. He’s the source of life.

Acts 4 shows us that when we live as Christ lived, teach as Christ taught, love as He loves, the Holy Spirit will do something amazing. Though people disdain to be seen with us, they will highly regard us. Though no one else dares join us, the Spirit will draw people to us, and the numbers of the Kingdom will grow.

But that growth isn’t guaranteed, and it’s certainly not a measure of success. The measure of success for the Church is, “Are we a presentable bride?”

Entrenched

Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.”
Genesis 19:30-32

Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, burned and smashed to rubble by the wrath of God. The inhabitants of those two cities had become so warped by sin that He apparently felt they needed a fresh start.

Lot and his daughters had escaped the firestorm by mere moments. They were the only ones. And they, in fact, hadn’t wanted to leave. The angels who came to destroy the city told Lot over and over, “Get your family, and get out of town!” Finally, they had to take him by the hand and drag him out.

Even then, Lot’s wife looked back one time too many and was turned to a pillar of salt, and Lot himself refused to go further away than the town of Zoar on the outskirts of Sodom.

Lot had become so entrenched in the culture of Sodom that imminent death by burning sulfur wasn’t enough to make him want to leave! His sensibilities had become so warped that he even thought it acceptable to offer his daughters to a mob of perverts rather than let them rape the men who were guests in his home (Genesis 19:1-8). Why couldn’t he just say, “No?”

Then comes Genesis 19:30-32. Lot and his daughters – apparently all that were left of his family – left Zoar to live in a cave (what the heck is that about?!). So his daughters decided it would be a good idea to get their dad drunk and have sex with him so they could “preserve [the] family line.” I can’t help but think this is the direct result of Lot’s allowing his family to live in that twisted culture, of his entrenchment in it, of his unwillingness to leave it behind. If your right hand causes you to sin…

This leads me to think about today’s church in the United States. And I don’t mean the church as an institution. I mean the people of the American church. We have become so entrenched in our society’s attitudes, thought processes, and goals that we’ve forgotten who we are. It’s nothing new to say that Jesus told us to be in the world and not of it, but we are indistinguishable from it.

In many of our churches, the good Christians are the ones who own successful businesses, those with the beautiful new homes in the desirable neighborhoods, the great jobs and 52” plasma TVs. The great goal for my life when I got out of high school was to graduate from college so I could get a good job. (Good job = good money.) And that’s the goal that Christians are setting for their kids today, too.

Greed and materialism have sunk their toothy jaws into the flesh of the church, and like rabid pit bulls, they won’t let go until we stop struggling. We’re just twitching a little. It won’t be long now.

We give, help others, love, when it doesn’t hurt. We sacrifice only when it’s not a sacrifice. What would David think? (2 Samuel 24:24) Individualism has swallowed the church whole, the digestive process breaking it down into non-functioning pieces. The church doesn’t function as it should when we separate ourselves. We are all members of one body, and the body needs all its parts to function properly.

Pride makes us hide our faults and alienate others because of theirs. We ought to be loving each other through them.

According to 2002 Barna Group research, “More than two out of three adults and more than four out of five teenagers argue that truth is always relative to the individual and the circumstances. While most of these people describe themselves as followers of Christ and say that the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings, they nevertheless believe that truth is based on feelings, experience or emotion.” If we each make our own truth, how can we hold to a faith that says, “No one comes to the Father but through me?” We’ve allowed this relativism to seep into the foundation of our faith, making our faith meaningless.

What does this mean for upcoming generations? In the January-February 2008 issue of Relevant – a magazine targeted toward college students and twenty-somethings – 53% of those polled said a Christian can support abortion rights. Thirty-seven percent said that gay rights is the least important issue for presidential policy. Only 22% said that abortion was the most important issue for presidential policy. (Illegal immigration took the top spot with 39%.)

Whether these are key issues for you or not, consider that issues like abortion and gay rights have been tent pole political issues for conservative Christians and the religious right for years. It would seem – based on this unofficial survey – that these views are beginning to shift. Our entrenchment in individualistic, consumerist American culture has given the next generation permission to embrace that which we condemn.

If Lot thought it was okay to give his daughters to a gang of rapists, and his daughters thought incest was okay, what will our children believe?

thoughts on worship and worship leading