Friday, October 11, 2019

Signs of Sincerity in American Christianity

While finishing up the study of Mark over the last few weeks, I started to think about an issue with which many Christians occasionally “struggle.” I put “struggle” in scare quotes because we often look at this particular issue as a 1st-World Problem. That is, something relatively harmless that many other people would love to consider one of the worst things in their life. Still, it has a tendency to cause doubt and it is at least worth discussing.

The issue I have in mind is the persecution of Christians, but more specifically, the guilt American Christians sometimes feel as a result of not being persecuted. In most of the world, of course, persecution is a very present reality. Hundreds of millions of Christians have to live aware of the fact that their devotion to Christ could result in their being attacked by their neighbors or imprisoned by their governments. Thousands are tortured and killed for their faith every year. For people living in places like China, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Somalia, the decision to follow Jesus is one that they must weigh against the possibility of losing their life for it.

Suffering Like Christ

What I want to discuss here is in no way meant to downplay the suffering of Christians in the rest of the world. Those of us in less restricted societies should be mindful of the enmity they face. We should pray for them, and we should also use our wealth and freedom to speak on their behalf and to pressure their societies to treat them better. We are in a position to do them good, so we ought to do so.

Still, this awareness of worldwide persecution leads to a strange crisis for American Christians. In Mark 13:9–13, Jesus warned His disciples that their love for Him was guaranteed to result in the world’s hatred. He also explained, as recorded in John 15:18–25, that they could expect persecution because that is what He endured. If He had not been spared, then neither would they be.

This concept of following in the Lord’s footsteps is one that is expressed many times in the New Testament. Romans 8:17 tells us that suffering with Christ is the pathway to glorification with Him. Paul goes on in 2 Cor. 1:7 to say that those who share in the Lord’s suffering also share in His comfort. The writer to the Hebrews holds up the example of Jesus as being the ultimate form of faith for us to emulate (Heb. 12:1–2). James also encourages perseverance in the face of suffering as the way to experience the full Christian life (James 1:2–4; 5:7–11). And the Apostle Peter spends a number of verses on calling believers to suffer patiently as they await the Lord’s blessings (1 Pet. 2:20–25; 3:13–4:2; 4:12–16; 5:8–10).

The Situation of American Christians

When we read these things in the US, it can make us feel very small and cause us to wonder if we have a counterfeit faith. Our struggles here are not remotely as severe as they are almost everywhere else, and in almost everything else. In freedom, in comforts, in security, and in material wealth, we are unmatched in the history of the world. Sometimes, we could almost think that our lack of suffering in Christ’s name is a sign that we are not in Him. At the very least, we do not match up to the greatest of the saints.

I want to offer strange comfort in answer to this strange dilemma. First, I will refer back to the responsibilities I mentioned that come from witnessing the pain of our brothers and sisters in the world. We should have a vicarious suffering, an empathy that causes us to act when they cannot. Our ability to alleviate persecution is a blessing in its own right that can be held up as an example of our devotion.

But more than that, I want to point out that we do undergo persecution. It is a much softer form, but no less real. Our willingness to suffer it for the sake of Christ is a sign of the sincerity of our faith, and we should be comforted by it.

This persecution, which so many people are not willing to acknowledge as persecution, is mockery. We are daily confronted by a culture that prides itself on its tolerance, meanwhile telling Christians that there is no place for our beliefs in polite society. We are berated as hateful and bigoted by bigots who hate our way of life. Most often, of course, this is expressed with jokes that the tellers believe are a sign of their cleverness. They are never that clever, though. Only sophomoric.

Take as an example the recent experience of a friend of mine. This friend recently experienced a serious career setback but turned to faith for comfort and meaning in the aftermath. However, for being willing to speak of these things on social media, he has been attacked by atheists who think it somehow scores a point for their worldview to draw attention to disappointment. Apparently, since my friend did not receive the promotion he wanted after publicly praying for it, this is proof that God does not exist to listen. If He were real, after all, then He should have granted my friend his every desire. Then, they would have been willing to believe.

Following the Example of Jesus

I’m going to make a serious leap in logic here, but bear with me because I think the similarities are important. If you followed along with my series on Mark, then something about my friend’s experience might sound familiar. There was another sufferer who was mocked for His claims. Additionally, Jesus was asked to prophesy while being spit on (Mark 14:65), kneeled to while being beaten (Mark 15:16–20), and told to save Himself while being crucified (Mark 15:29–32).

Obviously, I am not attempting to suggest that my friend’s experience is directly comparable to that of Christ, or even to that of the many martyrs in the world today. Mostly, I am trying to point out the shortsightedness of their accusers. They demand instant gratification and are then smugly satisfied when it does not occur. They seem to have no awareness of the fact that God does not work on their timetable and that vindication delayed is not vindication denied. But Jesus did predict His own death and resurrection, He did walk away from that tomb, every knee will bow to Him in either sincere praise or sincere terror, and my friend will experience the victory in Him that will make every disappointment in this world amount to nothing. The enemies of the Lord cannot do anything to change what He has done. They really have no substantial way to shake us in what He will do, if we stand strong in His truth.

The other point of comparison is that my friend, by enduring this pointless and immature mockery, is experiencing an element of the sufferings of Christ. Not the whole thing by any means, but an element of it. Many of us go through the same thing at one time or another if we are willing to share our faith as we are directed to do. That is because we are sharing a message the world hates, a message of accountability and inability. People do not like to be told that they are responsible for their behavior and that they are powerless to earn their way to righteousness. Worldly people despised Jesus for telling them that, and it is why they despise us. We are a fly in the ointment and they want to pluck us out just as they tried to do to Him.

Once again, this is not a severe form of persecution. It is not violent. We are not being forced to give up our beliefs or die. We are just being told to give up our beliefs or be scolded. But that does not make it less real, even if it makes it less threatening. We must be willing to take it on. That means speaking even when they want silence and it means working to know the truth when they present lies as being obviously correct. There is a need for perseverance. If we want to remain in a position to help suffering Christians in the rest of the world, this is what we have to endure. The only counterfeit churches are the ones that fold to the pressure.

Hopefully, I have made it clear that we have a part in God’s family. American Christians are not just skating by. Our loads might be light, but we are still on the march for the Lord. That should be an encouragement, strange as it may sound. And we should take courage from it to keep moving forward in Christ’s cause.

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