Thursday, 30 November 2017

Suffering, a badge of honour - what does that say about us?

For the apostles, and early Christians, being chosen to suffer was a mark of honour; a mark of God's approval. Not because they enjoyed pain, but because it was a sign that they were following in the footsteps of the Master. Death comes before resurrection; suffering comes before glory. The Christ-shaped life must reflect Christ's actual life, to be authentic. We must be refined and purified if we are to draw nearer to God. For fallen human beings, suffering is a principal tool to turn our eyes away from fading worldly glory, "vain-glory" as it used to be called, to the true glory that endures.

The "false apostles" that Paul had to deal with, had the opposite point of view. They had the worldly, fleshly point of view: that suffering was a sign that you must be doing something wrong. The view of Job's comforters, who were ignorant of the spiritual reality that Job had been selected for suffering because of his great faithfulness.

So, for example, when finishing his letter to the Galatians, who were facing false teachers who boasted in the glories of the mark of Jewish circumcision as the true mark of a real Christian, Paul ends with this: "From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus." What was the true bodily mark of belonging to Christ? Not Jewish circumcision, but suffering for Christ's name's sake.

Or all the apostles in Acts 5:42:

"Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name."

In Philippians 3, Paul speaks about those who "glory in the flesh"; and says that he gave up that way of living and thinking, in order that he might "share in [Christ's] sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead."

And so on - the number of verses that could be used to demonstrate this Biblical theme, and its essential place in the Christian outlook, is so large that it could fill volumes. But my point - that it is essential in our outlook - is made.

That being so, what does it says about the evangelical culture that we've built in the recent decades? Who are the evangelical superstars? And why? Who gets a big billing, and draws a big crowd, if he gets the top billing at a conference? And why? What are the credentials that are emphasised on book covers, in announcements, in meeting invitations, etcetera? And what does that say about us?

For anyone whose eyes are still in their heads, the answers are obvious, and painful. The "big names" in evangelical Christianity are not there because of their painful toils, persecutions, rejections, etcetera, which mark New Testament Christianity. We have a whole range of in-house superstars, who are famous for being clever, being widely-published, and for being famous: for having got into the inner ring of conference speakers and people who supply blurbs on book covers. We have a whole range of "in-house" big names who are not at all known for what they've done in spreading the truth to unbelievers, and boldly confronting sin and error in society. They largely stay in the Christian bubble, in comfort, and get amply rewarded (in the things of this life: salary, security, fame, the praise of men) for doing so. We have set up a whole system of lifting up people who live a comfortable life for earthly rewards. And that is a tragedy.

Please note here that I am speaking about tendencies. This is not a criticism of this or that one particular person. And I recognise that some people are called to work in seminaries in countries with low levels of persecution, and receive a salary for doing so. I recognise too that there are godly, sincere men working as hard as they can in their callings, and facing immense personal sufferings that have come from other sources than the world and unbelievers. I recognise people who have confronted corruption and evil and had to pay severe prices for it. But as I say: I am talking about tendencies. The fact that everything is not as bad as it could be, does not mean that the elephant is not in the room.

Is our religion that of the cross of Christ? Does our faith concern a holy God, and one sole way of rescue from eternal judgment? Are we in a ceaseless war with Satan and the powers of darkness? Or is a religion one of earthly comfort, earthly ease, earthly praise? What does our Christianity actually cost us? Are our pastors willing to publicly rebuke public sin? Are they willing to name the rampant sins of the hour directly and plainly, lovingly warning us with tears to avoid the wrath which is coming? Do Christians challenge us in private about wrong patterns in our life that need addressing? Do we speak to our wife and children about wrong that needs confronting, and do we humbly listen both to them and to conscience when they speak to us, and thank them heartily for it? If all these things are what happen in evangelicalism at large then tell me - why is our outward-facing culture the way that it is? If our inward values are really those of Scripture, and if culture is the outward expression of inward values, then how can things be so?

No comments: