“Be sober-minded. Be watchful,” the apostle Peter writes to a young church undergoing intense persecution. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
I read my copies of The Voice of the Martyr’s and Gospel for Asia, and I learn that more Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than all the centuries preceding. The stories are difficult to digest:
The pastor’s wife, who finds herself a widow with twelve children to raise after her husband is machete-ed to death. The solitary girl whose parents and two other sisters were slaughtered for their faith. The wrongfully imprisoned. The hidden church. The children rejected and abused for their faith. The missionaries hiking miles through hostile jungles to share the gospel with remote villages.
When I’m having a day beset by fear and doubt, I often read the life-stories of these brothers and sisters, and my heart gains courage. Because despite my suburban existence, I’m desperate for courage.
“Resist [your adversary],” Peter goes on to say, “firm in your faith, knowing that the same kind of suffering is being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” I read this the other day and was stopped short. Really? The same kind of suffering? My American Christian life is nothing like that of the persecuted church.
Or is it?
A Ugandan pastor’s life is snuffed out by a violent physical assault. An American pastor’s witness destroyed by a life of hidden addiction and sin. In both, the collateral damage is immense.
An Indonesian church building is bombed by a hostile grenade, and a prosperous southern congregation ripped right down the middle with gossip and slander and righteous indignation. A middle-eastern theological seminary is denied permits for their building by an intolerant government and a western denomination grows fat with luxurious campuses set to tickle the ears of listeners.
A Chinese pastor is tortured in a prison camp, because of his preaching, and a western Christian is chained up by addiction and despair. A North Korean believer cannot teach their children about Jesus under penalty of death, and an American believer is paralyzed by the lie of affluence and free-time.
Christians in hostile countries are faced with the life-or-death moment: will you deny the faith or face years of imprisonment and torture and you and I stick fast in our spiritual inertia and the captivity of a mindless cultural norm.
It’s no use quibbling over what qualifies as an enemy’s attack. The church is besieged, and you, if you are a Christian, are smack dab in the middle of the battlefield.
Because the truth is all Christians are undergoing the same kind of suffering. We do not have the imminent threat of a machete attack, but we, too, live in a world torn asunder. One full of loss and fear and doubt. Of broken relationships and broken hearts and diseased minds. Of fractured souls and hidden pain and “coping mechanisms” that strangle the life out of us.
You are fooling yourself if you don’t think you have an enemy.
You have a real enemy. The one who is looking to devour you. And the reality is, your enemy isn’t a movie version, the kind that will only push the hero so far until she can break free and save the day. Your enemy comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy. The time is short and the stakes are real.
Whether literal physical imprisonment or spiritual chains, both kinds of oppression have the same aim: to keep you from being effective and fruitful in the kingdom.
Your real suffering is whatever paralyzes you, the things that keep you from fulfilling God’s purpose for you. You know what I’m talking about.
That deep-seated long-held fear that keeps you safe at home.
The addiction that’s destroying you but you still can’t set it down.
The lies that lull you into drowsy complacency or riles you up to self-protective indignation.
The voice that tells you you’re being too legalistic or intense or whatever, the one that claims what you do might not really matter all that much.
The insatiable appetite for entertainment that keeps you from truly living.
Whatever battle you find yourself in, take heart! Peter’s words are for us today. This exhortation to watchfulness and sober-mindedness comes right after the familiar verse: Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
You are not alone in the battle you face today, in whatever threatens to unmoor you and keep you immobilized. God cares for you.
Almighty God, the one who stretched out the heavens and sustains all things by the word of his power. He cares for you.
He invites you to cast all your cares on him, to put yourself under his mighty hand. He is the one who has promised to be with you always.
And Peter’s exhortation doesn’t end there. It concludes with a promise: “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself confirm, restore, strengthen, and establish you.”
Almighty God will complete the work he has begun in you. The one who works all things together for good for those who love him? He will not leave you to yourself. The hope of your transformation rests on his faithfulness, not yours. His promise is triumph over suffering, hope in the midst of adversity, the weight of glory surpassing momentary sufferings.
Because whether we see victory this side of heaven or not, we are people-who-live-by-faith. We look with hope to the promise of resurrection, to the day when we can celebrate with God how he brought good from that particular suffering, from that unbelievable loss. Hope-filled people see the tragedy of the martyr’s widow and orphaned children, the ministry destroyed by sin, the broken and crippled churches, and all the collateral damage on the battlefield and even yet trust that good can come of all of it.
Because good will come of it. God promises you a feast.
Your enemies linger on the outside, pressing in and tempting you to leave the table, or perhaps try and keep you from ever sitting down. Resist them, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kind of suffering is being experienced by the church around the world and across the centuries. Look around the table. You are not alone. Your brothers and sisters are there, too, joining the feast.
And do you know who else is there? Christ himself, the one who has prepared the table for you in the presence of your enemies. Christ himself serves you. Christ himself offers you his life for your daily bread. Christ himself, who shows us his own wounds, engraved with the weight of the world’s suffering. Come at his invitation.
For where Christ is makes a heaven even of the wilderness.