The Higher, The Fewer
My family has a peculiar inside joke, a throwaway punchline that adorns the occasional phone conversation. “The higher, the fewer.” Spoken originally to Warf’s son Alexander by an overly pensive holodeck clown in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, this little aphorism bears itself well in the world. The higher, the fewer. There are far more Hondas than Aston Martins, far more accountants than Evel Kenevils. The higher the effort required to become something, the fewer there will be who undertake the challenge. The higher the danger, the fewer participants will be willing to take the risk.
Except in the Christian life. And that is incredibly puzzling. Why is it that far more Christians would be willing to stare down the barrel of the gun of their murderous persecutors than are willing to live the hard aspects of discipleship? Why are far more willing to die for Christ than to live for him?
I don’t have any hard and fast data on what I’ve just said. And it certainly is not my intent to scoff at or imply that martyrdom is easy. It’s no act of courage to write from the bomb shelter about the fun of life in the front-line trench. The closest I’ve ever come to being martyred was when an off-duty coworker referred to me as a “fag” for refusing to refill her friend’s Pepsi through the Taco Bell drive thru. Intense persecution, that Taco Bell name-calling is.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote eight letters as his 2nd century Roman guards marched him across Asia Minor towards his impending execution at Rome. Seven were to churches, one to his new friend Polycarp who would one day too die at the hands of the Romans. To the church in Rome Ignatius writes,
Leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am his wheat, ground fine by the lion’s teeth to be made purest bread. . . . Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body – let ever horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus!
These are no metaphors. It’s staring at your hand, watching the fire melt your skin and muscle off your bones. It’s being sewn inside the skin of a goat and feeling a lion scrape his teeth across your ribcage until your life slowly bleeds out of you. It’s feeling the slow and building pressure, followed by the sharp snap and fire of shattered bones and shredded ligaments again and again and again, punctuated by the sound of your screams and jailer’s laughter.
I, like you, bleach white at the thought of this. Reading causes me to pause and wonder if ever placed in the place of Ignatius of Antioch, what I would say. Would I deny? Would I?
No. Perhaps in the moment I would. But utterly and finally, I could not. For the Spirit of Christ will not let those He indwells deny Him by whom He was sent. The Trinity will not rest at odds with one another. And so it is with all who believe. Whatever the cost, we will follow, knowing that the world has hated our Master and so will also hate us. Certainly our churches would be smaller. Few people are tempted to use God for their own advancement when that advancement takes the shape of a bullet hole in the forehead. The higher the cost of discipleship, the fewer the disciples.
And yet, how puzzling it is that amongst those who would willing to die for Christ, so many of us struggle to live for him in present, easy circumstances. We’re willing to sell our lives, yet reluctant to pay what is a pittance in comparison. How many of us would refuse to deny, but also refuse to pick up the phone, dial that number, and actively work to restore that fractured relationship? How many treasure Christ above life, but give sparingly from their earthly treasures for the advancement of the Kingdom? How many would never blaspheme, but mark their days with slander? How many would never have less than pure worship, but live with impure eyes?
The higher, the fewer? Not this time. Not here. Why is it that those who would pay the ultimate price are so often hesitant or resistant to paying one of far less cost?