One of the beauties of reading old books is that they dispel the ridiculous notions that somehow the people of yesteryear were fundamentally different than we are today. For all our internal combustion engines, polyester and rayon laced clothing, and penicillin, human nature never changes.
Samuel Pearce was an English pastor who died at the age of 34 from tuberculosis. While he died at an age that few today die, of an illness few today will die of, Samuel Pearce was no different than you or me. Writing to his good friend William Carey (yes, that William Carey), Pearce’s pen cries out:
I think I am the most vile, ungrateful servant that ever Jesus Christ employed in his church. At some times, I question whether I ever knew the grace of God in truth; and at others I hesistate on the most important points of the Christian faith. I have lately had peculiar struggles of this kind with my own heart, and have often half concluded to speak no more in the name of the Lord. When I am preparing for the pulpit, I fear I am going to avow fables for facts, and doctrines of men for the truths of God. In conversation I am obliged to be silent, lest my tongue should belie my heart. In prayer I know not what to say, and at times think prayer altogether useless…
I frequently find a backwardness to secret prayer, and much deadness in it; and it puzzles me to see how this can be consistent with a life of grace. However, I resolve, that, let what will become of me, I will do all I can for God while I live, and leave the rest to him; and this I usually experience to be the best way to be at peace…
My labours are acceptable and not altogether unprofitable to the hearers; but what is this to me, if my own soul starves whilst others are fed by me? O my brother, I need your prayers; and I feel a great satisfaction in the hope that you do not forget me. Oh that I may be kept faithful unto death!
Our heroes are flawed heroes. They fell into times of deep distress, long grey valleys where the sun did not seem to shine and the landscape afforded no glimmer of joy. They lost courage, held back their tongues when they ought to have spoken, found themselves grasping to the same promises of God in the midst of doubt and despair.
The difference with them is that their struggles exist in the greater context of a race finished. I read of Samuel Pearce and see that indeed he was faithful to the end, and the faithfulness at the end casts a brighter hue across the dusty grey trails they often trod. Yet, this is why we have the Scriptures, the same promises that have been clung to for generations upon generations of men and women fighting for faith in a world intent upon undoing such steadfast hope. He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it. Samuel Pearce proved it, and we are proving it for the next generation.
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?
It often takes a long time for our emotions to catch up with our theology. When catastrophe strikes, we know the right answers but rarely feel the comfort we know they should produce. Such is the role of the subservient being called to place faith in the merciful and loving Father. Even Jesus knew the gulf that can exist between what we know we ought to feel and how we truly respond to past, present or future calamity.
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. (Matthew 26:29)
Obedience and faith are beautiful qualities when they face the raging storm.
1. Famous missionaries do not have the goal of becoming famous. Rather, their goal and passion is the salvation of those who are unknowingly perishing. I can test John Paton’s words by his lifestyle. When he says he was incredibly reluctant to write his biography, the musket leveled at his head twenty years prior witnesses to his truthfulness. Fame for godliness seems to be bestowed upon those who consider such fame to be a nuisance. Care nothing for your own reputation and influence, Nate. God did not save you to make you famous. God saved you to make Him famous. (Paton, Autobiography)
2. I am much more willing to overlook the doctrinal flaws of a dead man than the doctrinal flaws of a living brother in Christ. A dead saint is a static entity. He has written what he has written and can be divided at will with no opportunity to defend himself. Augustine believed the Apocrypha was Scripture. Dr. Sa’eed believed in perfectionism until later in life. I didn’t know either of these things and rejoiced in their ministry. Now that I know them, I’m simply willing to ignore those beliefs because they won’t talk about these issues unless I quote them as such. It’s easy to find yes-men by employing selective quotations. (Dr. Sa’eed of Iran, pg 73)
3. Historical context is important. Men of old would rise early to pray and read the Scriptures. While their Bible reading and prayers certainly are exemplary, their rising early doesn’t make those prayers any more fragrant to the Lord than mine. Lifestyles are radically different today. These men went to bed early, for there was no electricity! It’s easy to manufacture sacrifice by taking normal life in a different time period and placing it in modern culture. God looks at the heart, not at the hours on the clock. (Robert Chapman)
4. My life may not be 80 years long. Eric Liddell died at 44 of an inoperable brain tumor. I’m 24 right now. There is no such thing as a future in ministry. Oh, plans may be made for the future. I’m currently training for the future. But I cannot live in the future. I must live in the present. I wonder how many young men have been surprised to waste their lives by preparing only for the future, not turning their eyes to those around them now, only to have their lives cut short by accident or health? (Pure Gold: A Biography of Eric Liddell)
5. I am invincible until Christ calls me home. John Paton said something along those lines. I fully believe it. The vaunted “Sovereignty of God.” And yet my life does not bear fruit of this truth as often as it should. God controls the minds of others. Paton was protected miraculously from those who were consumed with killing him and who had every opportunity to do so. And yet he never suffered a scratch. Radical ministry flows from understanding the depths of my sin, the heights of God’s grace, and the width of His sovereignty. (John Paton, Autobiography)
6. A good spiritual leader and godly Christians on the whole are genuinely excited about things which—apart from a gospel-driven care for his brothers and sisters—do not interest or excite him. Many people take delight in and worship through activities or objects that I find uninspiring. Don’t mock what other people are doing as an expression of or medium to worship.
7. “My wife knows I’ll be killed one day for the work that I do,”—a current missionary to Muslims in London. I heard this in a sermon by Al Mohler. Mohler followed this up by saying that many young men come and ask him how to find a girl who will be a good minister’s wife. He responded by saying ‘how about finding a girl who is okay with being a minister’s widow.’ Missionaries and Ministers are the first targets when persecution strikes. Marry someone like Elizabeth Bunyan. (Al Mohler—Shepherd’s Conference 2007)
8. Missions life takes a hard toll on family life. Rob Liddell’s father saw him for a total of 6 months over 10 years. Nowadays it certainly is easier to keep the family together. However, culture shock and other issues still exist. Appreciate the cost missionary parents are willing to accept for the sake of spreading the gospel.
9. Sickness is an often overlooked aspect of missions. You don’t see Paton complaining in his autobiography or Martyn stopping because of disease. They pushed through it, counting it as part of the all-too-worth-it cost of spreading the Gospel. Physical comfort was nothing to be grasped in their minds.
10. Throughout the centuries—and even today—many Christians have precious little of the Bible in their possession. God is pleased with their simple faith in Him to save their souls, even though they know little of His Word to them.
On weeks that I preach in church, Thursday marks my heavy writing day. Monday and Tuesday are spent with nothing but a Bible and notebook, Wednesday is commentary day, and Thursday is rough draft day. Except this Thursday. This Thursday has been spent vacillating between shivering and sweating while warning office visitors to stay away so I don’t infect them with whatever bug I’ve come down with.
In the middle of praying that God would bless my limited study time earlier this afternoon, I was struck by the realization that I don’t need the Lord’s aid any more this week than in weeks prior. When my need is infinite, small details like sickness don’t matter. While my realization of my need is much greater this week, the actual need for God’s wisdom and guidance to handle His Word in a right and compelling way isn’t any different.
When Paul wrote of his thorn in the flesh to the Corinthians he said, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9). The Apostle’s experiencing the power of Christ is directly related to his understanding of his incredible need for Christ’s aid. The weaknesses are there whether he boasts in them or not; but the blessing created by the weaknesses only are his to own if he rejoices in seeing God’s power triumph in spite of his infirmities.
I always let poetry I’ve written settle for awhile before publishing it. There’s a couple of reasons behind this practice. First, I’ve found that the well which feeds writing poetry is typically much stormier than the well which feeds writing prose. It’s good to vet the emotion behind the poetry as much as the words themselves. Second, good poetry is personal yet cryptic in a way prose is not. I want to be careful about presenting myself or my circumstances in a myopic, alarmist manner – especially when the topic is suffering. That being said, I wrote this a few months back:
“Oh God!” I cried,
“It hurts much more for You to pry
My gaze away from lesser lights
To You than I had thought
For You I sought
Assuming that the cup of pain
You drank for me was Yours alone.
For how could God condone
For greater Hell
Be swallowed up by Christ and not
Absolve the lesser horrors as well?”
“Oh God!” I cried,
“Forgive! For I have sought and tried
To scale and gain the happy heights
Apart from what You’d taught:
That joy is bought
Through faith amidst the pain.
For darkened days You have me sown
That you might more be known.
And I will tell
What’ere You make my earthy lot
When I have You, all else is well.”
When we choose to follow Christ, we do not get to choose how we follow Christ. Usually our expectations do not match the reality of what Christ has bought for us on the cross. I think we all expect to be Jonathan Edwards writing Religious Affections, not David Brainerd grasping a bloody handkerchief in Edwards’ back room as he dies of tuberculosis. Or we expect to be Hudson Taylor opening up a vast unreached people group to the forward grasp of missionaries, not William Borden who spent his whole life preparing for life among the unreached and, on the way to his first missions assignment in Mongolia, contracted cerebral meningitis in Egypt and died at the age of 24. Everybody dreams of being Hebrews 11:1-35a; nobody dreams of being 35b-38.
God is out to prove to His creation and His adversaries that He is far more glorious than anything He has created. Some of His children He gives an abundance of wealth. And He’s out to prove through them that He is far more desirable than the siren seductions of wealth and the lie of self-sufficiency. Some of His children he gives a life of suffering. And through them He’s out to prove that the joy of His sustaining grace is of far greater weight than the sorrows of this life. The world does not understand how the wealthy man can care so little about what the world thinks is the pinnacle of life, and the world cannot understand how the sorrowful man can rejoice in his grief rather than spiraling down into hopelessness and bitterness.
But we all expect God to place us in the first category. The second category? I don’t want to worship that way. I want to be the one who escapes the edge of the sword (Hebrews 11:34), not the one who is put to death by the sword or sawn in two (Hebrews 11:37). I don’t want to worship that way. But when we choose to follow Christ, we don’t get to choose how we follow Him.
After Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac, the owners of the pigs come and implore Jesus to leave. And then, as they’re begging the Son of God to depart from their land, the one person who believes in Him approaches. Clothed in his right mind for the first time in years, the former demoniac approaches Jesus and implores Jesus to be allowed to accompany Him. Literally, “to be with Him.” And as this man implores Jesus to let him follow, Jesus turns to him and says no. “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.” No, former-demoniac-now-worshipper-of-God, the way you want to worship me is not to be your path. You are the one imploring me to let you come with me. I’m sending you to witness to the ones imploring me to leave.
Everyone pities Job. But what of the wives of Job’s servants that were killed in the fire that consumed the sheep? They didn’t get their husbands back once God restored Job’s possessions. Nobody wants to worship that way. What of Ezekiel, who had God say “I’m going to kill your wife and you can’t mourn because you’re to be a picture of my lack of mourning for Israel as they die.” And Ezekiel buried her that night. Nobody wants to worship that way.
And what of Christ, crying in the garden, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Nobody wants to worship that way.
Sometimes it is a bitter thing to yearn for God to be made much of. It takes much fire to burn away the dross in our souls. Paul understood this. How else could he have described himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”? (2 Cor 6:10) We don’t get to choose how we get to follow Christ, but He does. And He knows that oftentimes we don’t want to worship in the way He has ordained for us. He knows because that was His road too: “This man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death.” (Acts 2:23) “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
Christ understands exactly what it’s like to be torn between wanting God to be made much of and not wanting to worship in the way that often makes much of Him. He is the great high priest who understands our weaknesses, for He endured it Himself. If we are to gain an understanding of the power of His resurrection, we must too know Him in the fellowship of His suffering (Philippians 3:10). And, as a father comforts his scared and weary little son about to go into surgery, so too our Father stands beside us and comforts us, sustaining in trial and keeping alive the hope of eternal joy.