Shaped by the Cross

“User-friendly” Christianity

As children of Adam, we tend to be hedonists. We want to be immersed in comfort and pleasure. While it is true that God created people to bestow His good gifts on them, by turning away from God through the lie of the serpent, people attempted to find an alternative source of pleasure, which was destined to fail. All people found was death; there is not and may never be life apart from the One who is the Giver of life.

That is why we should not be surprised when our thinking of Christian life gets distorted in many ways. Christ said He came so that people “may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), and we are tempted to understand it in terms of possessions in this life. St Paul said: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”(Phil. 4:13), and we find delight in thinking that we must be successful in this life, for our God is strong and powerful. Alas, by our nature, we do not want to recognize that the Lord’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

We naturally want to be on the winning side of things, all the more in our Christian life, both individually and collectively. “We are the champions.” The old man in us is anxious to see growth, prosperity, respect and admiration from everybody else, Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Christian message, however, and the God in whom we believe run contrary to our human aspirations of the old Adam. The scandal of Christianity is found in its insistence on exclusivity. There is only one truth, only one way to salvation. By default, all other religions are misleading and paving the way to hell. That makes Christians not “friendly” in the eyes of the world. That is embarrassing. And so it may cause some to compromise in the matters of faith with the hope that it will result in more peace and stability in society. That is not likely to happen. The perception of being part of a “Christian society,” once fairly common, is quickly disappearing.

As Western society rapidly reverts to the non-Christian moral values, it becomes more important to study the rich experience of the Church with respect to persecution and martyrdom. The main lesson we can learn from it: This is extremely serious. It is a matter of life and death. And shallow Christianity that is individualistic and psychologically oriented is absolutely doomed in that epoch.

Christians suffer because Christ suffered

Christians may seem increasingly small and miserable in this world. We should not be surprised. After all, our Lord looked miserable on the cross, and it only with the eyes of faith that we can see Him there for what He is: almighty Lord and King.

It is important to realize that our sufferings caused by persecution are not incidental to our faith. If it were so, then the cross of Christ would also be incidental, just one of the steps in “salvation plan” to get over and forget about.

So, you are a Christian? Congratulations! You belong to the faith where you are expected to suffer in this life. Christian sufferings are inherently Christological, and in that they reflect the nature of God as He truly is.

The cross is widely recognized as the major symbol of Christian faith. In its original context, there was nothing noble about it: It served as a frightening reminder of the shameful execution reserved for the worst of criminals and enemies of the state. There is something profound about it being a special sign with which we as Christians have been marked at our Baptism. It does mark the shape of our Christian life. What is it? “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). All. No exceptions. Persecution for the faith is not something that should catch any baptized off guard: It is inherent in the very nature of Christian faith.

When we think of persecution of Christians and public confession of faith in such circumstances leading to martyrdom, we tend to think about some cruel events happening in modern countries in Africa and Asia. Glorious first centuries of the Church also come to mind: the third- or early fourth-century Roman arena, the crowds shouting: “Christians to the lions!,” heroic men and women that would rather incur unspeakable suffering for the “faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) than offer incense to the genius of the Caesar.

Indeed, both in ancient and in recent times Christian faith and its adherents experienced massive onslaughts. But does it involve on any personal level modern Christian inhabitants of the West, particularly those living in North America? One may argue that this is already the case, while numerous trends point at even greater pressure to be applied to Christian in the future.

Methods of persecution: not necessarily wild animals

We do not have lions physically roaming around us, and it will likely not get to that point in our lifetime. Major cataclysms may or may not come. As Christians we continuously pray that at any given place “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:2) for as long as possible. That is our desire.

However, even within that relatively calm setting, there may still be persecution, albeit on a minor scale. Reality is usually more trivial than the lions, which does not make it irrelevant. Life consists of little things. God desires for us to be faithful anyway. “One who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10).

Likewise, persecution may transpire in little things that we may hardly notice as they begin to happen. A typical example can be observed in gradual rise of hostile public attitude to Christian faith. At first, it may be reflected in a sentiment that Christians are simply inferior in general in their education and knowledge to those not accepting Christian claims.  After all, “Today nobody believes in the Bible anymore.” “You must be ashamed to be a Christian.Who are you, a stupid person?” When our relatives and friends take such positions, it is especially hard, although Christians should not be surprised if they are hated for Christ name’s sake (Matt. 10:22).

Then this negative view of Christianity will translate into legislation making life harder for Christians. For example, it may be more strict taxation policy and infringement on personal rights. It is worth remembering that part of the takeover  of the Lutheran church buildings and other property by the communists in Russia of 80 years ago was not thorough direct prohibitions, but rather through peculiar tax policies, strict control by fire department and city authorities, as well as mounting pressure on people who attended churches so that eventually many people stopped coming to the churches and those who continued to do so could not afford anymore taking care of the church buildings.

Finally, covert persecution may come through changing the educational model, which will seek to plant the seeds of discord within families by placing children into a new milieu culturally foreign to Christianity.

Be firm in time of crisis

Do not think that by doing nothing and just keeping quiet you will stay out of trouble. True, you may win some time for yourself. But sooner or later you will face the consequences of your spiritual slumber. At the same time, there is nothing you can “do” about persecution, strictly speaking. If it happens, it happens. To be sure, we must be active citizens and raise our voice on the public square to defend traditional Christian values and attitudes, but we must not be over-confident that simply by political lobbying for Christianity we will surely be able to avoid persecution.

If a real battle is to come, make sure you don’t enter it without proper training and ammunition. Persecutions often come when you expect them the least. Be on guard!

It does not matter much if we have our churches temporarily full because of the shallow and watered down parody of the Gospel presented there. Let us see how it all would stand up when the trials come. Time will tell whether house is built on sand and or on stone. A house built on sand may look big and prosperous, but it is a false security. You find the real value of your car insurance or a product warranty worth only when you get in trouble; otherwise they all look like. What matters is how the Church will endure the storm, the persecution.

If you happen to be a in state of confession, don’t think, “Well, it is just one little moment, and then I will surely make up for it. I will be obedient Christian, and so on.” That moment is worth eternity. That is a situation of life and death. By making yourself a loser in the eyes of the world, you choose life, and by choosing what seems to be a better life, you choose death.

Things are not like what they seem on the surface. Do not measure perseverance in enduring persecution by human standards. And do not think the enemies of faith will stop after they do some damage. They will never get satisfied until they see you and what you stand for destroyed. Period. It does not help to think of persecution in worldly terms. There are a number of places in the world that used to have thriving worshiping communities, and all that is left for you to see now is the ruins of the their churches. Why do you think you will surely get lucky compared to them?

If you fail, there is forgiveness

If you fail to confess Christ at the critical time and make a shipwreck of your faith, there is still forgiveness for you. Return to your Baptism as Luther wonderfully instructs in the Large Catechism.  Come to confession and have your sins absolved.“If we are faithless, He remains faithful–for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

But by all means, do not think that way in advance. There are dangers in how the human mind and will operate. Once you fall and happen to be in that state of denial of faith, you may prefer to stay that way. It is like taking a drug that would chemically change your brain making you an addict; it’s better not to play with it. Going to the casino with Satan as your opponent at the gambling table is not a good idea. Don’t take your chances.

God will wipe away all tears Christ is the triumphant Victor. He triumphs on His cross, in His shedding of blood, in His death. As Christ has risen and conquered death, so He will raise our bodies too and give them immortality, no matter what will happen to them in this life. The Christian life is rather a marathon than a sprint. What matters is getting to the end, which is also the new beginning. “Be faithful unto death, and I give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

Sidebar: What do you do when persecution strikes?

  1. The devil is behind all and every persecution. Accordingly, our fight is not with the flesh and blood. It must be thought of in spiritual categories. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). The single most important thing is to abide with the Lord and His gifts by all means possible. Come to Church where His gifts are administered.
  2. When a non-Christian government targets the church for an attack, it may (among other things) attempt to infiltrate the Church to bring another gospel and so change Church from inside. So, have your ears to hear the true voice of your Shepherd. Be nurtured in Scripture and confessions of the Church so that you may “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1).
  3. Make sure you know at least some Scripture verses by heart. It will help you pray and find consolation if you are left alone and have no Bible around. Also, remember the stories of those who served as an example in faith, both in ancient and recent times.
  4. Pray. Christ hated sin, but He loved sinners. At the time of death, He prayed for His executers (Luke 23:34), and the first Christian martyr, Stephen, did likewise (Acts 7:60). Our Lord expects us also to pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).
  5. Do not trust people who are enemies of the faith, in particular their promises and reassurances. Again, Satan is the cause of persecution, and Satan is a liar. We should do our best to show to our non-believing neighbors that Christians are loving and kind, but it would not hurt remembering that Christians will never come our right in the eyes of the world anyway.
  6. Finally, there may come a time for you to think about relocation. I do hope that it will never become such a situation in USA that Christians will have move to preserve their faith, but we must never exclude any possibilities. Be flexible. It is better to be in a place where you have freedom of worship even when it results in deterioration of your social status and economic prosperity.

To be sure, now it sounds like a big stretch. Who could expect just some decades ago that churches and religious organizations would be under pressure to recognize same-sex partnerships and marriages as compatible with Christian morals? And who can confidently state that it is not just the beginning of a process that will lead to more deplorable results?

SIDEBAR: Educate your children

If you prefer school, sports, any other activities (which may be perfectly fine in and by themselves) to what is Christian–the Church service, Divine Liturgy, Lord’s Supper–then you have lost your battle already. Do not expect then that if the real trouble comes, you would be firm to endure.

Do not kid yourself: Your children will probably learn something in school that will run contrary to Christian faith. And if it is a Christian school, then it will happen in college or elsewhere along the way.

So, step up and do your job of a parent or grandparent. Instruct your children at the earliest time possible before the world grabs them through increasingly sophisticated ways of mind control. Christian education must be done within families. You just can’t expect the pastor to do everything for you.

Regular church attendance, reading of Scripture, singing hymns, praying, doing the works of mercy is always good. Do not think of the time you spend on Christianity as a “waste of time.” It’s the opposite of that. You will gain plenty of quality time in eternity.

Reprinted June/July 2014 The Lutheran Witness. 

Reproduction of a single article or column for parish use only does not require permission of The Lutheran Witness. Such reproductions, however, should credit The Lutheran Witness as the source, including the date, volume, and issue number of the original article.

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