“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa
I have to admit, one day at the beginning of the year, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself: I’d gone to a local medical lab to have blood drawn but the parking lot was closed and I had to park a block away and walk. While I was walking, my new tennis shoes were killing my feet. And a few days earlier, my watch had stopped running. Poor me! After a while, though, I realized how trivial my problems were: I’m in good health and I’m fortunate enough to have access to good medical care. I have a fairly nice, reliable car, so that I can worry about where to park it. I’m able to walk when I want or need to, and I can afford to wear shoes when and if I want. And if my shoes hurt my feet or don’t fit, I can afford to buy new ones, which is exactly what I did later that day. I also found a new watch on sale at a local department store.
In just about every way, I’m far luckier than most of the billions of people living on Earth. And I’m sure that if I told any of them about my “problems,” I’d be lucky if they laughed at me. I also thought of all the billions of saints in Heaven who might do the same.
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote about some of the hardships he had experienced: Lashings, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, dangers of all kinds, toil, hardship, sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, cold and exposure (2 Cor. 11:24-27). And, of course, there was his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7), present every day of his life even though he prayed three times that God would take it away (vs. 8 & 9). He went on to write, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (vs. 10).
And let’s not forget Jesus, our redeemer and ultimate example of persecution and suffering. According to Mark’s gospel, he was betrayed (Mark 14:44-45), abandoned (vs. 50), condemned (vs. 64b), spit on and beaten (14:65; 15:19a), bound (15:1b), made to wear a crown of thorns (vs. 17b), mocked (vs. 17-20a; 29-32). And crucified between two criminals (vs. 24-27).
The suffering and crucifixion of Christ are simply horrific beyond my ability to imagine. Nothing that I might experience would come close to what Christ or Paul or any of the first Christians endured. Without their suffering, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Christian today. And without the crucifixion and resurrection, there would have never been any Christians at all.
But their attitude toward suffering persecution was far different from mine. James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (Jas. 1:2-3 ESV). And yet, I find that I don’t care much for the idea of developing steadfastness. I’d rather be the way I am—weak, unsteady, faltering, wavering—anything but steadfast.
Sometimes we hear about Christianity being “under attack.” For example, a man was booed during a panel discussion and subsequently compared the experience to the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-60). But in reality, the two experiences are light years apart: One man was killed painfully and brutally for his faith by an angry mob, the other simply had to deal with some people who were rude. Paul and Silas were arrested, stripped, beaten, and put in prison with their feet in stocks but they prayed and sang while they spent the night in jail (Acts 16:20-25). As a result, their jailer became a Christian, along with his entire family (vs. 29-34). Few if any of us in the Western world have any idea what it is to be persecuted. We Christians have it comparatively easy today. How we deal with ordinary, everyday inconveniences can go a long way toward telling everyone around us whether our faith is genuine. We don’t have to sing about them but we don’t have to complain either.
“But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . . Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Pet. 4:13-14, 16 ESV.)