The Christian life is a life a suffering. One Russian pastor who suffered much under the old Soviet Regime remarked to Nik Ripken, the author of The Insanity of God:
Persecution is like the sun coming up in the east. It happens all the time. It’s the way things are. There is nothing unusual or unexpected about it. Persecution for our faith has always been – and probably always will be – a normal part of life.
But such glum sentiments hit many American Christians like a punch in the gut. We are seeking to find our best and most satisfying life now through Christ. We are following Christ in part so that we can have nice kids, a stable career, fun vacations, and the occasional spiritual high that comes via a powerful sermon, a great choir special, or a short-term mission trip. We are not embracing Christ because we want something hard and messy. We want our best life now.
The Normalcy Suffering and Persecution
But despite our thoughts, the Scriptures actually affirm the Russian pastor’s understanding of suffering. Jesus repeatedly tells us to take up our cross and follow him.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. – Matthew 16:24
While such denial obviously consists of the spiritual realities associated with battling the flesh, they also have physical consequences as well. Jesus says:
And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved…if they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. – Matthew 10: 22, 25b.
To identify with Christ, to call Christ our savior, and to follow Christ, we must be willing to suffer persecution. We must be willing to first fight against our flesh, to battle our desires, and to deprive our sinful hearts. And, we must be willing to endure snide comments from our mother-in-law, embrace a pink-slip from out boss, and to suffer death at the hands of our neighbors. Those who embrace Christ and who refuse to abandon the gospel when the world labels them foolish, hateful, and bigoted will suffer.
Paul makes this point clear in 2 Timothy 1 and 2. Verse 1:8 famously says,
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in the suffering for the gospel by the power of God
In 2 Timothy 2:3 Paul revisits the subject writing, “Share in the suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
Christians who are unashamed of the gospel are those who share in suffering. Suffering and persecution happen all the time. They are like the sun coming up.
The question quite naturally becomes, “How do we do this?” How do we suffer well? How do we avoid seeing suffering and falling away from the gospel like Phygelus and Hermogenes did and stand firm like Onesiphorus (2 Tim 1:15-18)? How to we prepare for and then suffer well?
Paul gives us three analogies or three pictures of the Christian life that help us prepare for and survive suffering.
1. Avoid Civilian Pursuits
First Paul tell us to avoid civilian pursuits and to keep our focus on Christ. “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him (2 Tm 2:4).” We must not allow God’s good gifts to dominate our lives. We must not peruse a spouse to the point where we become entrapped in sexual sin and cease to live for Christ. We must not pursue our kids athletic of theatrical skills to the point we seldom attend church and we regularly neglect our and our children’s spiritual life. We never or seldom read the Scriptures, prayer and serve with others in the church because we are always at the field or at the auditorium. We must not become so devoted to our job and financial success that we neglect family worship and praying with our spouse. We must not allow civilian pleasures, the cares of the world to undo our faith.
We must live to please God. We must live to glorify Christ with our speak, our eating, our drinking our everything ( 1Cor. 10:31). As James McDonald said,
Our decisions do not boil down to meaningless preferences about food, drink, and other minutiae; they boil down to giving glory to God.
We must bend our kids’ sport’s careers to the gospel, we must bend our work schedule to the gospel, and we must bend all of our ambitions to the gospel. We must live as soldiers devoted to their heavenly Lord. And when push comes to shove, baseball, careers, and the world must be shoved aside for the gospel. If we shove the Gospel aside for the world, we will only despair and spiritual ruin. If we hope to be ready for suffering and if we hope to suffer well today, we must live as soldiers who sacrifice all civilian pursuits for Christ.
2. Compete According To The Rules
Second, we must compete according to the rules. Paul writes, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules (2 Tim 2:4).” Brother and sisters we must abide by God’s revealed Words. We must obey the Scriptures if we hope to finish well. The Russians were recently kicked out of the Olympics because they repeatedly used illegal drugs to give their athletes and unfair advantage. And instead of winning more medals and accruing fame and fortune, the Russians were kicked out the competition and won dishonor and condemnation.
If we attempted to live the Christian life by breaking the Word of God, we too will awake to find our lives filled with dishonor and condemnation. If we lie about the health of our church budget to attract deceive people into giving more gifts, if we refuse to report sexual abuse in an attempt to further the gospel, and if we promote non-Christians to assume positions of leadership in our church to gain fame in the community, we will end in ruin. If we hope to survive persecution, if we hope to find spiritual hope in the midst of cancer, and if we hope to find the power to continue loving our unlovable great grandmother whose in hospice, we must compete according to the Word. We must obey God. We cannot expect to experience spiritual blessing while breaking his reveal Word. We must compete according to the rules.
3. Labor Faithfully
Thirdly, we must labor faithfully. The last word picture Paul employs is that of a farmer. “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops (2 Tim 2:6).” Farming is not going to get you notice. Farmers who daily work their farms planting crops, tending to their animals, and working on tractors do not get reality T.V. shows. The world does not stop and notice the farmer who painstakingly plants field after field with soybeans. No, the world is attracted to mid-twenty somethings who wear tank-tops and short skirts while the get into bar fights on the beach and to powerful men and women who gain power through quips, brides, and flashes speeches.
Paul mentions farmers for exactly this reason. The Christian life is hard and often unnoted. The persistent hardships of caring for young children, of counseling teenagers, of taking senior adults to the doctor rarely earn the praise of others. No one asks us to write a book about the many unseen things that we do. But this unseen things are the crux of our spiritual life. The faithfulness that comes from loving unlovable kids, that comes from bearing with unbearable teenagers, and that comes from helping unhelpful seniors is what makes us into the Christians we are today and into those who can suffer well in the future. The boring, plod-along things of life are precisely the things God uses to shape are form us. God is in the mundane. God cares greatly about our interactions with our children, the grocery clerk, and out next door neighbor. The mundane things of our lives are vitally important to our spiritual formation. Embrace those thing through the power of Christ. And as we live out the gospel in the little things, we prepare our hearts for future hardships and sufferings.
If we do work out our live faithfully in the little unnoticed things of life, we will reap. We will not get the leftovers. We get the first fruits. We get salvation; we get heaven; and, we get eternity with Christ!
Suffering, persecution, and hardship are not exciting words. But until Christ comes or until we go to him, they will be constants in the Christian’s vocabulary. Are you ready for the sun to come up in the East?