“Satan keeps people in darkness by means of their fear of death,” writes Josef Ton, the distinguished octogenarian Romanian theologian and author of the seminal Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven. “When a witness to Christ demonstrates that she is free from that fear, by accepting to die out of love for the very people who kill her, the bondage of slavery to fear is broken.”
In other words, when with the love and character of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit we willingly and even joyfully endure taunting, abuse, and death, we spread in blessed contagion the freedom from the fear of death that, according to Hebrews 2:14-15, is back of all of our cowardice as Christians, as well as the cowardice of our human race. As my friend and colleague, Doug McKenzie, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Canada, says, “This is a faith worth dying for.”
It is not, however, a faith worth killing for, whether that murder comes in the form of “protecting” Christians from martyrdom through military intervention or strongly-worded denunciations and expressions of outrage. “Violence and murder are part of Satan’s nature,” Ton reminds. “Christ could not use violence and murder as His methods of operation.”
What method was left for Christ to use? He was confronting the one who was evil, who used lies to deceive people, who was hateful, and who used all forms of violence and ultimately murder. In stark contrast to this, Jesus was all goodness and truth and love, and He was in no way inclined to use violence and murder. He came with goodness, expressing the truth of God, and doing it in love. But what was His ultimate weapon? We know it, don’t we? His supreme weapon was self-sacrifice, a process by which He absorbed into Himself all the evil, all the deception, and all the hate of the world and died with them on the cross, melting them in His own blood!
Therefore, we should not respond to the persecution of Christians by holding them in admiration and awe, nor should we teach or encourage others to do so. This causes Christians to think of martyrdom as an extroardinary and commendable action, when truly it is distinguishable from the rest of the Christian life in degree but not in kind, i.e., taking up your cross daily across the whole of your lifetime is not different than taking up your cross in a moment, unless you inappropriately spiritualize the daily carrying of the cross.
Nor should we respond to reports of Christian persecution with outrage and anger, as if what was happening was tragic. Outrage and anger are not the weapons with which Christ has armed us. He disallowed their use during his own persecution (crying out for all time, “No more of this!”), and when he is shown addressing a persecutor, there is no outrage in his countenance or speech. When martyrs call out for him to be outraged, they are instructed in no uncertain terms to be patient. There is a purpose for persecution, and Christ himself knows experientially (and perfectly, according to the author of Hebrews) that there is no other way for this purpose to be accomplished. Writes Ton:
Satan no longer has a legal right to anyone, yet people are free to believe his lies and to fulfill his evil desires. Thus, they remain enslaved by him. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, when the Light came into the world many people preferred to remain in darkness, because their deeds were evil (John 3:19). The Father sent Jesus Christ as a Lamb, that is, as a totally gentle and defenseless being, to meet the cruel and merciless beasts of this world. He was to defeat them with the Word of truth, proclaimed in goodness and love and sealed with self-sacrifice. And He did it! Now, however, He turns to us, His branches. The Lamb of God says to us: Although I have won a major and decisive victory, the war is not yet over. It must continue, so that we may win more people for our Kingdom. You are the ones who must engage in this war! I send you out as lambs, totally defenseless and vulnerable, to the cruel wolves of this world. You are equipped now with the Gospel of Truth, which you will impart to them in goodness and love, and if need be, you will testify to this Truth to the point of self-sacrifice.
Provocatively, Ton notes that self-sacrificial love is not a way that the gospel is spread, but the way, which reminds us once again that martyrdom is the liminal edge of self-sacrificial love but not a different plane. Ton says he learned this through his own suffering:
Jesus addressed me personally when He said: “As My Father sent Me, so send I you.” I came to see that for two thousand years, Christ has been conquering more and more territories on this earth through people who accept to go and preach the Gospel to evil and hateful and cruel people, and who accept to give their very lives in the process. Most of the places conquered by Christ were won when a martyr sprinkled that territory with her blood! In short, I understood that martyrdom is not a tragedy. On the contrary, it is a method of conquest!
Persecuting Christians may be a strategy of the enemy, but enduring persecution in love unto death is God’s strategy, his only one. That we turn to other less costly strategies is a sign that we do not understand the enemy’s power of deception nor the reliance of human beings on sin in all its forms as a life-sustaining oxygen. That we can free the mind of others without suffering in our own bodies is a tragically poor reading of Scripture. The disciples’ hearts may have burned within them when the resurrected Jesus opened their minds to the centrality of divine suffering in Scripture, but it was not until he broke bread–and thus reminded them of his sacrifice unto death in the sacrament given for that express purpose–that they recognized him and were “at once” transformed into evangelists.
As Ton notes, this is why in the early church the believers did not respond to incidents of persecution with calls for government intervention and protection but instead “when a persecution started in Smyrna and some of the Christians were arrested, tortured, and martyred [between A.D. 156 and 163], others rushed to the authorities and tried to turn themselves in so they could become martyrs as well.”
So how should we respond when we hear reports of brothers and sisters being persecuted and martyred?
- By praying for the Lord’s continued provision to them in the time of trial.
- By giving thanks to God for the “better resurrection” that awaits them.
- By repenting at the reminder that suffering disgrace for the Name is a privilege, not a tragedy.
- By explaining to others that what is happening is not a tragedy or surprise but rather God’s great love for sinners on display through his children, calling all to repent and believe. Invite them to receive this same love.
- By living a life of self-sacrifice so that everything you do is consistent with rather than in stark contrast to those being martyred. This is your reasonable service, nothing more.
We conclude with Ton’s note that
In the cruel act of crucifixion, the true nature of God was revealed. His essence was shown to be perfect love, utterly and unconditionally giving itself to others, even enduring torture and death for them. The glory of God shines through the beauty and splendor of self-sacrifice as nowhere else and, most importantly, this glory of God, the glory of His self-sacrificial love, shines out again and again in each martyrdom. For this reason, John referred to the martyrdom of Peter as the “kind of death” by which Peter “would glorify God” (John 21:19). It was also the reason why Paul was so determined to glorify Christ by his own death (see Philippians 1:20).
So we also should be determined–joyfully determined–to take up the cross, that the glory of God would shine most brightly in our own lives, whether as martyrs in an instant or martyrs across a lifetime.
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“Nor should we respond to reports of Christian persecution with outrage and anger, as if what was happening was tragic.”
It is tragic if we love our lives.
Philippians 1:21 “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. 23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better”
We are tempted every day to hold so fast to our family and loved ones. Death is something we have nothing to relate too. It’s something we have never experienced and must completely trust God with. It’s the ultimate test of faith.
Yet, God makes it clear that no one actually *dies* the way the world wants you to think. Everyone will never stop living forever, even if they appear to sleep for a little while.
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” 1 Thessalonians
Good word, Xeoncross!
“It is tragic if we love our lives.” Is it somehow “less than holy” to enjoy our freedoms, families, friends, opportunities and material blessings, as long as we have them?
Always good to hear from you, Myrtle. May God bless you as you continue to think deeply on these issues. No, it is not less than holy to enjoy our freedoms, families, friends, opportunities, and material blessings. In fact, there is a Hasidic Jewish saying that when we die God will hold us accountable for every gift he gave us on earth that we failed to enjoy. I don’t know whether or not that is actually true, but it certainly is consistent with the character of the God who is the giver of every good gift. But what IS tragic is wrongly valuing what we have been given, and I am certainly guilty of this at times myself. We tend to place a very high (sometimes absolute) value on earthly gifts and a comparatively low value on eternal ones. So when we sacrifice eternal gifts for earthly blessings, this is where we usually run afoul of Scripture and God’s character.
This article reminds me of the Christian missionaries that confronted non-Christian religions that taught people were victims of fate. If Christians had not confronted false teachings, got bad laws changed, and aggressively fought for the rights of others, they’d still be burning widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, for one thing. If Christians had not fought and killed non-Christian hordes, all of Europe would be enslaved. I applaud the efforts of Christian soldiers and statesmen to bring freedom and opportunity to those under the heel of communism and Islam. I shared this with a few friends and one man replied, ” Loving ones enemies DOES NOT imply encouraging heinous behavior by passive acceptance. I firmly believe there are three categories of people in this context: WOLVES, SHEEP, and SHEEPDOGS. Wolves are understandably the evil element in any society that preys on the innocents, the sheep. Sheep are what they are. Good people incapable of thinking bad of others, incapable of surviving a violent confrontation forced upon them. Sheepdogs are the intermediary, the protectors, the ones given the capability and willingness to protect the sheep.” I agree with him, that God established governments for the people’s protection. That we should pray to live peaceable lives as long as we’re here on earth. When the time comes to die, we should be prepared to enter the gates of heaven, but not until God says, Enough. This world is not my (eternal) home, but God placed me here while I wait to go there. Yes, martyrdom may be the vehicle for me to get there, but like the apostle Paul I intend to use my earthly US citizenship to my advantage, and pray that God intervenes and protects us awhile longer. I realize events are leading us to that final judgment, and seem to be accelerating under this particular president. I realize that this present world system is not all there is, but for the time being, this is what we have. I ache for the people who’ve never been free from government oppression a day in their lives. This is a reminder of just how blessed we’ve been in the US, and to use my freedom to share the gospel with others.
Good to hear from you, Myrtle. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I suspect your friend may be creating a bit of a straw man version of what I have shared here. These are challenging questions, and they deserve vigorous discussion, Even where we disagree, I think it’s helpful to understand each other well. I would definitely not advocate a passive anything, that’s for sure! I think your friend may be the first person ever to describe me as passive. I also am fascinated by the idea of being incapable of thinking bad things about others. That is really quite different than what I am suggesting here. Let me recommend a book that I think may express better what I am seeking to say here. The book is called New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruction Nationalism in Korea, 1896-1937. It talks about the fundamental transformation of Korea by Christian missionaries. The early missionaries to Korea and the early Christians in Korea believed that if they wanted to see transformation in the nation, it would come by first changing individuals–not through laws or military action. Also, I would urge caution about introducing a category like sheepdogs into a Christian context. I always encourage Christians to stick to the vocabulary and thought frameworks given to us in the New Testament. Finally, consider that Paul’s appeals to government were not for his benefit or self-preservation, but for the sake of the gospel. There were times were Paul accepted a beating where he could have avoided it (he could have even avoided being sent to Rome as a prisoner), but he became a prisoner for the sake of the gospel. Great to hear that you are sharing the gospel. May more American Christians follow your lead to use their freedom of religion to share freedom in Christ! Remember that the two are not synonymous, though: It is possible to experience freedom in Christ anywhere, even where freedom of religion is absent. And it is possible not to experience freedom in Christ even where freedom of religion is well established.
“Sheep are what they are. Good people incapable of thinking bad of others, incapable of surviving a violent confrontation forced upon them.”
I’m not sure who you are describing here. I’ve never met (or heard of) a single person like this. I think you might be mixing two thoughts.
1) The world’s natural dispensation is toward evil and sin. You don’t have to teach the world to push back – our sin nature does it automatically. Self-defence is the #1 in the world’s eyes because once you’re dead – you’re dead. That’s it. Game over. The world has no hope or eternal purpose.
2) On the other hand, you have non-violent christians like Paul, John, Stephen, and ultimately Jesus. These people *only see* bad people in need of salvation. However, they also trust God enough to know that nothing will stop his plan and will from happening. God miraculously saves some of these people… and some he allows the world to martyr. Either way, all these christians ultimately die and start their eternity free from the sin, sorrow, and pain.
Since I see no actual *real* christians trying to defend themselves with physical weapons – my only conclusion is that self-defence and war as a way to further God’s kingdom is only something pushed by first-world, american-dream-living, spoiled rich people like you and I, Myrtle.
Even though I live in a travel trailer – I am so rich that I make that rich young ruler look like a joke. I can buy any kind of food I want from anywhere in the world, I can book a flight anywhere, I own a car, I can learn from any school, I have an amazing piece of technology called a phone that allows me to speak to anyone in the world instantly, and the list goes on and on.
“Since I see no actual *real* christians trying to defend themselves with physical weapons – my only conclusion is that self-defence and war as a way to further God’s kingdom is only something pushed by first-world, american-dream-living, spoiled rich people like you and I, Myrtle.” This may be one of the issues the Lord will explain more fully later. Paul used weapons of warfare as examples of the Christian’s spiritual warfare. He did not condemn them. I believe there are many “real” Christians who believe in self-defense, defending one’s family, as well as defending one’s nation as members of the military. What would the world be like today if all Christians had refused to take up arms since the time of Christ?
Your question (“What would the world be like today if all Christians had refused to take up arms since the time of Christ?”) is well worth contemplating, Myrtle. We do tend to equate nonviolence with passivity, but that is our equation, not the Bible’s. I would tend to say not that Paul uses weapons of war as examples but instead that he and Christ himself, along with the other writers of Scripture, redefine warfare and what weapons are effective, i.e., not flesh and blood weapons or human swords but rather “the sword of his mouth” (as in Isaiah 49 and Revelation 2). There are indeed many “real” Christians who believe in self-defense, and I consider it an area where well-informed and mature believers disagree. Therefore, my commitment is to disagree charitably and with understanding and empathy regarding the complexity of the issues involved.
Xeoncross said, “It is tragic if we love our lives.” Maybe Xeon should have said, “it is tragic if we love our lives more than we love God.” The rich young ruler went away sorrowful because he loved his riches more than God. Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” I’ve heard that means enjoy everything God has provided, but hold it lightly. Surrender everything, including that “unknown bundle” to God. Now, I believe that, but this “spiritual position” sounds like Reactive Detachment Disorder, present in children who’ve known early trauma and loss and find it very difficult to “bond” with adoptive parents?
There is certainly always that possibility, Myrtle, though I think that if a person found it easy to give up earthly relationships, then it is not really sacrifice but rather expediency. Certainly in the case of the Father and the Son, John 3:16 describes the deepest love which is given in sacrifice, rather than a lack of it. So let’s pray together that the divine love is the model and prompt for those who are showing the love of Christ to their enemies today.