Some people have a stack of unread books on their nightstand. I have a post-it list of books I would like to write on mine. This is not because I have so much to say but rather, as any credible author will tell you, because I see so much that I want to learn corporately with you and other believers, and that is what writing books forces us to do.
This blog post title, then, is a placeholder for a book-length treatment I would like to write after I complete my doctoral thesis, as it is a book that I believe very much needs to be written. I believe there are many excellent books already written about the lives of persecuted believers, and, no doubt, many more excellent books will be written about them until the full number of our fellow slaves and siblings are martyred.
But if we are not exceedingly careful, no matter how many volumes are written, we may miss the point of each page.
If a martyr story is to serve the purpose for which it is intended, then it will always and emphatically point beyond itself to Christ, whose life and love is re-presented in the martyrdom. If the martyr story does that, then there are two reactions it ought not to produce:
- “I don’t know if I could endure like that if I were persecuted.”
- “This story has really inspired me to be more serious about my Christian life.”
The reason a martyr story ought not to produce these reactions is because it obscures the very truth that God intends to make plain through the martyr story, namely:
God is the giver of every good gift. In every circumstance in our lives he provides what is needed for us to accomplish his perfect purpose for us and for the world. Circumstances of great pain and physical anguish are not exceptions. He provides there, too–even more lavishly.
In other words, the proper reaction to a martyr story is reassurance that God will supply our every need in Christ Jesus in every circumstance. It builds faith, not admiration. It buttresses the belief that when you as a believer face persecution, God will supply the grace commensurate to overcome it. What is needed is not your personal fortitude but rather your simple childlike faith. To say “I don’t know if I could endure persecution” is to say something about God and not something about ourselves. And what is said is not humble but, rather, faithless.
In the same way, martyr stories ought not to cause us to “get serious” about our Christian life, as if they are designed as a kind of curative to carefree and flippant Christian living. We don’t need martyr stories for that purpose, and, in fact, Jesus said that even testimony of someone coming back from the dead can’t fix that problem. Instead, martyr stories call the faithful farther forward, cross in tow. The message of such stories is: The God who has been faithful to you thus far will be faithful to sustain you to the end of the age, even should such come to you at the point of an ISIS halberd. So, advance.
In my years of interacting with persecuted believers, I cannot recall one who said to me, “If my story can inspire even one brother or sister to get serious about their faith or prepare more fully for persecution before it comes, then it will be worth it. I sure wish someone had warned me to take my Christian life more seriously before this happened.” First of all, I think that is a decidedly Western sentiment, which may explain why we Westerners are currently under-represented in the martyr count in comparison to our overall numbers. But even more importantly, what it overlooks is that persecuted believers and martyrs are rarely paragons of virtue distinguished by super-human prayer lives or valiant track records of self-sacrifice. They are surprisingly ordinary people, with feet whose clay quotient differs very little from our own. What they are are people who have received from God what was needed for the day, just as God has given unto us this day our daily bread. It is a different sort of bread that is needed on the day of persecution, but not a different sort of believer.
This is not to eschew the importance of training for the heavenly contest. It is, however, to clarify the kind of training that is called for; namely, not Marine-tough discipleship obstacle courses designed to leather up our holy hides but rather more reflexive and childlike responses of faith and trust in God given more promptly in the face of ever more harrowing life circumstances. We prepare for persecution and martyrdom by simplifying our faith, not by adding anything to it. And that is both harder and easier than it sounds.
If you say to authentic believers in the midst of persecution “You are an inspiration to me,” inevitably they will respond by deflecting your praise to the God who has supplied them even more in their persecution than he did in their prosperity. Good martyr stories ought to do the same. They ought to draw our eyes upward, cause us to relax and say, “Nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, I can advance toward the cross.”
That is why we don’t venerate martyrs. To venerate a martyr–or to admire them, or to praise them, or to only be inspired by them–is to raise up the recipient of the gift rather than the giver. It is a category error of the most egregious degree because it may cause us to walk away from what we read with exactly and precisely the wrong conclusion:
I could never do that.