When the Going Gets Tough
When the Going Gets Tough by Rev. L. John Gable
November 12, 2017
“If any of you suffer as a Christian do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because of this name.”
In preparation for this message I reached out to my friend, Dr. Rob Weingartner, the Director of the Presbyterian Outreach Foundation, and he shared this story.
Rev. Mofid Karajili began his ministry as the Presbyterian pastor in Homs, Syria, the same week the fighting began. It was the first large-scale fighting in a war that has now lasted for more than six years. In his community, thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Their church building was destroyed by bombs in February, 2012, and many of the member’s homes were destroyed, so they fled to towns in the hills and valleys outside the city in search of safety.
120 families make up the church in Homs and Pastor Mofid shares a story typical of many of his parishioners. A bomb damaged the home of a family living in a part of Homs were many clashes were taking place. Finding their car riddled with bullets, the parents grabbed a bit of clothing and fled with their two young-adult daughters to Damascus where they had relatives. When there was a lull in the fighting they made their way back to remove some of their possessions only to find the house completely looted of 32 years of belongings.
As the fighting continued the now scattered Confirmation class could not meet together, so Pastor Mofid and an elder traveled from town to village over dangerous roads and across battle lines over a two year period to meet with young people in the congregation. The fighting eventually stopped in Homs, and with help from Presbyterians in the United States the church building was rebuilt and the Confirmation class was received into membership in the newly regathered church family.
Stories similar to these, of suffering and violence and persecution, as well as hopeful endurance are well documented not only in Syria, but around the globe: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, China, Egypt, North Korea, 65 countries in all report incidences of religious persecution. The Center for Global Christianity cites that 90,000 Christians were killed for their faith in 2016 and Open Doors USA reports that there are 215 million Christians around the globe facing some degree of persecution.
“If any of you suffer as a Christian do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because of this name.”
As we hear stories such as these I am humbled by the cost of discipleship many of our brothers and sisters around the world have to endure, and how painless my profession of faith really is. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” We read this morning in I Peter, “Beloved, do not be surprised by the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange was happening to you.” Those first followers in the early church, as well as Jesus Himself, understood something that it would be very easy for us to neglect: suffering is part of the Christian faith. In fact, history has shown that suffering is the norm of the Christian faith in most times and places which means that our experience, by and large, is the exception not the rule. Yet, history has also shown that the Church has grown fastest during times of persecution and suffering. In those circumstances, naming the name of Jesus has meaning and consequence.
When the name “Christian” was first used it was a term of ridicule and contempt mocking those early believers. It is no coincidence then that the Greek word for “witness” is the same as that for “martyr”. To bear the name of Christ is to be willing to suffer for the name of Christ, so Peter writes, “Rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when His glory is revealed…if any of you suffer as Christian do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear His name.”
Even as we are humbled, and called to pray for our brothers and sisters who suffer for the cause of Christ, I also admit that I wonder (perhaps with you), “Why does God allow His righteous to be persecuted and how do they endure it?” I heard and asked that very same question this week following the horrific massacre at 1st Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. “What is it about the faith of those who endure suffering and persecution that enables them to go on?” Which then makes me wonder about my own faith and whether I could endure what they have had to endure? Such experiences make real the fifth and final principle of our Reformed faith: the Perseverance of the Saints.
This doctrine was originally formulated out of the controversy surrounding the question of “once saved always saved.” The debate raged in the early 17th century, if a person once professes his/her faith in Jesus Christ, and then for whatever reason, renounces that faith, have they lost their salvation? That question continues to be debated still by some now four centuries later. It is unfortunate that the name of this doctrine suggests that it is all about the saints (folks like you and me) and our perseverance in times of trouble, because that is not the central issue at all. While it is true that we are called to persevere as we endure suffering or hardship, of much more importance is the perseverance of God and His grace. While from the human perspective we often think of faith as our having to hold on to God, this doctrine reminds us that it is God who is doing the holding on to us. Calvin’s principle is clearly stated in Paul’s letter to the Philippians when he says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (2:12-13). This doctrine then gives expression to the conviction that God will complete the good work which He has begun in us and in His creation. So, it is not a boast about what we have done or are doing to maintain our faith, or an argument about what others should do, much less a critique and judgment when faith is abandoned or lost, rather it is a confession, a prayer, a hope that once we have known the grace of God we will never lose it, and that we will trust that God will continue to work His purposes out in us. It is a call, an encouragement to the saints to persevere, not because we are able but because God is able.
It is this confidence in the purposefulness of God that enables Christians to endure the kind of persecution and suffering which many of our brothers and sisters, even now, have to endure. It is the steadfast conviction and hope that the eternal purposes of God, His truth and justice and righteousness, are greater and more enduring than any present threat of ridicule or violence or even death. As German pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke writes, “Those who know that at the end is God’s peace do not merely cry from the depths; they also sing from the depths.” This is the faith expressed by the Psalmist David in the 46th Psalm when he writes of the earth moving and the mountains being shaken into the midst of the sea, of nations being at war and kingdoms tottering. Out of the depths of this chaos David makes a profound confession of faith. “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear for God is with us…Be still, and know that I am God.” What he is saying is not that there aren’t experiences which threaten and terrify us, of course we know that there are, but that God is with us and that God is greater than anything which could ever threaten His purposes or separate us from His love. We then are called to persevere because God’s grace perseveres and is able to bring His work of salvation to completion.
Over the course of this series we have tried to show that each of these five doctrines of Reformed theology are not isolated principles to be understood independent of one another, but that they are pieces of a unified whole, various facets of a theological gem. Whereas the doctrine of Total Depravity underscores the pervasiveness of our sin, it also convicts us of our need for a Savior, which then allows us to embrace the Good News of God’s Unconditional Election and the provision He has given for our salvation by faith in Jesus Christ (Limited Atonement). The doctrine of Irresistible Grace is the assurance that despite all the evidence to the contrary God continues to work His purposes out in human history which, when taken together, gives us good reason and bold confidence to persevere. So the resounding message of Scripture and of our faith is: despite the circumstances of our lives or of this present age, we do not lose heart or give up hope. God is still at work and isn’t finished with us yet. “He who began a good work in us is faithful to complete it.”(Philippians 1:6)
This promise of God is the source of all Christian hope, and it is given to any who have endured, or perhaps are enduring, what St. John of the Cross, so aptly describes as “the dark night of the soul.” Unlike many of our brothers and sisters, we may not suffer persecution or ridicule for our faith, but we do know what it means to suffer, so we too need to know that the promises of God are sure. We too need to know that God is with us and that “God is able to work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). We too need to know that violence and evil and sickness and death are not going to have the last word with us, but that God is with His grace and mercy and love. We too need to hear this promise and lay hold of this faith when we are given the diagnosis of a dread disease, “Be still and know that I am God.” When a husband, a wife, a parent, a child, a friend is taken in death, by disease or addiction, by their own hand or that of another, “Be still and know that I am God.” When anger flares and the desire for revenge burns deep within us, “Be still and know that I am God.” When words are spoken by someone we love that are hurtful and demeaning, when disappointment comes in the form of a pink slip or a notice of a transfer, divorce papers, a failing grade, or foreclosure, “Be still and know that I am God.” When bullets fly in churches and on quiet streets and innocent lives are taken, “Be still and know that I am (still) God.” This is not a call to passivity in the face of evil, that we are not to work for peace and to advocate for justice, that we are not to push back against the forces of darkness with all the light made available to us, but it is to say that we cannot battle these forces alone. There are things that need doing in the world, wrongs that need to be righted, that we cannot do on our own by our own strength. We need to rely on a Power greater than our own and trust that no matter how great the heartache or the grief, the pain or the uncertainty or injustice there is a reality of goodness and godliness that is greater still, so “Be still and know that I am God.”
It would be naïve of us to think that just because we are Christians we will be spared from the trials and difficulties of life, although there are some who preach a false Gospel which would suggest that. In fact, it would be truer to say our sufferings are more likely to increase as we live in an increasingly godless world. But that is all the more reason to hold firmly to the promises of our faith. To the question of suffering, Edmund Stiemle writes, “We are never given an explanation, but an assurance of a Presence, a power which enables us not to escape, but to live through the absurdity of a world of evil and pain and suffering, and the power to overcome it.” Peter admonished our first century brothers and sisters to see their suffering as part of God’s plan of salvation. We too must learn to look through eyes of faith to see our present struggle against the backdrop of eternity. In his book, Prayer Journey Through the Psalms, John Calvin Reid responds to the cry of the Psalmist with this prayer, “I cannot understand the mystery of affliction and pain, O God, but it is a great comfort to know that Your last word for Your children is not suffering, but salvation. Give me grace then to draw no final conclusions about Your providence until I have read the last page of Your redemption. May my faith and steadfastness be such that I shall not turn aside from the path of trust and obedience, no matter how steep and rough it may be, before I have come to the last turn in the road and gazed upon the streets of the Eternal City.”
The doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints is a call to do the very thing we think we dare not do when the battle rages around and within us: that is, to surrender. But indeed this is a call to surrender to the sure and certain hope that we need not cry very loud because God is so much nearer than we could ever imagine, and that He continues to work His eternal purposes out, even in ways we cannot see or understand. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is an appropriate place for us to end this series, for it is a call to undiminished hope, not in our ability to endure, but in God’s unwavering ability to sustain us and to bring all things to His glorious redemption.
To the glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.