Early in the 2000’s a group of people from our congregation went to Guatemala to build an addition on a Christian school. Along the way they were waylaid by a group of armed men who forced their bus down a backroad. Once they were out of sight, the robbers forced our group out of the bus and made them lay face down on the ground. They tied their arms behind their back. It felt like it was going to be an execution. Still the members of the group displayed a strong faith. One was able to share a witness about Jesus with the robbers in Spanish. All were strengthened by the trauma. Their faith was strong.
My reaction was concern for my people, which included my wife. But I also had a strange secondary feeling–jealousy. I may sound a little like Gonzo from the Muppets, who is always jealous when others get hurt. I did wish that I was there. Why? I wanted to experience my faith under duress. Would I be strong? Would I be brave? Would I trust God in the situation? I think the answer is “yes”, but I don’t know that for sure.
Many passages in the New Testament are directed at a persecuted church. That was the reality in most places in the first century. America is not like that. At least, not yet. There is a modest degree of rub between the culture and the Church on certain issues: abortion, sexual sins to name a few. But for the most part, the Church is more ignored in America than it is persecuted. The result is perhaps more dangerous. American Christians experience the slow persecution of apathy.
Religious freedom is wonderful, but like a muscle that is never exercised, it does produce a lot of people with weak, untested faith. To make matters even worse, we as parents attempt to create an environment where our children are always happy. We sometimes even succeed. This is not a good situation for growing a dependance on God. Where we have no need, we need not God. This is probably why Jesus says:
23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”Matthew 19:23-24
In a place where there is little persecution and physical needs are more than met, sinful human beings struggle to maintain a growing and productive connection with Christ. Getting a camel through the eye of a needle is a difficult task. But Jesus goes on to say, “anything is possible for God.” In the end, no one in any environment would succeed at receiving faith, maintaining faith, and becoming a productive disciple without God’s help.
So what can we do? You don’t manufacture trials for your faith. Let the world take care of that. There are normal practices of being a disciple of Jesus that we should do whether under duress or at ease. These are meant to grow our connection to Jesus regardless of the environment. These include studying the Bible, prayer, worship, examining your life and confessing sins, and taking the Lord’s Supper. In a slightly different vein a disciple of Jesus should pursue the “divine nature”. In other words, we should do whatever we can to grow in the qualities of God’s personality (i.e. love, joy, kindness, perseverance, peace, there are many. See Gal. 5:22-23, 2 Peter 1:3-11, Eph. 4:25-5:7, and Col. 3:12-17) Doing these things prepare you for either ease or persecution.
Will everyone who receives Christ fulfill all God’s plans for him or her? Clearly not. Will everyone even continue in faith to the end? Sadly no. But if you know the story of Jesus and believe the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Jesus, then God has gotten through to you. Take serious the need to remain strong and the impact of your environment on you.