I risk almost nothing for my faith. And if you live in the West, you probably don’t either. I have been thinking a lot about risk and my faith as of late. I have been praying for an imprisoned brother in Afghanistan. He was being threatened with death if he did not recant his Christian faith. He was able to smuggle a letter out of his dingy prison cell. He told of beatings, sexual abuse and threats of death.
Thankfully, we learned this past week that he was freed after international pressure. His name is Said (or Sayed) Musa. This is a man who risked everything for his faith. And he is a hero of mine. Because Said knows something that we here in the West struggle to believe. Said knows (and knows it to the depths of his soul) that Christ is a greater treasure. Life, family, possessions, land are all negotiable. Christ is not.
As my BFG has been studying through Philippians, one of the more heavy and convicting portions of Paul’s letter is his personal testimony that comes in chapter 3. After strongly mocking and condemning the Judaizers, Paul begins to tear down the very thing that they trusted in; the very thing they found their identity in. Paul destroys confidence in the flesh. If anyone could boast in his accomplishments and his bloodline, it was Paul. Yet, we find him disdaining his accomplishments, his bloodline. We find him joyously throwing it all away, that he might gain Christ, that in the last day, Paul might present before the Father a righteousness that was not his own, but that was given to him in Christ. Paul knew the same thing Said knows. Christ is worth everything. In fact, if family, possessions, country or anything stand in the way of gaining Christ, they must be rejected. They are refuse. Dung. Waste.
When we refuse to risk it all, what we do is clutch onto a bag of crap when we’re being offered the world. We smear it all over our faces, wear it with pride. We yell the loudest that our crap smells the worst. What we need to do is take a shower and take out the trash. Why do we wallow in such filth? How is that we have convinced ourselves that this is good? Well, when all you see is people holding onto their bags of crap, comparing and contrasting the color, smell and texture, it’s easy to think this is normal. This is not normal. Boasting in our self is not the way it is supposed to be. The Church is supposed to be the place where this new reality, the true reality, is displayed. And in the hard and dark places of the word, the Church is displaying it by standing firm with full courage.
After learning of Said’s release, we learned that there is another brother, Shoaib Assadullah, who faces the same fate from which Said was rescued. His crime is giving a Bible to another man. The man who received the Bible turned in Shoaib. He has refused to recant. He is holding out for something better than the bag of crap that’s been taken from him.
Right now my Bible Fellowship Group is going through the book of Philippians. I love this book. The way the Gospel permeates each theme and how Paul masterfully weaves it into every day life is brilliantly life-changing. We are at the point in our study where all the different themes Paul has mentioned are being brought together. Philippians 4:8-9 will be our text this Sunday.
In order to prepare properly for this week’s lesson, I quickly discovered that I was going to have to do some extra reading. Paul was not just listing random virtuous characteristics to which he wanted the Philippians to conform. No, Paul is engaging in a little contextualization by borrowing terms and ideas from the popular moral philosophy of the day: Stoicism.
I had a general idea about what Stoics believed (something about controlling emotions…hence our English word “stoic”), but in my reading, what I discovered was that despite this moral philosophy being over two millennia old, it’s over-arching view of reality (dare I say it’s metanarrative) still holds much weight in our world. What I discovered fascinated me, but also caused me to pause. I paused because I fear our church pews are filled with Stoics.
A quick and dirty summary of what the Stoics believed was that there is an absolute reality, a divine reason (the logos) that governs the world. Stoics were deterministic, meaning that they believed life was pre-determined for them. The goal of man was to discover and live inline with the plan of the logos. This is the highest virtue and the path to happiness. Self-control was highly valued. For to be consumed by emotions (anger, lust, envy, etc.), was to cloud your understanding of the logos. And if you didn’t understand and live in line with the logos, you would suffer. Suffering was to be avoided at all cost, because suffering said something about you. Either you were ignorant of the logos, or rebelling against the logos. The Stoic believed that it was only the virtuous man who was free. The wicked man was a slave. He desired things contrary to the logos. One stoic described the wicked man as dog tied to a cart, forced to go where ever the cart went. But the virtuous man had bent his will inline with the logos. Thus his will was the same as the logos.
It was at this point that I was utterly fascinated and utterly concerned. I was fascinated, because the parallels to Christianity are so close. They got some things right. But as the old cliché goes, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. I became utterly concerned because, since the Stoic view is so very close to Christianity, many who fill the pews each Sunday morning have bought into this way of thinking and living without ever realizing it. They have been conformed to this world and think they’re conforming to Christ.
This stoicism manifests itself in two ways in the modern day church. The first is in the pursuit of the mysterious will of God. This past fall, I had the privilege of leading a small group discussion on the book Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung. The book was dealing with the modern fascination when it comes to God’s will. The fascination borders on obsession to the point of paralyzation. We desire so much to do God’s will that choices become almost an impossible burden. Who you marry, what college and major, where you live and attend church become unbearable weights that crush us into doing nothing or changing our mind every other day. Because if you pick the wrong thing, you have just missed God’s best. You will be less happy because you somehow missed the mysterious will of God. This mindset wreaks of Stoicism like two-week old guacamole in the trash can (someone remind me to take out my trash later). Our Stoicism goes even deeper. The Stoics preached self-discipline to avoid the hazy understanding of the logos that emotions brought and some Christians will preach the exact same thing. Moralism becomes a means by which we get from God that which we want. We believe that moral living is in line with God and to know his will more clearly, we must live morally. Yet, the Gospel paints a much different picture. The will of God is not mysterious (at least his will of desire or will of command). How we are to live is quite clear. God did not leave us groping for what it means to live in harmony with Him. Instead, He acted. He intervened. Jesus came, lived a life we could not live, died a death we should have died and has brought us into harmony with the Father. Do you want to live in harmony with the over-arching reality of this world? Embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For there is no other way to achieve it. Moral effort will bring no greater clarity. Moral effort will not bring you happiness. Moral effort will only deepen the brokenness of your relationship with God of the universe. The great paradox of the Christian Gospel is that only in abandoning moral effort as a means to salvation will you become a moral person. The abandonment of self is the only way to save self. The Gospel undermines and overthrows Stoic notions of living in line with the logos.
The second way Stoicism manifests itself in the church is in regards to suffering. Too many Christians have embraced the idea that if they live a moral life or go to church every Sunday or read their Bible on occasion, they have obliged God to bless them. They are living in harmony with the logos. Therefore they ought to be blessed, to be happy, to be wealthy. Yet, they find themselves suffering. They find that the more they try to perform, the harder that life gets. Before long, they can take it no more. They go before the throne of God and vomit up complaint after complaint. They grumble, they murmur, they question the value of their fidelity to Him. All the while, they prove themselves aligned not with the reality that governs this world, but with a counter-reality. They are aligned on the side of the serpent, just as their fore-fathers were in the wilderness. Again, the Gospel teaches us something completely different. Suffering is not a sign that we are somehow out of line with the Father. No, sometimes suffering is the very mark of being completely in line with the Father. The greatest example of this is the passion of Jesus. The passion here refers to his suffering and death. Passion is what the Stoics refused. It is what they ran from with all their might. Yet, Jesus, Son of God, the very Logos Himself, embraces His passion. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross, despising it’s shame. Those who love the Gospel are those who embrace their suffering. Because to lose one’s life is the only way to gain it again. We fear not death, for we will be raised again, just as Jesus was resurrected on the third day. Self-sacrifice, not self-discipline becomes the priority.
What I find so brilliantly life-changing about Philippians 4:8, is that Paul clearly understood that there is only one thing that can kill the little Stoic that lives in all of us. That one thing is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dwelling on it’s depth, it’s width, it’s height is a task for which we will be engaged for all of eternity, for it will continue to surpass our understanding. We will never exhaust the Gospel. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has worked such a marvelous salvation on our behalf.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
“Man who is born of woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like shadow and continues not.” – Job 14:1-2
My grandma just died. Life is so short and so fragile. Despite all the great mercies of medical knowledge and technology, life cannot always be maintained. Death still reigns in this world. Everyone will eventually die. There is no getting around it. Pain and suffering exist in this world. They will continue to exist until Jesus comes again. However, because of Jesus, death, pain & suffering take on new meaning. Death is not the end. The sting was removed by Jesus’ death. Death can now be embraced, rather than feared. It is the way to God. My grandma is in the presence of Jesus right now and I can’t think of a better place to be. Pain and suffering can be endured because our hope is in Jesus. We know that this life is not everything. Right now, we are but mist, eventually, we will be living forever in the service of our King and God. I do not deny the raw feelings of death or suffering. It is real and painful, but our pain is not pointless. God is doing a marvelous work in us through it. Embrace it and ask God for eyes to see and ears to hear. That is my prayer in my moment of pain. “O God, use this to mold me more into your likeness.”
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” – I Peter 2:19
The injustice in our world is rampant. Sin reigns in the hearts of people and the end result has been great injustice. Slavery, to this day, is still practiced in the world. Men beat their wives because they cooked the meal wrong, or worse, burned it. Children are abused, both physically and emotionally. Injustice is all around us. Because of the suffering that exists, our world has created a certain aura around those who suffer. Suffering in and of itself has become a means of righteousness. I think that Peter was aware of this and gave us a warning. I believe Peter is pointing us away from this empty suffering. The reason I believe this is the little clause he added to the sentence…”mindful of God.” Without this clause, the focus is no longer on suffering, but God Himself. It is only when we suffer with God on our mind that we suffer graciously. What does it mean to be mindful of God? I think it is an important question to ask. If we are to suffer as God has called us to, we ought to know what this clause means. The perfect example was Jesus. How did he suffer? What was it about his disposition and actions that made his suffering worthwhile? I think Peter answers our question. In v.23, Peter tells us how Jesus responded to the injustice he suffered. “When He was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” I believe we have big shoes to fill. Let’s discuss this one part at a time. Jesus did not return evil for evil. There was no tit for tat, no eye for an eye. As He preached in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turned the other cheek. This is truly amazing A God who does that which He commands His creation! To deepen the thought, consider this; Jesus is God, God has decreed that revenge is His, He will repay for injustice. In perfect obedience, Jesus laid aside His rights as God and subjected Himself to the authority of the Father and live in the manner of a servant. That is the type of God we serve; One who will show us how to live.
Let’s continue pondering the verse. Peter ends by saying that while suffering, Jesus did not threaten. Let me stop for a moment. Here is the King of the Universe, with all authority in heaven and earth, hanging from a tree. I be the legions of angels were ready to strike. Flaming sword and chariot were waiting for even a breath of an order to engage. Or even yet, He could of justly spoken to them their coming condemnation. He could have spoken in great detail about the horrible and insatiable pain that awaited them for their crime. Yet, He was silent before them, like a lamb led to the slaughter. Instead, Peter tells us what Jesus did. He entrusted Himself to God, the Father, who judges justly. Wow! That is what it means to to be mindful of God in our suffering. To know that He is the one who judges justly. He is the One with ultimate final authority. He is sovereign overall. He is the righteous One who executes justice. No matter what suffering you endure, if you do so unjustly, consider God! Will He not set the account right in the end? Does He not delight in making things new and right? Be mindful of Jesus in your unjust suffering. Know that your injustice is not forever. It is a mist that disappears in the morning.
There is one implication I would like to address. If we must suffer with God on our mind as ultimate judge, what does this mean for those who suffer and are not mindful of Him? They suffer in vain. We are meant to identify with Jesus in our suffering and if we do so without considering Him, we will revile in return, we will threaten and the anger that wells up inside of us over our perceived injustice will ultimately destroy us if God allows it to.
Dear friends, be mindful of God in your suffering. Don’t be like the world. Be like Jesus. Ask for the strength and He will supply it!