(This post is directed at my fellow Jesus followers. It this isn't where you are right now, then feel free to come back tomorrow.)
I'm halfway through reading the book, The Insanity of God, by Nik Ripken. The past four years have been a bit tough in any number of ways, and I will admit to periods of struggling mightily with my faith as a result. Everyone goes through periods such as this; those times of wondering, "Do I really believe this?", "How do I reconcile evil with the goodness of God?", "Does God still love me if all I see around me are the remains of seemingly unanswered prayers?" That kind of stuff. When a friend mentioned this book that she had read, about a missionary who was struggling with the same kind of questions, I jumped on it.
In searching for the answers to her questions, the author visited countries where persecution of Christians had (or has) been intense. A place where it is truly costly to follow Jesus. The stories he hears are both inspiring and more than a little terrifying. When reading such stories from the comfort of one's home, where, regardless of what anyone believes, we have incredible freedom and the police are not going to come knocking on the door of a house merely because there is a Bible inside, it always makes me wonder, what would I do? Would I be as strong as these believers I am reading about? If you are like me, you probably have real doubts about this. Once again, I am confronted with the question, "Do I really believe all this?"
It is obvious that the believers in the persecuted countries do. As the author also struggles with his own doubts, and as he wrestles with what to do with the persecuted church, he comes to some realizations that I have found helpful and thought-provoking. Because I am still wrestling with them, I thought I'd let you wrestle as well.
The first is that persecution of believers is the normal state of things for the church in our fallen world. It is we in the west who are living without persecution who are living in an unusual state. At one point in the story, one of the Christians whom the author was interviewing, pointedly asked, "When did you stop reading your Bible?" He went onto explain that this was how things were. This is what Jesus' followers are to expect in a world aligned with evil. Why would anyone think any differently? "When did you stop reading your Bible?"
The second is that, I believe, we Christians in the west get our priorities mixed up. We forget the two things we are definitely called to do, and instead focus on things that we shouldn't even be concerned with. In an interview with another man who had spent years in prison because he would not recant his faith, the man says to the author, "I took great joy that I was suffering in my country, so that you could be free to witness in your country." The author immediately tries to get out from under the guilt that he feels is being put upon him. The man replies, "Son, that's the debt of the cross!"
What brought joy to that man sitting in prison? The idea that in other, freer parts of the world, Jesus was being shared openly with others. That's it. It wasn't that Christians in the west were protecting their rights, or enacting legislation, or building church buildings, or creating media campaigns. No, it was that Christians in the west were simply telling other people about Jesus, and allowing themselves to become more and more like Him.
I hope that makes your squirm as much as it did me. When did we lose our way? Our persecuted brothers and sisters, in reading their stories, have plenty of joy in horribly adverse circumstances. We here? Not so much. We are a depressed and angry and pretty unlovable bunch, even in the midst of a level of wealth and freedom that has never before seen in history. We are not acknowledging the debt we owe the cross, instead, we have taken it as our right, with nothing owed in return. I fear we have squandered the gifts that God has given us... the freedom, the wealth, the ease... the cross. And I wonder if it is too late for the western church to turn back.