As we celebrate the Easter season and Jesus' resurrection from the grave on April 21st, I want to devote my letter to the experience of hardship and persecution that often accompanies the Christian life. We are taught in Scripture to adopt a certain mental toughness that is designed to protect us when trouble shows up unannounced. The Apostle Peter referred to that mindset when he wrote, "Therefore, since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with this same attitude" (1 Peter 4:1).
This aspect of the Christian life seems to be underrepresented in today's teachings. We often hear about the blessings and benefits of devotion to the Master, and they are incalculable. But less is said about the cost of discipleship. Jesus left no doubt about Kingdom priorities when He said, "...anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me" (Matthew 10:38). These were powerful words, referring to His approaching death by crucifixion. Jesus repeated the charge a short time later, saying to His disciples, "If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24).
The Apostle Paul later used another analogy to express a similar concept. He instructed believers to "endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer" (2 Timothy 2:3-4). These short verses have intrigued me for years. What do you suppose Paul meant by his reference to military service? How is the training of a soldier relevant to the life of a Christian? And what does it mean to "endure hardship like a good soldier?"
I attempted to answer these questions in my book, When God Doesn't Make Sense. Because so many of you have written us to ask for prayer and to tell us of your own pain and sorrow, I thought it might be helpful to share an excerpt from my book that analyzes the mindset of a soldier.
We have all seen John Wayne movies that made combat look like a romantic romp in the park. Men who have been through it tell a different story. The most graphic descriptions of battle I've read came from Bruce Catton's excellent books on the American Civil War, including The Army of the Potomac. They provide a striking understanding of the toughness of both Yankee and Rebel soldiers. Their lives were filled with deprivation and danger that is hardly imaginable today. It was not unusual for the troops to make a two-week forced march, during which commanders would threaten the stragglers at sword point.
The men were often thrown into the heat of a terrible battle just moments after reaching the front. They would engage in exhausting combat for days, interspersed by sleepless nights on the ground—sometimes in freezing rain or snow. During the battle itself, they ate a dry, hard biscuit called hardtack, and very little else. In less combative times, they could add a little salt pork and coffee to their diet. That was it!
As might be expected, their intestinal tracts were regularly shredded by diarrhea, dysentery and related diseases that decimated their ranks. The Union Army reported upwards of 200,000 casualties from disease, often disabling up to 50 percent of the soldiers. The Confederates suffered a similar fate.
Combat experience itself was unbelievably violent in those days. Thousands of men stood toe to toe and slaughtered one another like flies. After one particularly bloody battle in 1862, 5,000 men lay dead in an area of 2 square miles. There were 20,000 more who were wounded. One witness said it was possible to walk on dead bodies for 100 yards without once stepping on the ground. Many of the wounded remained where they fell among dead men and horses for 12 or 14 hours, with their groans and cries echoing through the countryside.
While their willingness to endure these physical deprivations is almost incomprehensible, one has to admire the emotional toughness of the troops. They believed in their cause, whether Union or Confederate, and they committed their lives to it. Most believed that they would not survive the war, but that was of little consequence.
Please understand that I do not see unmitigated virtue in the heroic visions of that day. Indeed, men were all too willing to put their lives on the line for a war they poorly understood. But their dedication and personal sacrifice remain today as memorials to their time.
There is, perhaps, no better illustration of this commitment to principle and honor than is seen in a letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou of the Union Army. He penned it to his wife, Sarah, a week before the Battle of Bull Run, July 14, 1861. They had been married only 6 years. These powerful words still touch my soul:
My Very Dear Sarah:
The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more...
I have no misgivings about or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing, perfectly willing, to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this Government and to pay that debt...
Sarah, my love for you is deathless; it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break, and yet my love for country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on, with all these chains to the battlefield.
The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God, and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us.
If I do not [return], my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been...
O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the gladdest day and the darkest night, amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours—always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone, and wait for thee, for we shall meet again...
Major Ballou was killed one week later at the first battle of Bull Run. I wonder, don't you, if he did indeed utter Sarah's name as he lay dying on the battlefield. She undoubtedly suffered the greater pain in the aftermath of that terrible war.
Is this the level of dedication and sacrifice to which the Apostle Paul calls us in 2 Timothy 2? I believe it is, yet the concept seems almost unreasonable in this day of individual rights and self-fulfillment. How long has it been since we've thought of ourselves as highly disciplined soldiers of the army of the Lord? That was a familiar theme in years past. "Onward, Christian Soldiers" was one of the favorite songs of the church. Christians, it proclaimed, were "marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before." Our forebears also sang, "Stand up! Stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross." Then there was "Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose firm, dare to make it known." That was the way Christians saw their responsibility in days past. Well, things have changed. Now, our emphasis is on harnessing the power of God for more successful (and prosperous) living. Something seems to have been lost in the translation!
One of the popular choruses several years ago offered this giddy thought: "Something good is going to happen to you, happen to you this very day. Something good is going to happen to you, Jesus of Nazareth is passing your way." I have a strong dislike for that well-intentioned little rendition, because it is based on bad theology. I understand how the lyrics are to be interpreted, but they imply that Christianity guarantees a person only "good things." It is not true. Let's be honest.
As the world interprets it, something terrible could happen to you today. Christians do get sick and die, just like the rest of the world. They do lose their jobs like other people, and they do have car wrecks and dental problems and sick kids. Believing otherwise is a trap from which many young believers, and some older ones, never escape!
There is a reason why the great hymns of the church have endured, in some cases for hundreds of years. They are based not on words that tickle our ears, but on solid theological truth. One of my favorites relating to our theme is entitled, "Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken." The lyrics were written by Henry F. Lyte, back in 1824, and the music was arranged from Mozart. Absorb, if you will, the truth in these incredible words,
"Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee;
Naked, poor, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shalt be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I've sought, and hoped, and known;
Yet how rich is my condition—God and heaven are still my own!
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure!
Come, disaster, scorn, and pain!
In Thy service, pain is pleasure;
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
I have called Thee, 'Abba, Father;'
I have stayed my heart on Thee.
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me."
This message is a little different from "Something goooood is going to happen to you," and it may even be unacceptable to a modern world. But it is biblically accurate, and you can build a rock-solid foundation of faith on it. With it, you can cope with whatever life throws at you, even when God makes absolutely no sense to our human understanding. It will hold you when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because you need fear no evil. Life can never take you by surprise again. Everything is committed to Him, whether you understand the circumstances or not. He becomes your possessor and your dispossessor.
With this biblical understanding and a tough, well-fortified faith, the "awesome why" loses its scary significance. A better question becomes, "Why does it matter?" It is not your responsibility to explain what God is doing with your life. He has not provided enough information to figure it out. Instead, you are asked to turn loose and let God be God. Therein lies the secret to the "peace that transcends understanding" (Philippians 4:7).
This theological interpretation may be difficult for the beleaguered believer who has grieved until there are no more tears to shed. If you are that person, I hope you will understand that I have not intended to trivialize your loss. My heart is tender toward those who have undergone severe suffering.
On one occasion, I received a letter from a father whose daughter was killed in a car crash. He wrote to say how keenly he and his wife still feel the pain—pain that few of his fellow Christians seem to comprehend. As I read his words and thought of my own daughter, I grieved with this heartsick father. Life can be incredibly cruel to those who have loved and lost. Such a person needs the loving friendship and prayers of a brother or sister in Christ who will simply be there to say, "I care." More importantly, he or she needs to know God cares!
I am convinced that the heart of the Lord is drawn to those who hold fast to their faith in such times of hardship. How tenderly He must look upon those who have lost a beloved son or daughter. What compassion He feels for those with lifelong physical deformities and diseases. This identification with the woes of mankind is a major theme in Scripture.
Nevertheless, as Paul wrote, we are asked to adopt the "mind of Christ" with regard to suffering. But why? Is there a logical reason why the Lord asks us to strengthen our resolve and meet our difficulties head-on? I believe it is because of the close interrelationship between mind, body and spirit in human experience. We cannot be spiritually stable and emotionally unstable at the same time. We are in a spiritual war with a deadly foe tracking us every hour of the day. We need to be in the best shape possible to cope with the darts and arrows he hurls our way. Flabby, overindulged, pampered Christians just don't have the stamina to fight this battle. Thus, the Lord puts us on a spiritual treadmill every now and then to keep us in good fighting condition.
Just how tough is your faith? How secure is mine? Will we permit the Lord to use our weakness—our disability, our disappointment, our inadequacy—to accomplish His purposes? Will you and I worship and serve this Master even in suffering? Does our "expectation" as followers of Jesus leave room for frustration and imperfection? Does the Word have anything to say to us here about how we live our lives and what causes us to complain? It certainly does!
One of my favorite Scriptures specifically addresses this issue of toughness, and we will conclude with its powerful insight. The Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians while under house arrest in Rome. We believe he was later executed there for sharing his faith in Jesus Christ. He had, in earlier days, been through every conceivable hardship and inconvenience. We can only imagine what kind of suffering took place in the damp, miserable dungeons of that day. Who knows what scraps of wormy food or filthy bathroom facilities were available to him, or whether rats and spiders shared his bed. We are told that he was chained around the clock and surrounded by murderers, thieves, and social outcasts. Paul had every right to be distraught at that stage of his life. What had happened to him was not fair!
There had been times recently when he had been publicly whipped; he had gone without adequate food and clothing; he was once stoned and left for dead. He could have complained bitterly that the Lord had called him to a difficult task and then virtually abandoned him. The "awesome why" could certainly have been on his lips. But that was not what Paul was thinking.
Instead, Paul picked up his pen and wrote to the believers at Philippi, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7).
Then Paul addressed the matter of expectations directly, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:12-13).
Paul's secret of contentment emerges from a universal principle of human nature. It is to trust God regardless of the circumstances and not to expect too much perfection in this life. A better day is coming for those whose source of contentment is in the personhood of Christ Jesus!
I hope that this discourse on the "mind of Christ" has been helpful to someone out there who is going through difficult and stressful times today. There is great comfort in trusting the Lord with our very lives. Every description given to us in Scripture depicts Him as infinitely loving and kind, tenderly watching over His earthly children and guiding the steps of the faithful. He speaks of us as "the people of His pasture, the flock under His care" (Psalm 95:7). This compassion led Him to send His only begotten Son as a sacrifice for our sin, that we might escape the punishment we deserve. He did this because He "so loved the world" (John 3:16).
Clearly, what we have in Scripture is a paradox. On the one hand, we are told to expect suffering and hardship that could even cost us our lives. On the other hand, we are encouraged to be joyful, thankful, and "of good cheer" (Acts 23:11). How do those contradictory ideas link together? How can we be triumphant and under intense pressure at the same time? How can we be secure when surrounded by insecurity? That is a mystery which, according to Paul, "transcends all understanding."
Well, let me end with this word of encouragement. You'll remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego reported in the third chapter of the Book of Daniel. They incurred the wrath of King Nebuchadnezzar by refusing to fall down and worship the idol he had set up. He made it clear that if they again refused to obey his command, they would be thrown into a "burning fiery furnace." Their response to that murderous threat is one of the most inspiring passages in Scripture:
"...the God we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, we want you to know, O king...that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up" (Daniel 3:17-18).
What courage these men showed in the very face of death! What conviction! What faith! "God can save us," they said, "but if not, we'll serve Him anyway." That is the biblical prescription in its simplest terms. He can heal the disease that grips my body—but if not, my faith will survive. He can correct my child's handicap, or save my bankrupt business, or bring my son home safely from the war. But if not—I will continue trusting in Him. That's what Job meant when he said, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him" (Job 13:15).
It is what Paul meant when he said, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). In the eighth verse, Paul describes that mindset: "...He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross." That utter abandonment to the sovereign will of the Lord is what He wants of His people, even when circumstances seem to swirl out of control. He can rescue—but if not…!
To the reader out there who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, or the parent whose child is in rebellion, or the recently widowed or divorced woman who faces life alone—let me offer a final word of encouragement. Remember when Nebuchadnezzar looked into the blazing furnace and saw four men instead of three, and the fourth looked like the "Son of God?" It is comforting to note that only Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire. That other Man, whom we believe to have been the Christ, remained there to comfort and protect you and me when we go through our own fiery trials. He has promised that we will not be alone in that difficult hour.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. That is the glorious event we celebrate on Easter Sunday morning with believers around the world. And someday we will receive the crown of righteousness prepared for those who have fought a good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
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