Beneath the cross

Please come as soon as you can. Demas has deserted me… Only Luke is here with me. Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me… The first time I was brought before the judge, no one was with me. Everyone had abandoned me. … But the Lord stood with me and gave me strength…. —2 Timothy 4:9-11, 16-17, NLT (Paul speaking)

Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross. … The cross is not adversity, nor the harshness of fate, but suffering coming solely from our commitment to Jesus Christ. … The cross is not suffering tied to natural existence, but the suffering tied to being Christians. —The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Life is difficult.

In my own small circle of friends, one is battling cancer, one has been shattered by schizophrenia, one has lost her dream of ever bearing children, one can’t find work, one is struggling with alcoholism.

The world is a brutal place. And even though we are followers of Christ, we are not exempted from the ordinary indignities and woes of life.

But it’s worse than that. Not only don’t we get a pass, we’re actually targets of opportunity.

While writing those pitiful words to Timothy, the apostle Paul was a guest in a Roman prison. This was a few years before the ACLU, so conditions were not the best. Paul had bed, no running water and no food except what was provided by friends. His cell was probably below ground—dank, windowless, reeking of human waste and cruelty.

He was malnourished. His health was poor. He smelled. Is there really any mystery why Demas fled? He probably feared he would be next.

Paul, like Jesus, had been rejected. He had been confronted by the authorities and given a choice: shut-up about Christ or face the consequences. He would not turn away from the Damascus road. Obedience and surrender sometimes lead to suffering.

It may be dangerous to talk about suffering in an age when people flaunt their victimhood on Dr. Phil and Ricki Lake. But suffering is part of the Christian package.

Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat—I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to find yourself, your true self. —Luke 9:23,24, The Message (Jesus speaking)

Salvation may be a free gift, but following Christ is very, very costly.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, was imprisoned for two years by the Gestapo for his opposition to the Third Reich. A few days before the Flossenburg prison was liberated by the Allies, Heinrich Himmler, the man who had engineered the Holocaust, ordered Bonhoeffer hanged. Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he calls him to die.” He was speaking about spiritual regeneration, and yet, long before Hitler rose to power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood where National Socialism was taking Germany. He became one of Nazism’s most ardent critics, and he paid for that opposition with his life.

Pakistani Christians are routinely harassed, sometimes murdered, because of their association with Jesus. Thousands of Sudanese Christians have been tortured or sold into slavery. Chinese and North Korean Christians are routinely arrested and their property confiscated. In many places around the world, Christians are forced to choose between faith and exile from their homes and villages. It can be dangerous to profess faith in Jesus Christ.

I’ve never been persecuted for my faith. Most westerners haven’t—we live in a persecution-free zone. We like to whine about not being able to pray in schools, and it’s true that many intellectuals think we’re ignorant buffoons, but persecution? Suffering? Please.

Which is probably unfortunate—nothing quite focuses the mind (and heart) like a little torture, murder and mayhem.

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. —Matthew 5:10, The Message (Jesus speaking)

It has often been observed that the Christian church grows stronger in persecution. If that’s the case, it may explain why so many churches in the free world are fat, lazy and self-absorbed.

Those of us in the developed world, having been blessed with this precious grace called religious freedom, would do well to open our eyes to the plight of our brothers and sisters elsewhere. The church of Jesus Christ is a family. Paul compares it to the human body—every part is needed and necessary for God’s purposes. To what end have we been given freedom and comfort while so many others are suffering? Can this body, this family, really be what God intends it to be if we ignore the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world?

Like Paul in that Roman prison, our suffering brothers and sisters could at least benefit from our prayers and encouragement. There are organizations, such as Voice of the Martyrs, who provide practical help and advocacy for persecuted Christians and their families around the world. Since we are free, perhaps God intends us to bear the burdens of those who are not.

For God is a God who bears. The Son of God bore our flesh, he bore the cross, he bore our sins, thus making atonement for us. In the same way his followers are also called upon to bear, and that is precisely what it means to be a Christian. Just as Christ maintained his communion with the Father by his endurance, so his followers are to maintain their communion with Christ by their endurance. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed and broken. We are perplexed, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going. Through suffering, these bodies of ours constantly share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. —2 Corinthians 4:8-10, NLT (Paul speaking)

That Christians face the possibility of suffering and persecution is one of Christ’s most difficult teachings. The cross is dirty bomb, terrible and full of fury, a symbol of the high stakes battle that is raging (invisibly) between Satan and God.

And yet, God has touched the cross and redeemed it. He wields it as a weapon in his victory over evil. We may be bruised beneath its weight, even broken, but the Lord will lift us up.

Pray for those who suffer beneath the cross.

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