Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Suffering Is Bracing

Paul wrote a letter during his imprisonment in Rome to the church at Philippi which described the bracing effect of his suffering on the moral constitution of believers.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote:

"I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear." (my emphasis)

Paul, not content with the suffering he'd already endured, continued his missionary journeys after leaving this imprisonment. Far from prudently bowing out of danger, he continued preaching the gospel and meeting with believers even though his name and person were apparently well-known throughout the imperial guard (and "all the rest," also -- whoever that means) of the most powerful nation on earth, and one known for it's ruthlessness and cruelty. Imprudent behavior, to say the least. Perhaps his protege, Timothy, was now well-known to the authorities, as well. (One of my parents' former pastors used to say at infant baptisms -- I paraphrase: "Do you love God enough to encourage your children if they choose to do mission work in dangerous places far away?")

In this passage Paul is describing how God prepares believers to be bold by putting the suffering of the faithful on display.

I used to think I was a brave person. But as I got older, I found out that I am really quite a fearful person. As 21st Century Christians, we have recently been given opportunities to have our faith strengthened and our hearts emboldened through the terrible pageant in the media of believers being publicly martyred and tortured for their faith throughout the Middle East, on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Africa, and even in a classroom in Oregon. And we have the bracing visual display of believers in Charleston demonstrating a supernatural, immediate forgiveness of an attacker.

"Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ....not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have."

What is that conflict between? The Love and Light and Truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ for God's glory (and man's sake) -- against Darkness, Hate, and Lies.

And it is my prayer that you love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."

How do we engage? "Not with swords loud clashing." But with the whole armor of God -- weapons of Light. Here's Paul again, in a different letter from jail (courtesy of Bible Gateway).

Ephesians 6:10-20 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God,so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powersof this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me,that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.
In our flesh we think of suffering, imprisonment, and death as ways the gospel is halted, stymied, blocked, diminished. But Paul and the Scriptures see things differently, and a now-infamous Paul expresses that here. And goes on to keep preaching.

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