We have been reading about Christian martyrs in our study of church history this week. It has been inspiring. And sobering. And challenging to ask, Am I willing to die for what I believe? Would I have responded so courageously if I had been in their place?
I would hope to stand strong as the martyrs did. Even unto death. But would I? Just how strong is my faith?
Instead of trying to compare the strength of my faith with the unshakeable faith of the martyrs, I think the better question is, “How strong is my God?” Because ultimately He is the One who supplies the faith. When it is needed.
The Book of Psalms is full of heart-wrenching cries to God. Sometimes the psalmist was seeking Him with a heart full of faith. And sometimes pleading for mercy while clinging to only a thin thread of faith. O God. My refuge. Fortress. Deliverer. Strong tower. Strength and shield. Be what I need right now.
Psalm 3 is the desperate cry of David’s heart as he fled from his son Absalom (2 Samuel 15):
O Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise against me!
Many are saying of me,
God will not deliver him.
But you are a shield around me, O Lord;
You bestow glory on me and lift up my head.
To the Lord I cry aloud,
And he answers me from his holy hill.
I lie down and sleep;
I wake again because the Lord sustains me.
I will not fear the tens of thousands
drawn up against me on every side.
Arise, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
Break the teeth of the wicked.
From the Lord comes deliverance,
May your blessing be on your people.
Years later, while in Babylonian captivity, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had no doubt in God’s ability to save them. And, with confidence like that of their forefather David, they refused to let go of their faith in God, even if He chose not to save them. They stood boldly before King Nebuchadnezzar, “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace 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)
Our faith is bolstered when we read how God rescued Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, just as He answered David’s prayer for deliverance from his enemies. And we praise God for how He brought victory and protection in countless other miraculous ways to His people throughout history. We can read about many Old Testament heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. And I don’t know about you, but I prefer to soak in the stories that speak of rescue and victory. I like happy endings. Yet what about those heroes who didn’t see God come through for them in this lifetime?
“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what was promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:35-40)
They are considered heroes because they were overcomers in the face of great difficulty and they peacefully surrendered to God’s mysterious sovereignty: They could say, along with Habakkuk, Even though nothing is happening the way I wished it would “yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in the God of my salvation. The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He will make me as sure-footed as a deer and bring me safely over the mountains.” (Habakkuk 3:19)
Safely over the mountains. Even if the path to get there is marked with persecution and pain.
We will reach God’s finish line for us—our heavenly home where we will be with God. For eternity. And all wrongs will be made right.
I love John’s vision of the great multitude in white robes in the book of Revelation.
Then one of the elders asked me, “These men in white robes—who are they and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 7:9-17)
Our heroes in the faith are those who overcame “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shirk from death.” (Rev. 12:11)
The Apostle Paul was a man familiar with persecution, who did not shirk from death, and his letters are full of exhortations for fellow believers to stay strong in their faith. In the midst of great trials and tribulations. By focusing on the unseen and the eternal.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body...Therefore we do no lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4: 7-11, 16-18)
God is weaving, through preserved life and allowed death, His Perfect Plan. In ways that we can’t see now and may not understand at all until we see Him face to face. God has numbered all of our days. But we don’t know how many we have or what kind of death we will face. Let us live all the days He gives us in joyful surrender to Him. With His peace. In His strength. Not in fear of what might happen.
Jesus told his followers to expect hardship and persecution. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) No matter what happens, our lives are in His hands. And there is no safer place to be.
Let us trust that God will give us the faith we need to remain strong in Him. Even unto death.