I’ve been a subscriber to World magazine for as long as I can remember. Some have referred to it as the Christian version of Time magazine. Actually, it’s a lot better than Time ever was and not simply because it is faith-based. But I’m not here to praise World. I’m here to draw attention to two things that I noted in its most recent, August 5, 2017, issue.
In an article on the church in China titled “More Growing Pains, More Great Gains,” June Cheng reports on the struggles of believers in that communist country. This article is a follow-up on an earlier piece in which she profiled three groups of Christians “working to help mature the burgeoning Chinese church” (43). One of those on whom she focused is a pastor from Singapore “whose online sermons led to church plants throughout China” (43).
When Cheng last saw this man, Joseph Su (whose name has been changed for safety reasons), he was actively involved in preaching the gospel and baptizing new believers. He typically would travel to China three times a year to hold conferences and disciple leaders. Earlier this year, while preaching in a large northeast city, the police raided the service and arrested Su and several others. He was later released and warned that if he wanted to return to China he would have to do so in cooperation with the registered Three-Self Church.
The article proceeds to describe the persecution that many in the church in China endure on a regular basis. But it was one statement by Pastor Su that caught my eye:
“I think [persecution] is good for the Chinese people because without these trials and pressures, we grow very superficial” (44).
I stopped and began to wonder: Do I believe that for myself, and for my church? It’s hard to come up with an answer simply because we have never been persecuted. By “persecution” I’m not talking about being slandered or losing a business opportunity or being passed over for a well-deserved promotion at work. I’m talking about arrest, imprisonment, the loss of all property, perhaps even torture and eventual martyrdom. I know nothing of such an experience. Maybe that’s why my faith is somewhat “superficial” at times.
That’s not an attempt at false humility. It’s a confession. I often wonder how sincere and passionate my commitment to Christ really is. How would I fare on Sunday morning if I were threatened with imprisonment for preaching the gospel? How many of our people would choose to stay home that day if they knew that the police would break in on the service and confiscate their Bibles and other items of personal property? How intensely would we continue to pursue Christ and proclaim his word if we were told that to do so would inevitably lead to our doors being locked and our building confiscated by the government?
It’s easy to answer with an exuberant Yes when it has actually never happened, and when in all truthfulness we don’t expect it ever to occur in the future.
I bristle with what I hope is a righteous indignation when I hear Christians in America declare that their hope and confidence is for Jesus to return and rapture them out of this world before the horrific events of a “tribulation” descend on the earth. What must our brothers and sisters in China think of this? There are countless thousands, perhaps millions, of followers of Jesus in China, Indonesia, North Korea, Iran, Syria, the Sudan and numerous other countries who have for the duration of their lives suffered pain, persecution, torture, deprivation, imprisonment, and the confiscation of their property for no other reason than that they love Jesus. Any suggestion that God has promised to “translate” them out of this world before it gets “really bad” would inevitably be met with incredulity and disdain. I simply can’t imagine these millions of brothers and sisters in Christ being subjected to any “tribulation” worse than that which they have faithfully endured for many years.
Well, I got off topic there for a moment. In any case, I was stirred, as I hope you are, to think about the depth of one’s own faith in Christ. How genuine and deep is your commitment to Christ? Or might it be superficial and shallow? I’m not inviting persecution and suffering. I’m extremely grateful for the freedom of worship that we have in the United States. But I do worry at times about whether what I perceive to be passion and zeal for Jesus is as genuine and heart-felt as I think it is. What would suffering reveal about my faith? Do I treasure Christ so deeply and sincerely above all earthly goods and comfort that the loss of the latter would in no way undermine the former? Does he mean that much to me? I hope so. Perhaps the day will come here in America when the tide turns against the church far more than it has in recent years and the reality or superficiality of our faith will be exposed.
One more thing. In this same issue of World there is an editorial by Marvin Olasky (64) reminding us that July 30, 2017, will mark the 50th anniversary of the diving accident in which Joni Eareckson Tada was left a quadriplegic. And what has this horrific suffering done to reveal the quality of Joni’s faith? Is her trust substantive or superficial? In a message she delivered at Patrick Henry College Joni said this:
“I don’t say this in front of hardly any audience, but in front of this audience I will: I believe what happened to me [50 years ago] was an example of Hebrews Chapter 12 discipline. I do. I’ve had Christians ask, ‘How can you say that of God? That’s awful for you to say He would discipline you by making you a quadriplegic.’ No, no, no. Read Hebrews Chapter 12: God disciplines those He loves. Had I not broken my neck I’d probably be on my second divorce, maxing out of my husband’s credit cards, planning my next ski vacation. I wouldn’t be here extolling the glories of the gospel and the power of God to help a person smile, not in spite of the problems, but because of them” (64).
I don’t know if Joni has read the article about Joseph Su. But I’m fairly confident that if she has she wouldn’t hesitate to say, making use of his words, “I think my suffering has been good for me, because without this trial my faith would be very superficial.” I’ve often prayed for Joni to be healed. At times I still do. And I will continue to pray for her physical restoration until such time as God takes her (or me) home. I believe that if God were to heal Joni she would greatly rejoice and that her faith, joy, and gratitude to God would increase beyond words. I believe that, if God were to bring religious freedom to China, something else for which I pray, the suffering Christians there would celebrate the opportunity to worship openly and without fear.
Some may think there is an inconsistency in this. But I do not. We should always pray for healing and freedom and the many countless blessings that God so often graciously bestows on us. But if in his providential wisdom he chooses not to say Yes, we rest confidently in knowing that all such things, however painful and disconcerting they may be, are being orchestrated by God for our ultimate spiritual good and increasing conformity to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:28).
Healing and religious freedom are wonderful, and I will continue to pray for both. But faith can flourish without them.