The Smile of God in the Face of His Saints
Standing Together in the Day of Opposition
My fingers withdrew from the keyboard. One feeling dominated all the others: loneliness. The email now resting in my “sent” folder was the reason for my unrest.
A close friend had asked me to give my rationale for holding to a “traditional view” of marriage. Immediately, my sinful flesh rose to whisper, The fear of man is the beginning of comfort. I could just “forget” to send my response, or smooth it out to the point where my Christian faithfulness would go unnoticed behind anthropological and natural-law arguments. I was Jonah, running from faithfulness and, consequently, from the presence of the Lord.
Thankfully, this episode was short-lived, and I did my best to lay out, as honestly and winsomely as I could, a Christian view of marriage and the family. But as I came closer to sending my email, I also became more conscious of the link between obedience and suffering.
I contemplated the possibility of losing the respect of my friend, my good standing in his eyes, maybe even the friendship itself. It is, indeed, better to suffer for doing good than evil (1 Peter 3:17), but a visceral feeling of loneliness proved that the suffering that comes along the path of obedience is real and can take many forms.
When Obedience Is Costly
Faithfulness to Christ always involves suffering in some form, “for Christ also suffered once for sins” in his great act of obedience (1 Peter 3:18). Obedience requires a death of some kind: death to self-security, death to pride, death to our reverence of man’s praise — ultimately, death to self. While we greatly desire for the sinful parts of our flesh to be destroyed like cancer, we often forget how painful the treatment can be. We’re surprised that obedience to Christ involves as much suffering as, say, tearing out your eye or cutting off your hand (Matthew 5:29–30).
And in the midst of an undeniable moral shift in our society, obedience-borne suffering will become increasingly visible to Christians and non-Christians alike. Because of this, Christians committed to remaining faithful to Christ above all else must settle the question in our own hearts: Will Christian obedience inevitably prove to be a defeat?
Unless a strong, joy-filled “No!” rises in our throats, we may prove to be a little good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot (Matthew 5:13). Christian faithfulness is entirely worth the suffering that attends it, and amazingly, God promises to prove it, not only in the life to come, but even in this present age (Mark 10:30).
When biblical faithfulness means losing your job, when society decides that your homeless ministry is not worth the gospel principles that impel you to minister, when your close friends react to your Christian beliefs with hostility, eye-rolls, and scoffing — how will you say that faithfulness is worth it?
God Will Take You In
We have a final backstop to these difficult questions, an ultimate promise that lays a hand over the mouth of worries and doubts: “My father and mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me in” (Psalm 27:10).
In our faithfulness to God, we will not be left to suffer in loneliness and isolation. Rather, it is here that we are promised the greatest fellowship, company, and validation. The promise of God’s affirmation allows us to joyfully bear the weight of even the most drastic faithfulness.
So the psalmist extends to us this pledge: When your faithfulness to God and his word leads to being forsaken by others, even by those who are closest to you, consider it gain, because God himself will take you in.
In this alone, we have more than enough to persevere in obedience, but Scripture reveals even more about how he will “take us in.”
Taken in by His People
Jesus himself promises, “There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions” (Mark 10:29–30).
The pain of loss we incur in obedience is refunded “now in this time” by receiving a new family and a new life in fellowship with other Christians. The Lord who shelters us in the day of trouble (Psalm 27:5) does so through his Spirit-indwelt church.
C.S. Lewis makes the point in the second book of his Space Trilogy:
When Eve fell, God was not Man. He had not yet made men members of His body: since then He had, and through them henceforward He would save and suffer. One of the purposes for which He had done all this was to save . . . not through Himself but through Himself in [man].
On this side of the incarnation, God fulfills his promise to shelter not only by his direct presence through the Spirit, but also through his body, the church.
It is not, then, too difficult to realize some of the many practical implications of such a truth. It was not too hard for me in my accountability group, when I explained about my friend and the recent email. While I feared rejection and loss in one relationship, I heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” through the mouths of Christian brothers. I received back love, acceptance, and validation through the Christian community Christ had provided. I could feel the smile of God in the smiles of my brothers.
Good to Be Near to His Church
As members of Christ’s body, these truths both provide for us, and demand of us, in very practical ways. For the suffering, faithful Christian, the shelter of Christ himself, through his body, provides great grace and comfort; and for the supporting member of that body, it inspires us to give great grace and comfort to those who are suffering.
So we say to the faithful sufferer: Though society, friends, employers, clients, father, and mother abandon you, the Lord will take you in. Don’t seek the praise that comes from man, but that which comes from God. You will suffer loss — yes, real loss — but in that loss, look to the means that God has provided in his church to shelter, affirm, and validate your faithfulness.
And to the faithful comforter we say: Play your role! You are God’s means to build up and shelter your brother in the day of trouble. In your weekly worship, community life, small groups, and accountability meetings, be the instrument of God in lifting the faithful high upon a rock, their heads up above their enemies all around them (Psalm 27:5–6).
God has given his church this great dignity now, and in the days to come: We are the smile of God to one another, that we might know, and the world might see, that even in our suffering and pain, “it is good to be near God” (Psalm 73:28).