Podcast listener Amber in Doyline, Louisiana writes in: “Pastor John, the Oregon shooting really shook me up. I turned my life over to Christ a little over two years ago. I’ve learned a lot but I have a lot left to learn. I am trying to strengthen my faith, but in the meantime I asked myself, ‘What would I do?’ My response was scary — I’m not sure I could say I’m a Christian, if a gun is pointed in my face, especially if my children are with me. I know that Jesus warned not to deny him on earth, but I can’t help but wonder if doing it to save our life, even though we don’t mean it, is it punishable?”
Well, I love honesty. So let’s deal with it. Jesus said, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). And I think the only situation he has in mind is the one where we are being threatened. Otherwise, the issue of denying him doesn’t come up.
A few verses later he says: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37–39). So that is the context of losing your life instead of denying Jesus.
So the Christian, he says, loves me. He loves Christ so much that denying him is more fearful than death. Of course, saying that is one thing, but actually having the wherewithal to do it in the moment of death is another, which is what she is saying rightly.
When I personally — John Piper — have worried that I may not have strength or power to suffer or be tortured or die for Christ, I have been helped by pondering 1 Peter 4:14. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” Now in that text — even though it is only talking about an insult — the principle holds.
In extraordinary situations the reason you can be blessed in the moment of being assaulted, insulted, criticized, or threatened with death, the reason you can be blessed is because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. And I take that to mean that God shows up in a way, in that moment, which he doesn’t elsewhere. Which means my sense of ability to endure it at this moment, sitting peacefully here at my table, may not be all that I will have when I get there to that moment.
I don’t know how many of our listeners are familiar with Corrie ten Boom and her story. She was in a concentration camp, and before she was taken there, and knowing that she might someday have to pay with her life (which she didn’t, it turns out), she asked her father how could she have strength? And the story is that her father said to her: When I send you on the train to go somewhere, do I give you the ticket a month ahead of time, or do I give you the ticket as you get on the train? And the point she was making is God will give us what we need when the train of suffering and death arrives in the station. And that has been very helpful to me, because I think that is what 1 Peter 4:14 is saying.
Now, in the meantime, I think there are things that we all should be doing to get ready, that the Holy Spirit will use these things to help us be ready when the hour of our testing comes. And let me just mention a few of these.
First, cultivate a regular attentiveness to the other world, to the world of heaven, where Christ is and his rewards are, where all the saints are, where all the sorrow will be taken away, where we will sin no more, and where pain and depression will be over. Second Corinthians 4:18, “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” We should cultivate a mindset that is heavenward.
Second, ponder often that there are far worse things than death. Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Fear him who can cast soul and body into hell.” There are way worse things than death.
Third, ponder often the truth that Christ already died for you. He died so that you might live and die for him. Second Corinthians 5:14, “The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Fourth, keep it clear in your mind that suffering and death for Christ are not surprising in this world. They are normal and expected. First Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is coming upon you to test you as though something strange were happening to you.” So develop the mindset that such tests are not extraordinary. They are biblically ordinary. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Revelation 2:10, “Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” So when it happens, it is not a punishment for us. It is a reward of faithfulness.
Fifth, meditate regularly on the truths of Philippians 1:21–23, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ.” Pray that into reality every day.
Sixth, keep clear and firm in your mind and in your heart that the Lord will take care of your children if you die. No matter how you die. And you might have a heart attack this afternoon. “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). And O, what a need we feel that our children be cared for. And when it comes to legacy, think deeply on this. When it comes to legacy and impact, remember: Your death for Christ could be the greatest possible gift you could give to your children.
Seventh, the last thing I would say: Of course this is beyond us. None of us in ourselves will die for Jesus. This is a gift of grace if we are able to trust him and love him in that moment. So pray. That is the main thing here. Pray that you will not be like Peter who boldly said: I will never deny you (Matthew 26:35) and then he fails three times (Matthew 26:75). We need to pray: O God, don’t let me boast as though I could do this. Help me to depend utterly on you.