This message appears as a chapter in Finish the Mission: Bringing the Gospel to the Unreached and Unengaged.
This write up has been significantly edited from the video above.
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
We live at a time in the West in which we find it hard to imagine the scenes described in Hebrews 11:32–40. Yet if we were to talk to some of our brothers and sisters from around the world, not only would we discover that they can they imagine such things but also that they have seen, witnessed, and in some cases even experienced these things. Ours is not a peaceful world.
Just recently I received the following e-mail:
Greetings. It is with great sadness that I am sharing this news with you. On the evening of June 21, a group of Christians was worshiping in a house in Peshawar, NWFP, when terrorists came on two trucks and kidnapped 32 worshipers [at] gunpoint. Police [have] confirmed the news. Christians have been taken to the Tribal area. Christians from Charsada, Mardan, and Peshawar had been receiving threatening letters from the extremists to convert to Islam, leave or be killed. It is a very dangerous situation. Please pray for their safe return.
If this were an isolated incident, the church would rise in prayer and support, and respond. Yet there are so many incidents that we can become numb to them, indifferent, or, perhaps even worse, we simply ignore them for fear that the fact that such things happen could lead us to doubt a God of love. Yet Jesus, in preparing his disciples for the trials of this world, told them that difficulty would come. They might have thought that with God on their side, no suffering would ever befall them. Jesus, however, told them:
I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think that he is offering service to God. (John 16:1–2)
A COSTLY CALLING
Immediately before uttering these words Jesus said, “And you also will bear witness . . .” (John 15:27) — and this word witness translates the Greek word martys, from which we have the contemporary word martyr. So how did a word that simply meant “witness” come to be so closely identified with suffering, persecution, and even death?
Negatively, the word martyr can mean to be driven by an “exaggerated desire to sacrifice oneself for others and have the sacrifice recognized by others” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. “martyr”). The biblical use and historical development of the word, however, is not about recognition of a sacrifice made by us but rather a willingness to suffer in order to properly recognize and proclaim the sacrifice made by Jesus. In being a faithful witness to Jesus, we are promised that persecution will come — “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). “The world hated me,” Jesus said in John 15:18, and so we should not be surprised at the hatred that we ourselves attract on account of his name (John 15:21).
We read in Hebrews that faith and faithfulness lead both to great victories in his name — kingdoms were conquered, justice was enforced, promises were obtained, mouths of lions were stopped, the power of fire was quenched, the edge of the sword was escaped from, foreign armies were put to flight, and women received back their dead by resurrection — and also to great cost, as the world would see it — some were tortured, and others suffered mocking, flogging, chains, and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. Truly they were those of whom the world was not worthy.
So let us set aside any thoughts we may have about being able to witness without cost. There are both great miracles (escaping the sword) and great martyrdoms (many were killed by the sword). There is no contradiction here — just the certain knowledge that we are called to give our lives in his service and will one day be called home.
This is not a unique time in history. There is always a cost to reaching people with the good news about Jesus. It is a cost that perhaps many who identify with Jesus may not ultimately be prepared to pay. But this is the context within which the gospel took root and spread. Preaching a message of repentance and faith has always been challenging. It has always required courage.
I have had the privilege of speaking in some parts of the world in which personal safety cannot be guaranteed. It is always disappointing when some express concerns that maybe I shouldn’t go to a particular place because the risks are too great. Our goal is not to conserve our lives at any cost but rather to live our life in obedience to the call we have received. We are not called to ignore risk or to be reckless. Everything must be prayerfully considered. But to refuse God’s call to go because of hardship is to demand something that the apostles would struggle to recognize as part of genuine Christian obedience.
“Let us set aside any thoughts we may have about being able to witness without cost.”
We follow in the footsteps of the “martyrs,” the witnesses, who went before us. They were not spectators wishing to be entertained. They went ahead of us and ran the race well. They are not few in number; they are a great cloud. The stands they occupy are not sparsely filled — they are packed — with those who laid down their lives in service to him who is the author of life itself, and who now have eternal life through the founder and perfecter of that faith.
We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we read in Hebrews 12:1, so let us not lose heart, or lose our way, but, rather, fixing our eyes on Christ, let us run after him who despised the shame of the cross and is now seated at the right hand of God. Let us fix our eyes on things above and go to the nations.
That said, it seems that a courageous determination to finish the mission Jesus has given us is waning. Let me make just two observations that I believe are a part of this.
1) A LOSS OF CONVICTION
It is very hard to give your life to something that you believe is not true. It is entirely possible to act out of mistaken conviction (you believe something to be true when actually it is false). But it is very unlikely that you will act at all if you have come to the conclusion that what you believe is actually false. The Christian worldview is under attack from many different quarters, and some have come to feel that there is no response to these critiques.
But if the Christian faith is not true, if we have followed cleverly invented stories, why bother suffering in relation to it? You may prefer Hans Christian Andersen’s versions of the classic fairy tales to the earlier versions, but would you lay down your life in defense of this preference for a collection of stories that aren’t real?
Defeated by Philosophy?
There are two basic objections that many seem to wrestle with. The first is philosophical in nature — that, by definition, since Christianity is a faith, it is not concerned with either truth or reality. If that is the case, then it is not really capable of being either true or false, but only of being believed by virtue of faith or ignored by virtue of reason. This would make the gospel a matter of private preference (simply what one would like to be true) rather than public conviction (what is true even if you would prefer to ignore it).
Yet this is manifestly not what is meant by faith. Rather than faith being belief by speculation, the biblical term pistis (faith) carries with it the act of trusting in that which is true and real and has quite strong moral connotations. In this sense, we still use the biblical word faith even today. When I say, “I have faith in the American government,” I am saying two things.
First, I am saying that there is such a thing as the American government. Its existence is not a matter of personal preference — even if you didn’t want it to exist, it wouldn’t make any difference to the fact that it does. Second, I am saying that I believe those in government are trustworthy, that they are true to their word. If they make a promise, I can count on it. If that promise is broken, the result will be disillusionment born out of a sense of betrayal (they promised one thing and did another). In other words, they were not true to their word. My faith, what I trust in, is in response to that which I believe is true and real.
This is the overriding sense of the word in the New Testament. Earlier in the book of Hebrews, we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). This tells us two things about the faith that pleases God; namely, that it is connected to reality (he exists) and that he is trustworthy (he rewards those who seek him — he is true to his word). Hence, the hope that comes from God does not disappoint. It is real and is shown to be real in times of trial, and God is true to his word; he is trustworthy.
If, deep down, you are unconvinced of the truthfulness of the gospel, it is unlikely that you will live or suffer for it.
Faith is not strengthened by distancing ourselves from reality and truth; this would make faith psychological and dependent on our ability to generate it. Rather, faith is the only legitimate response to the God who is both true and real. This is why Christians have always been concerned about the historicity and reality of the cross and resurrection and also concerned with consistency and fulfillment of his word.
We have put our faith, our trust, in Christ. Our faith does not make Christ’s existence possible. It is because of Christ’s reality that our faith is real, and on that basis, we know that the things we now hope for are sure, and the things we do not yet see are bound to pass because of the one who has promised them. We can be confident at the bar of truth.
Subdued by Science?
The second fear stems from science, that in a scientific world the claims of Christ are neither credible nor compatible with a scientific worldview (see the works of John Lennox, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, and of professor Alister McGrath). Let me address just two particular issues that seem to keep Christians quiet about their faith.
First, there is the fear that as our scientific understanding of the world grows in terms of both scope and depth, the shady areas occupied by God are being rapidly diminished by the light of science. The “god of the gaps” is literally, therefore, being made homeless; there are no gaps left for him to live in or occupy. However, the God of Scripture is not the god of the gaps.
Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most famous scientists, recently announced that our understanding of the universe is such that God is no longer needed to be seen as the creator of the universe; we now understand the laws by which the universe came into being. He posed the question: “Is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God,’ but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions” (Daily Telegraph, September 2, 2010). But this makes a serious philosophical mistake, confusing the categories of law and agency.
My house in Oxford is not of a complicated design. It was built around 1880 and shares its name with a missionary hospital established in London at about the same time. Its architecture, the physics and mathematics behind why it is still standing, the materials of which it is composed, and so on are exhaustively described by science. There are no gaps in our understanding of it. Does that mean we can conclude that there is no designer? No architect? This would be to confuse the categories of law and agency.
Even if we have an exhaustive understanding of the laws of science, that would not be philosophically capable of disproving whether there was an agent, God, behind it all. The argument cannot be made to work. Let us not fear science, therefore; it can only add to our sense of wonder of the world in which we live.
The second general struggle comes from the fact that God, in general, and the miraculous, in particular, are unscientific in that they violate the laws of nature, and hence God either doesn’t exist or cannot act.
Imagine, however, that you took this book that you are now holding and threw it across the room. If I knew certain facts, such as the angle of departure and the velocity, then I could predict, with great accuracy, its flight path and where it will land. There is nothing mysterious about it.
However, let us imagine that, having thrown the book, it were to come to rest midair. Is this a violation of the law of gravity? No, it is not. The law of gravity is still very much in play. But either something (that I cannot see) or someone (whom I cannot see) is holding it there. It is because we live in a universe governed by mathematical law and physics that I am able to come to that conclusion. If the universe we live in were not governed by such fixed laws, we would not be able to reliably detect the intervention of anyone or any force in any course of events.
“The God of Scripture is not the god of the gaps.”
God has established a world in which his miraculous intervention can be detected and in which science is possible. But to claim that God could not exist, or that you could not believe in him, because God’s intervention violates scientific law would be, therefore, impossible. C.S. Lewis puts it the following way:
If this week I put a thousand pounds in the drawer of my desk, add two thousand next week and another thousand the week thereafter, the laws of arithmetic allow me to predict that the next time I come to my drawer, I shall find four thousand pounds. But suppose when I open the drawer, I find only one thousand pounds, what shall I conclude? That the laws of arithmetic have been broken? Certainly not! I might reasonably conclude that some thief has broken the laws of the State and stolen three thousand pounds out of my drawer. One thing that would be ludicrous to claim is that the laws of arithmetic make it impossible to believe in the existence of such a thief or the possibility of his intervention. On the contrary, it is the normal workings of those laws that have exposed the existence and activity of the thief. (Miracles [Lion, 2009], 200)
There is nothing in science, or in philosophy, that should lead us to conclude that our convictions are neither true nor real. Rather, let us be prepared to give answers to those who ask us for the reason for the hope that we have and make sure that we do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15–16). Silence is not an option when faced with hard questions from these disciplines, and, as a church, we desperately need to regain our public voice and proclaim the gospel to a world desperately in need.
2) A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE
There is another criticism that is leveled at Christians, however, and I take it much more seriously. It has been most eloquently put by Professor John Gray, former professor of European thought at the London School for Economics. In his book Straw Dogs, he launches a sustained attack on humanism from his convictions as a serious atheist. From there, he goes on to argue that morality is a convenience, a Christian myth. The initial conclusions he comes to, however, are so important to our theme that I would like to take the time to allow him to build his case, and I will try to summarize it using largely his own words.
John Gray correctly states that in the West, we live in a Humanistic world. I capitalize it because it is the dominant ideology. Gray calls it a religion:
Humanism is not science, but religion — the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived. (Dogs, xiii)
However, he says, the truly secular view of the world is one that doesn’t intellectually permit the belief in, or hopes of, Humanism. As he says, “A truly naturalistic view of the world leaves no room for secular hope” (Ibid., *xii *). The problem with Humanism, he argues, is not its atheism and its Darwinian roots but that it has not been true to those roots. Humanism, he argues, has actually been taken captive by the Christianity that came before it. Humanism is simply Christianity in a secular form, which has replaced the idea of God’s providence with that of progress. He writes:
Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence. . . . The idea of progress rests on the belief that the growth of knowledge and the advance of the species go together — if not now, then in the long run. (Ibid., xiii–xiv)
However, he immediately goes on to say:
The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. (Ibid., xiv)
So, he argues that the idea that we are fallen is actually closer to human nature than the utopian view of man advocated by Humanism. This being the case, however, he argues that the conviction that “progress” will make us better is wrong.
To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. . . . Darwin showed that humans are like other animals, humanists claim they are not. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before. In affirming this, they renew one of Christianity’s most dubious promises — that salvation is open to all. The humanist belief in progress is only a secular version of this Christian faith. In the world shown us by Darwin, there is nothing that can be called progress.
The idea of humanity taking charge of its destiny makes sense only if we ascribe consciousness and purpose to the species; but Darwin’s discovery was that species are only currents in the drift of genes. The idea that humanity can shape its future assumes that it is exempt from this truth. (Ibid., 4)
Of course, there is then a problem with the notion of truth itself.
Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth — and so be set free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals. . . .
Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage. Deception is common among primates and birds. . . .
Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray — by the subtle signs of self-knowledge — the deception being practiced. . . . In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury — or else a disability. (Ibid., 27)
The problem, Gray argues, is that though philosophers have shaken off Christianity, they have not “given up Christianity’s cardinal error.” What is that error? It is “the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals.” We are not different. Darwin, Gray says, shows that we are animals just like any other. There is nothing special about us, but we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we are special.
If it is granted that mankind was not created in God’s image (because there is no God for us to be the image of), and that we are much like the animals, and that really truth is a philosophical fiction, then other things must immediately follow.
First is a collapse of meaning: “If we truly leave Christianity behind, we must give up the idea that human history has a meaning. Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance” (Ibid., 47).
Second, we must get away from the idea of “persons,” that human beings are somehow special because they have personhood:
Among Christians the cult of personhood may be forgiven. For them, everything of value in the world emanates from a divine person, in whose image humans are made. But once we have relinquished Christianity the very idea of the person becomes suspect. (Ibid., 58)
Third, Gray says, since we are not persons, in what sense can we talk about being responsible for our actions?
Last then, this means that we must abandon the notion of morality, which he labels as an ugly superstition. He illustrates it as follows:
Here is a true story. A sixteen-year old prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp was raped by a guard. Knowing that any prisoner who appeared without a cap on morning parade was immediately shot, the guard stole his victim’s cap. The victim once shot, the rape could not be uncovered. The prisoner knew that his only chance of life was to find a cap. So he stole the cap of another inmate, asleep in bed, and lived to tell the tale. The other prisoner was shot.
Roman Frister, the prisoner who stole the cap, describes the death of his fellow inmate as follows:
The officer and the kapo walked down the lines. . . . I counted the seconds as they counted the prisoners. I wanted it to be over. They were up to row four. The capless man didn’t beg for his life. We all knew the rules of the game, the killers and the killed alike. There was no need for words. The shot rang out without warning. There was a short, dry, echoless thud. One bullet to the brain. They always shot you in the back of the skull. There was a war on. Ammunition had to be used sparingly. I didn’t want to know who the man was. I was delighted to be alive.
What does morality say the young prisoner ought to have done? It says the human life has no price. Very well. Should he therefore have consented to lose his life? Or does the pricelessness of life mean that he was justified in doing anything to save his own? Morality is supposed to be universal and categorical. But the lesson of Roman Frister’s story is that it is a convenience, to be relied upon only in normal times. (Ibid., 89) This is quite a narrative. If there is no God, then John Gray’s conclusions seem to follow. However, two things that Gray is convinced of — that history, including the history of Christendom, shows that morality is a convenience, and that we have a widespread belief in the idea of progress as the belief that “humanity can shape its future” — I find of particular importance.
Starting with the latter point first, I wonder to what extent we are dependent on the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in all that we do? Are we looking for man-made solutions to spiritual problems? To what extent is it true today that what was begun in the Spirit, we are trying to finish in the flesh? Is it possible that, just as the values of Humanism are actually Christian expressed in secular terms, that Christianity has become a form of secular Humanism with a spiritual veneer?
I am reminded of a story told to me by an American friend of mine. A leader from the Chinese underground church had come and spent several months looking at “cell church” models in the West to see what he could learn and take back to China. When asked, at the end of the trip, what he had learned, he simply replied, “It is amazing how much you can do without God.”
“There is nothing in science, or in philosophy, that should lead us to conclude that our convictions are neither true nor real.”
However, it is the moral observations he makes that make me really sit up and listen. We are called as Christians to pick up our cross and follow Christ. It is impossible to be a disciple of Christ without understanding this. Why is it that there is so little evidence of it?
THE CHALLENGE OF AFFLUENCE
Our affluent culture looks for ease in everything. Comfort is prized more than anything else. In his book, The Challenge of Affluence, Professor Avner Offer makes the observation that moral prudence is required in order to build up affluence and wealth. However, affluence gives rise to temptation. Temptation, if not morally recognized and resisted, gives rise to indulgence. Indulgence eats up wealth. Hence, the “rewards of affluence produce the disorders of affluence” (Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence: Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain Since 1950 [Oxford University Press, 2006]).
Where is the church that denies itself? I am convinced that these two issues — a lack of conviction about the truth of the gospel, and our marriage of convenience to a Christian faith that will help us get ahead in the world but without any real cost — are connected. If we conclude that the gospel is not true and real at its core, then we may still decide to believe it if we think it will help us get ahead.
There are very few Western politicians I can think of that haven’t found it useful to court the Christian faith and the Christian community when it is convenient to them or necessary to achieve some other goal. But what about our own lives? Do we live as if our faith is “a convenience, to be relied upon only in normal times”?
A MISSION LIKE NO OTHER
There is not much more that really needs to be said about this as it pertains to our topic. If we know the truth of the gospel, if God is with us, we need not fear what might be ranged against us. Both our lives and our words will be lived without worldly fear. The affluence that the Protestant work ethic produced in society has led to an increasingly narcissistic culture as we have moved further from the gospel and its demands. It is hard to run with endurance when burdened by a lot of weight. By not laying aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, we are trying to run a marathon in heavy clothing soaked through with indulgence.
I recently had a man train with us who has spent much of his life fighting behind enemy lines in covert operations. Following his coming to Christ, he asked if he could train with us in order to travel to more challenging parts of the world and make Christ known. When I asked him what motivated his desire to train, he replied that when he worked in covert operations, regardless of the hardship, regardless of the cost, he worked in a small unity that was dedicated to achieving its goal.
He went on, “Now that I have become a Christian, Christ has given me a mission that is more important than anything that any government has ever asked of me. But where is the commitment to achieve it? Where is the willingness to suffer? Many people seem to be sitting around complaining that they don’t like the chairs in the sanctuary.”
The courage we need to finish our mission is not something that we can simply arouse in ourselves. Hebrews talks of those who “were made strong out of weakness” (Hebrews 11:34). The implication is not that they made themselves strong, just that they made themselves available. As a result, they were made mighty. God is able to do more than we can imagine.
“Do we live as if our faith is 'a convenience to be relied upon only in normal times'?”
When we talk about courage, we often talk about it in the face of unlikely odds or in the face of the unknown. Yet Christian courage is of a slightly different order. We know what the final outcome will be. The Lamb wins. Hence why “some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35). The outcome of our own lives is unknown to us, but it is known to God. So we may have great confidence in the errands on which he sends us.
EVERYTHING TO GAIN
I do not wish to say that this is easy, but only that it is necessary. I remember speaking in a difficult situation once. Sitting only a few feet away was a man of militant disposition, who stared at me with such hatred in his eyes the whole time I was preaching of the gospel that I was scared. In the end, I had to turn my back slightly as I spoke to blank him out, so disturbing was the look on his face. I have heard the term death stare before.
But I had never experienced anything like that before, or since. Ending my message, I went to leave from the podium to my left, bypassing him. As I did so, I felt a challenge in my own heart. I stopped and walked right instead. As I stepped down, he stood up and I greeted him. Much to my surprise he embraced me, and as tears came down his cheeks he said, “Listening to your gospel is like watching flowers grow in a barren field.”
We have everything to lose by not heeding his voice to go and make disciples of all nations, and everything to gain.