And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. (Heb.11:32-34)
I have a distinct memory of sitting in our packed Dorchester living room, circa 1982, and hearing this passage read aloud by one of our newest Bible Talk visitors. This particular guest had already impressed me when I visited her home that week: she had an entire room devoted to prayer and worship! She also attended Mass several times a week, and volunteered at several projects for the underprivileged. She was soft-spoken, kind, and humble. I’d rarely met someone as genuinely spiritual, yet Bible study, as she herself admitted, was not (yet) her strength. She read on:
Women received back their dead, raised to life again. 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 sawn in two, they were put to death by the sword—
Here she stopped reading, lowered her Bible, and said, “Oh my”.
Oh my, indeed.
After a long pause, she continued:
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. (v.37-38)
Her pause said everything. The price these people paid—how deeply they suffered for being on God’s side of the cosmic battle–is staggering. Sacrificing time to commune with God is commendable; having a designated worship room in one’s home is rare. Serving others in true humility always pleases God. But this roster of martyrs put us all to shame. How would we fare in such circumstances? Would we refuse to be released from torture? Would we gladly welcome prison and death-by-sawing? Would we willingly live destitute, dressed in rags and animal skins, wandering in caves or holes in the ground? Would we consider ourselves blessed to suffer like this?
I’m deeply convicted even as I write.
It’s been a long time since I endured any kind of persecution for my faith, and this bothers me. The battle was fierce when I was first converted. My parents rejected me (not for the first time), and boycotted my wedding, followed by years of distance. (Having a grandson broke the ice with them, but the spiritual gulf has never been bridged.) Many times, women I studied the Bible with turned away and grew hostile, breaking my heart two ways. In Africa, someone spat in my face when I tried to share the gospel, and someone else tried to kill me, running me off the road and into a ditch as I walked through my neighborhood one night. Trying to share my faith in London was the closest I came to facing jeers; British atheists can be incredibly rude and condescending when invited to church. These are the most intense moments I can recall, and yet they pale next to the exploits of these heroes.
But here’s the paradox: every time I was maligned or rejected for sharing my faith, my convictions deepened. Persecution brought me to my knees as I prayed for strength, and for those who were opposing the truth. After landing in the ditch in Lagos, I remember weeping, my heart beating double-time as I doused my wounds with Dettol (it was a filthy, garbage-filled ditch). Death had menaced, but God felt nearer. I knew the Enemy was enraged because my message—God’s words—had power. His attacks could temporarily frighten me, but soon after, my faith was stronger than ever. God’s Spirit filled me with a special joy: the joy of being counted worthy to suffer for my Lord and Savior.
I don’t share my faith the way I used to: everywhere, all the time, with whomever crossed my path, whether at the grocery store, the bank, the bus stop, the coffee shop, the dentist’s office, the DMV, wherever. As I’ve grown older, I find it harder to approach strangers with a ‘cold’ invitation, and my few attempts at walking around the mall and inviting strangers to a Bible study have been failures–at least in terms of netting a single yes. I use worldly reasoning—times have changed, I’m too old to be approaching strangers, churches and Bibles are on every corner if people want them—to excuse my reluctance to try again. In the past few years, the Enemy further discouraged me through a series of new friends who fell away after months of Bible study. Or should I say, I allowed him to discourage me.
Of all my articles so far, this has been the hardest to write. I’m put to shame by these faith heroes, and nostalgic for the days when I, too, was deep in the trenches. The battle I now face is simply perseverance: staying faithful to the end, living out the ‘quiet faith’ I wrote of in an earlier article. Trusting fully in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Finding new ways to live and share my faith in these uncertain times. And facing my excuses for what they really are: excuses.
How about you? Can you relate? How have you suffered for Jesus?