I was sitting in Church three weeks ago listening to various people’s testimonies. That Sunday was a climax of Missions’ Week where there is a special focus on missionary and evangelistic work in the church. These testimonies were basically people’s conversion stories. One consistent theme I found was the person’s life sucked before they were Christians and when they met Jesus everything got better. A lot of our gospel songs and sermons are filled with stories of how Jesus makes everything A-OK as long as you have a little faith. I sat there wondering to myself as I listened to these personal stories, narrated in a very entertaining manner I might add, is this seriously what we mean by someone getting “saved”? I began to reflect on another testimony I heard.
I really used to be confident in myself. I had the best education being taught by the leading expert in my field and I was his most brilliant student. I used to openly attack Christians. My superiors encouraged me to do it and even there I was the best at it. Christians used to fear me. Then I became a Christian and a missionary on top of that. I began to have far greater labours than my fellow Christians, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I was lashed with real whips. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from foreigners, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for my work. If you think you are weak, have you met me?
For this guy he became a Christian, a foreign missionary no less, and his life decidedly got worse. He wasn’t referring to a particular period in his life of devilish stress. He had been a Christian for about 20 years and a veteran minister for nearly as long. That was just how his life was. When you look at the catalogue of problems you would most likely say he needs to see a shrink. What he experienced is not something I would wish on my worst enemy (if I had any.) From this we should recognize not all conversion stories are scripted by Disney. Don’t get me wrong Christianity does help address our existential concerns and if you are in a morally destructive lifestyle being a devout Christian certainly helps in cleaning up your act. However we should not conceive Christian life as an episodic series where this week’s problem is neatly wrapped up and come what may, you know that there is never any real danger to the star of the show. (Game of Thrones fans know no such comfort.) We must not mistake this plucky go-lucky attitude for biblical faith.
If you have not recognized it already, the testimony belongs to Paul the Apostle. It is an amalgamation of Acts 22:3-5 and Philippians 3:5 with 2 Corinthians 11:23-29. In 1 Corinthians 4:10-13 he gives a similar description of the apostles being treated as the scum of the earth. Persecution was not only a reality for the leaders of the early Church. As a small odd group with an amazing, controversial message they were often the objects of scorn and maltreatment. The New Testament was acutely aware of real suffering among Christians and was constantly encouraging believers to patiently endure. When believers participated in suffering they believed that somehow they were participating in the Cross (1 Peter 4:1.) They believed if they shared in his suffering they would somehow also share in his glory (Romans 8:17.)
Today there are many of our brothers and sisters all over the world who face real pain and suffering for their faith in Jesus. They are not just gently mocked behind their backs or face “spiritual attacks” from witches and other seen forces. These people are flat out persecuted. I remember two years ago the story of Merriam Yehya Ibrahnim breaking internationally. As a young pregnant woman she was sentenced to death for her faith in Christ. Whilst being imprisoned awaiting her execution, she had to give birth in chains. Her child was disabled because of this but she refused to give in to Islam. When you hear her ordeal it is simply heart breaking. It’s put a lot perspective on our lives when we go through minor setbacks and immediately expect God to do something. It’s really sad when we act petunlantly because our “breakthrough” did not happen.
I am thankful for the freedoms and comforts I enjoy and I am happy that other Christians get to live better lives because of Jesus. However we need a reality check. This is not always the case and many members of God’s family enjoy no such luxuries. For those who enjoy the comforts of the modern world we need to know extreme persecution has not stopped and there is no end in sight. CNN reported that 2015 was the most violent year for Christians in modern history. Christianity Today also reported that even though government restrictions on Christianity have reduced persecution from terrorism has gone up. When we preach a pie in the sky Gospel whose promise is our personal pleasure and luxury, signed and delivered by heaven, we are disrespecting Merriam and all other people who have endured tribulation, past and present, for the Messiah. The seed of Christian faith has been watered throughout history with the blood of the saints. These people have shared in the suffering of Christ, enduring all these heinous things on the behalf of the Church. The least we can do is to be far less self-absorbed and remember their plights in our prayers everyday.
One of my favourite conversion stories comes from a person who Christianity “did nothing for them.” Christian apologist and former cold case detective Jim Warner Wallace was a happy pagan. He was suffering no existential crisis when he decided to become a Christian. As a lifelong atheists he finally decided to use his professional skills as a detective to examine the Bible. To his utter surprise he found them to be so convincing he decided to become a Christian. He now has a growing reputation as a world class apologist with his unique style. Yes Jesus did change his life but not from wallowing in moral or personal failure. After all he was a successful police officer , who loved his job and could provide for his family. In his words he became a Christianity because it was “simply true.” I think that sums it up. The reason we are Christians, whether our lives are better or the worse for it, is because the Gospel is true. Jesus the Messiah really did die for our sins and was raised on the third day all according to the scriptures.