A few days ago, a mob in Egypt burned down a Christian school and then took 3 nuns out into the streets, to parade them around as prisoners of war. There have been recent reports of courts in Iran sentencing people to death for the crime of believing in Jesus. It is impossible for us to imagine how great the pressure is in these situations for people to deny their faith in Jesus, or at the very least keep quiet about it.
In my community the pressure is much less forceful (there were 2 letters to the editor in our daily newspaper today, telling Christians to keep what they believe to themselves.) but when it comes against you, personally, it still feels very challenging. When the push of the world becomes shove, when faith is tested in painful ways or even simply embarrassing ways, there are some things we can do to help us stand firm. We’re going to look at some of them in more detail over the next several days.
You may think the Bible was written by a drill sergeant and just tells us to suck it up and be strong. But back when the early Christians were doing a lot of bleeding, real people needed real ways to keep their faith strong. The book of Hebrews spent a whole chapter telling of great men and women of faith, who resolutely continued to believe in God and His promises, despite severe pressure from the world. And then, the author of that book gave some practical tips for Christians facing similar threats to their faith. He said, here’s what you can do to stay strong, too:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
We’ll take this in pieces. The first tip is this: Remember that your suffering has come because you are playing on a great team! The word, witnesses, probably doesn’t mean that the souls of dead martyrs are watching from heaven as you struggle. It means that they have borne witness by their lives that holding on to faith in the midst of suffering is really worth it. The word, witness, is the Greek word from which we get the English word, martyr. The idea here is that when you are tested because of your belief in Jesus, you have come off the bench to play on a great team that has left a legacy of fearless faith over the centuries.
There is a reason that pro sports teams retire the number and display the jersey of a great player. The fans love it for sure but the deeper reason has to do with the impact on the team. Implied in those acts that honor the former greats, is a message to the rookie on the bench: “This is who we are; this is what we play like and this is what we stand for.”
The great cloud of witnesses gives that message to the lonely soul who is being threatened for her or his faith today. You may feel like giving up, caving in, but look up as you come off the bench. Look up to the rafters and see those sweat and blood-stained jerseys of the great men and women who have played on this team before. Remember their courage. Know that they are glad to know you are standing in the lineup today.
Stay tuned over the next few days, and we’ll dig deeper into the next tip for keeping the faith.