1 Peter 4:12 states, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you…” The troubles that we experience should never surprise us, although we tend to be in the face of trials. When things go awry as a result of our faith, we sometimes complain to God about not being sufficiently warned about the cost of discipleship. We become resentful because of the scorn surrounding us. Hebrews 11:35-38 states, however, that early Christians “were mocked and scourged, yes, also enduring chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword… men of whom the world was not worthy.” If men and women of such great spiritual caliber experienced these things, should we not count ourselves blessed with good company when we do too? Should any degree of suffering surprise us? Should we allow mockery to leave us flabbergasted and questioning our faith?
To be sure, the life of a Christian has been completely enumerated in the Bible so that nothing should shock us. As Christ-like people, we are told to live as our Savior lived, and participate in His suffering without question. It is not as though we are all required to die on a cross – for it was Jesus Christ’s lot to suffer that ultimate shame so that we might not have to die in our sins – but that we should take up our own figurative crosses and follow Christ without question. In His life, Christ was called a drunkard (Matthew 11:19), a blasphemer (Matthew 26:65), a devil (Matthew 10:25), and He promised His followers the same. “It is enough for the disciple that he become as his teacher, and the slave as his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household.”
With this in mind, how do we find the silver lining in our suffering? Because we expect it, should we live in misery, depression, anger, frustration, or bitterness? Or should we do all that we can to find the good news in the bad news?
Given the news that conservative religion is in “decline” it becomes tempting for some Christians to become discouraged. Churches are not growing as fast as national or world population. Our children are becoming disinterested in God. Even in a broad sense, “Christianity” is growing at a pace slower than its alternatives. Have we been outstripped? Has our time passed? Is the church of Christ a product of the nineteenth century with no appeal to those living in the twenty-first century? Even before the 1950’s, voices in our world had been ridiculing the church and “organized religion.” In spite of that, C.S. Lewis argued that we should not be discouraged when people talk about the decline of religion. The question we must ask is whether or not is true Christianity that is declining. “Lewis reminded his contemporaries in Europe during his lifetime that what was declining in his day was not Christianity but a ‘vague theism where churchgoing was merely as matter of loyalty, good manners and respectability.’ In other words, a decline in numbers at times may only mean on thing… what one is seeing is the separating of the true believers from the half-hearted” (“The Good News About the Bad News”, Mark Dunagan, www.beavertchurchofchrist.net). Take note of Jesus’ attitude in John 6:66-69, when many of his disciples began to leave Him. “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore. Jesus said, therefore, to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’ Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.’” While it may have disappointed Jesus to see people abandon Him, it certainly did not dishearten Him, or slow Him down. We need to remember one thing, friends: we have work to do for the Lord, no matter what size our church is! Whether we have one hundred members or ten, our mission does not change.
C.S. Lewis adds, “Once no one goes to church except to seek Christ, then the number of actual believers can be discovered” (God in the Dock, pp.219-220). We may find that, although the number of churches or overall members is falling, the number of more faithful church members is rising. Instead of allowing these statistics to discourage us, we should be encouraged by the fact that difficult times produce more devoted Christians. It becomes easier “when the going gets tough” to identify who is being faithful and who is lukewarm. We should not pity our children for living in a time such as this – rather, we should be grateful that they have the opportunity to have their faith tested and tempered. “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7, James 5:10-11, Matthew 24:13).
Like Christians throughout the centuries, it is easy for us to feel isolated, as if we are the only faithful Christians left in this modern world. But we need to keep in mind the fact that God does count His righteous ones by quantity – only quality. If there had been only ten righteous people in Sodom, the city would have been spared (Genesis 18:32). The same is true of Elijah’s time, when he complained to God that he was the only person left who refused to bow down to idols. We read about this in Romans 11:2-5. Elijah says, “Lord, they have killed Thy prophets, they have torn down Thine altars, and I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” The divine response is one of calmness and composure. God assures the prophet that He has found 7,000 people in Israel who were faithful. Consider the following points:
We are told by Paul not to be ignorant of how Satan attempts to derail us spiritually (2 Corinthians 2:11). He is a wily and crafty being, and one of the most common ways he defeats us is by taking advantage of the peaks and valleys that happen to us on a regular basis.
When we look at how small the churches of Christ are, even, perhaps, how small our own congregation is, it is tempting to become disillusioned with the entire idea of “church” or organized religion. We feel like we are not accomplishing anything, or butting our heads against a wall. Not only that, but we have to deal with each other’s faults as much as the world’s problems! We see hypocrites at church and become cynical and disheartened. And while sin should never be downplayed or excused, there are some lessons that we can learn about the faults of a congregation:
Instead of always viewing our troubles as failures, the number of people as a benchmark of disappointment, and the faults of our brethren as reasons for disillusionment, we need to see them as opportunities. Remember, take all of the fiery ordeals amongst us and use them as a chance to grow (1 Peter 4:12). The good news about bad news is that it gives us opportunities to:
· Demonstrate to the younger generation how genuine our faith is.