Courage for Tomorrow! Being a Christian in Strong Headwinds – Part 1

Johannes Pflaum

None of us wants to suffer. Today’s aversion to suffering of any kind makes us averse to suffering when it comes to the Gospel. Yet the Bible says that testimony for Christ is associated with suffering.

Our Lord says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).

The word used by the Lord Jesus in John 16:33 for “tribulation” can also be translated as “distress,” “hardship,” “fear,” or “pressure.” And with the word “world,” he isn’t thinking of a picturesque sunset in the Bahamas, or the dreamlike snowy peaks of the Swiss Alps. Rather, it means fallen creation; and, most of all, mankind in its rebellion against God. Satan is the god of this world.

The Lord Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples, “In the world you may have tribulation,” or “Sometimes there might be tribulation.” No, He announces point-blank to His disciples: In a humanity divorced from God, you will experience “distress” or “hardship.” It’s unavoidably linked to discipleship. The term used here is the same used in Revelation for the Great Tribulation. That should keep you from seeing it through rose-colored glasses, even if you believe in a pre-Tribulation Rapture.

The sinking of the Titanic still moves us. Numerous books have been written and films made. In this context, one could quote the sarcastic phrase, “It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” The floating entertainment palace was regarded as a marvel of technology, and was rumored to be unsinkable. Of course, there were poor and miserable people in the lower decks. There were also Christian believers on board, and people came to believe in Jesus Christ through that horrific night of destruction.

In hindsight, we know that despite numerous warnings, the Titanic plowed ahead with undiminished speed on that fateful night. The ship had received warnings about ice, hours before the accident. The sharply plummeting air temperature also indicated that pack ice and icebergs were close by. Regardless of all of this, the dancing and gaiety on board continued until disaster struck. The sinking of the Titanic serves as a cautionary example of what can happen if you ignore signs just because you’re doing well, are comfortable, or want to paint everything in the best possible light.

I don’t want to connect this example to society or world events (even if that might be justified), but to us as the church of Jesus Christ, still enjoying freedom of belief here in the West. It’s clear what founding principle the Lord Jesus foretold to His disciples. Freedom of belief isn’t the normal state of things for the church of Jesus, but the exception—even though it has lasted a long time in the West. However, the signs are intensifying that our freedom of belief is diminishing, and that we have to prepare ourselves for a sharp headwind that can increase to the point of strong pressure and distress. My concern is that we believers are similar to how the people were back on the Titanic. We’d rather ignore the facts and convince ourselves that everything will work out, instead of facing reality.

This article’s title is taken from a book that was published forty years ago and has long been out of print. Werner Stoy wrote under the title (and on the topic) Courage for Tomorrow: Christians in the West Prior to Persecution. Although some of the configurations have changed due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the content of the book remains current. Stoy makes it clear how much the Bible speaks of suffering and distress, and that this topic is largely ignored in dogmatics (teaching), ecclesiology (study of the church), and ethics (practical life as a Christian).

We aren’t nearly conscious enough of the tremendous societal shifts in recent decades. First, Christian values were consciously rejected, and hostility to the Bible and the Gospel increased. Instead of confessing our faith in the face of these developments and being refined through discipleship, we’ve begun to “pussyfoot” around our faith in order to increasingly adapt to secular society. Of course, there are still very missionary-minded people and followers of Christ. But this overall impression is having an effect. For example:

Thirty years ago, faithful churches and their members were strongly pro-evangelization. Posters were hung—some of which already contained a clear message—and invitations were issued from house to house, even though the doors were often slammed shut in response in those days. In the 1970s, believers were increasingly wearing buttons and pins showing a clear profession of faith. Many cars were not only decorated with “Jesus fish,” but also had bumper stickers with a clear message. There were street and hospital missions, as well as other actions to share the faith with the public. It’s true that some of these are no longer possible; however, I’m concerned that we will increasingly allow ourselves to be blocked by the headwind, instead of courageously opposing the developments.

In his book, Werner Stoy points out that persecutors always try to prevent public mission work and evangelism. He gives the example of the former Soviet Union, where persecution increased as soon as missionaries were openly working and the country was being evangelized. On the other hand, belief within your own four walls or within your church is permissible. I’m afraid that we’ll promote possible future developments through our very withdrawal from the public sphere and our encouragement of these social adjustments.

What does the New Testament teach us about suffering for Christ’s sake? I’ll take the Gospel of John out of the four, for example. The term “world” occurs most frequently there: On the one hand, as the good world created by God, and on the other, mainly as a description of humanity in opposition to God. We read at the very beginning in John 1:5, how the darkness tried to overcome or extinguish the light; and in verse 10, how the world didn’t recognize Him. John 7:7 explains that the world hates Jesus because He testifies that their works are evil (cf. John 3:19-20). In John 15:18-21, the Lord reveals that this hatred also affects His disciples: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Our Lord has summarized our entirely selfish nature—in addition to the hatred and hostility, which can reach extremes—in this doctrine of discipleship: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). It’s already a problem for us today, if we could lose our reputation or social standing for Christ’s sake.

In the book of Acts, we like to read that the early church in Jerusalem initially had “favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47). However, this favor didn’t prevent the persecution that followed soon afterward. In this context, we read something in Acts 5:41, which contradicts not only our human nature, but also our attitude toward life today: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”

Outwardly, the outbreak of persecution fractured the life of the early church. But the icy headwind made its testimony for Jesus all the stronger. Acts 8:4 states that those who were dispersed by persecution proclaimed the Word of God. It’s also interesting what the church prayed about, when the apostles came under pressure from the great persecution. They didn’t ask for the situation to change, but for frankness in their testimony (Acts 4:29-31). While James lost his life for the Lord, Peter was set free (Acts 12). The church had prayed for this as well. However, the pressure didn’t go away.

Chapter 9 begins with Paul. The first thing he is told after his conversion is how much he must suffer for Jesus’ sake (v. 16). Mind you, this didn’t refer to suffering in general—which can also be severe—but about pressure, tribulation, fear, and persecution for the sake of Jesus. This concept pervades the book of Acts with varying degrees of intensity, until chapter 28. In Acts 14:22, we read of how Paul and Barnabas strengthened the young churches over the course of the first missionary journey: “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

In the Epistles of the Apostle Paul himself, we nearly always find the subject of persecution and affliction (whether directly or indirectly). Romans 8 is well known to us, because it says that nothing and nobody can separate us from the love of Christ—the great hymn of the certainty of salvation, according to some. We easily overlook the fact that the entire section is in the context of tribulation for Christ’s sake. In verse 36, Paul even compares himself (and us) “as sheep to be slaughtered.” As long as the sheep are fluffy and cozy, we don’t have any objection. But we don’t like to be compared with sheep for slaughter.

In Second Corinthians 11, from verse 16 onward, Paul cracks open the door to give us a glimpse into his various sufferings for Christ’s sake. We shouldn’t forget that Paul didn’t write Second Corinthians at the end of his life, but around three years before his first captivity, and 9-10 years before the end of his life. And in one of his first letters—the letter to the Galatians—Paul says that, regarding the matter of circumcision, he bears the markings of Christ (Gal 6:17). He doesn’t mean this in a Roman Catholic/mystical sense, but rather, he’s saying that he was tortured and suffered physically for the sake of the Gospel.

In his three captivity epistles, the Apostle also spoke, directly or indirectly, on the subject of suffering. These epistles include Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, which he wrote together with Philemon. Only one passage from Philippians should be singled out: In Philippians 3, Paul speaks of the overwhelming knowledge of Christ, the reason he regards everything that was formerly of importance to him as worthless. His only concern now is to “win Christ, and be found in him” (vv. 8-9, KJV). “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (vv. 10-12).

Can we say the same? Not in a “spiritualized” way, but in one that is very practical in terms of our willingness to suffer. One note about this: Baptism is a confession. Anyone who is baptized is baptized into the death of Christ before the new life comes. This death doesn’t just concern the sinful former life, but also affirms suffering for Christ’s sake. In today’s baptism classes, this is largely ignored. In Islamic countries, for example, every candidate for baptism knows what it means for him, and the high price that is attached.

First and Second Thessalonians were written to a young church in the midst of persecution. They specifically cover the topics of pressure and distress. Incidentally, we can see from these two letters that a church experiencing persecution isn’t automatically equipped against temptation. Rather, the two can go hand in hand.

Paul’s final epistle is Second Timothy, which he wrote before his execution. In it, he once again emphasizes the willingness to suffer as an important prerequisite to discipleship and service: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim 1:8).

Persecution also plays a role in the letter to the Hebrews. The Hebrews even happily accepted the seizure of their property for the sake of the faith, and suffered as prisoners (Heb 10:34). But we also read that we must not forget the persecuted brothers and sisters: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Heb 13:3). We’re criminally guilty of neglecting this. No worship or prayer service should overlook praying for the persecuted church. Stoy makes it clear that this intercession by the Confessing Church under the Third Reich, was an integral part of the services. But so often, we’re only concerned with our own problems and minor ailments.

The Apostle Peter also wrote to the scattered and persecuted church. His second epistle in particular shows us that persecution doesn’t automatically prevent temptation. Peter encourages believers to endure and stand firm under external pressures. He explains the promises that are involved, and how the Lord uses suffering and pressure to cleanse and change His children. These are two topics we have completely lost focus on today. We live in a society where the only issue is how to prevent suffering at all levels.  We also belong to a Christianity that believes that discipleship has something to do with spiritual “numbing,” with the aim of floating through this life in a bubble of spiritual well-being.

None of us wants to suffer. We can also pray that the Lord will take away or alleviate suffering. But today’s aversion to suffering of any kind also makes us averse to suffering when it comes to the Gospel. And we overlook how many promises have been made regarding suffering for Jesus’ sake. To quote First Peter 1:6-9, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Regardless of what we think about the Rapture (whether pre-, post-, or mid-Tribulation), the book of Revelation also teaches us that testimony for Christ is associated with suffering. The last book in the Bible has always been a book of consolation for the persecuted church. In the seven letters, we find the sufferings of various churches, up to and including martyrdom. In spite of all the suffering and challenges, Revelation keeps drawing attention to God’s greatness. As already mentioned, if the pre-tribulation Rapture should occur, it must not obscure our perspective on affliction for Christ’s sake.

A brother told me the following about Christians in China: A revival occurred there before the Cultural Revolution. Three people whom the Lord undoubtedly used, and who are still great spiritual role models today, emphasized the pre-Tribulation Rapture. When the Cultural Revolution broke out and persecution began, some Christians said that they had been cheated because they were now suffering terribly for their faith, and the Great Tribulation couldn’t possibly be worse. It even went so far that several fell away from the faith. We can learn from this how much we have to be careful not to emphasize things incorrectly, or even to combine belief in the pre-Tribulation Rapture with our reluctance to suffer.

Midnight Call - 03/2021

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