Growing up, I was fascinated with western movies. Incredible landscapes, exciting gun duels, unforgettable music, and the greatest names in Hollywood were all part of what made “The Western” the signature genre of cinema’s Golden Age. Perhaps no movie star is more well-known for starring in westerns than John Wayne. A “tough guy” to the core, it was Wayne who once famously quipped, “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.” While undoubtedly blunt, there is certainly an element of truth in this quote, at least in the first half: life is surely tough, and life is surely filled with difficult times. For many, especially those of us in America, life today is easier than the existence many of our ancestors had to eek out, yet it still comes with both overt and subtle challenges that are unique to our contemporary landscape. Without a doubt, the vast majority of people on earth have lives that are marked by difficulties of diverse arrangement, although many in the United States are blissfully unaware of this oft-unpleasant reality.
In particular, followers of Christ are subject to lives that are difficult, filled with trials and tribulations of varying degrees. This is a mark of the church universal, “universal” meaning the fact that the true and living church of Jesus Christ is not limited to any one region, social class, race, ethnicity, age, or sex. From present times dating back to the humble beginnings of the early church in the book of Acts, one need not read vast amounts of literature on the early church to discover the reality that the church has always been subject to persecution, even within days of its conception at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. Yet, one of the most common expressions that any modern, American Christian might ask when trial or persecution descends upon the lives of them or their loved ones would undeniably be, “Why me?” This reaction to trouble that we see all-too-often in the 21st century seems woefully out of tune with what Jesus Christ said in His Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt. 5:11-12)
What is abundantly clear from these verses is that persecution on behalf of the Lord and Risen King, Jesus Christ, is not to be counted as a curse, but as a blessing! Nonetheless, these are not conditions that Christians in America are even remotely familiar with in comparison to regions of the world like Indonesia, mainland China, Russia, and North Korea that become more and more hostile to believers with time.
So, where does that leave us? Where does that leave those of us who are blessed to be believers in a nation that has historically protected our freedom to worship Christ yet has in the last several decades categorically denied the fundamental tenets not only of the Christian faith, but also the conceptual framework of an eternal God altogether?
I believe an answer to this question, at least in part, can be found in the book of Acts, chapter 20. As Luke has chronicled in the chapter, Paul is now returning from his third missionary journey to Jerusalem in hopes of making it back for Pentecost. On his way back from Macedonia, he makes several stops along the way (Troas, where he raised a man named Eutychus from the dead, Assos, Mitylene, Samos, and Miletus).
It is at Miletus that Paul summons the elders of the church from Ephesus, which was about 30 miles north of Miletus, to meet him (Acts 20:17). Upon the arrival of the elders, Paul gives what will be an impassioned farewell address to them, one that was marked by prayer, brotherly embrace, and filled with sorrow and “weeping on the part of all” (20:36-37). With these things in mind, we narrow our focus on the beginning of Paul’s farewell address, seen in verses 18 and 19:
“And when they came to him, he (Paul) said to them: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews…”
Notice that Paul’s time spent serving the Lord here is characterized by tears and trials, not by peace and happiness and emotionally transcendent experiences. Paul’s missionary journey was marked, by all intents and purposes, with great degrees of sorrow and anguish. What’s more, this characterization wasn’t just applied to periods of time now and then during Paul’s journey, but rather the journey as a whole (notice verse 18 – “the whole time”).
Essential to the interpretation of this passage is also the concept of humility. It would seem that Paul was able to serve the Lord with humility as a result of the tears and trials he went through while serving. This concept is elaborated more thoroughly in James 1:2, where it is stated, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet troubles of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James states it in an almost matter of fact way: “you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” In other words, James is stating that this is well-known amongst the believers of the time, that a faith tested is one that is true.
Perhaps this is a concept that those of us in contemporary circles would do well to remember in trying times. Consider Paul: imprisoned, beaten almost to death numerous times, five times received the 39 lashes, three times beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, a night and day adrift at sea, in danger on rivers, in cities, in the sea, often hungry and thirsty, without sleep, and finally beheaded in Rome at the hand of the emperor Nero. Yet Paul considered all these things his strength, to live for Christ! In all we do, we do it for the glory and majesty of God. The trials, tribulations, hardships, heartaches, pains, and sorrows that we face in this life are not to be thought of as uncommon. Rather, they are the normative expectation for life in a fallen world. But in all these things, the Christian does not lose all hope, though his life may come to ruin around him. We bend inevitably, but we do not break because of this hope: Christ Jesus died on a tree that all who believe in Him will reign with Him forever in His presence. It is in the light of that all-glorious truth, the greatest truth that any man could ever know, that we persevere. And it is with that held at the forefront of our hearts and minds that we serve the Lord in tears and trials…after all, He is faithful to the very end.
Thanks be to God.