Our nation has once again been stunned by a horrific event, this time in Sutherland, Texas, where a young man brutally gunned down disciples at the First Baptist Church. Some people have chosen to use this occasion to mock Christians, suggesting that if someone could go to a church and kill worshippers, prayer must be useless. Without getting into the appropriateness of this statement or looking for meaning in suffering, the question remains: Is there any advantage to knowing Christ?
Your God Is Too Small
Some people treat religion as if it were a club membership. When you join a club, you gain access to privileges other people don’t get, like use of the pool, vacation property, discounts, etc. For those who view religion this way, they expect analogous privileges like protection from illness and trials, guaranteed financial success, and divine acquiescence to their prayer demands. In this system, God loves or cares about his followers more than he does anyone else.
The problem with this approach and other warped views of God is that it creates a god that is too small actually to be God. Every time I try to imagine how I could do a better job than God at running this world, I encounter the same problem: creating an existence that diminishes love. In my simplistic universe, either God loves us less, or we limit our love for God and others.
Paul … You da Man!
In Philippians 1:12-26, Paul shows us a different way. When he wrote his letter to the Philippians, he was in prison and faced the real possibility of execution. The Philippians were praying for him. Many Christians, encouraged by his example, had begun to proclaim the Gospel. Some selfish people had taken to preaching the Good News as an opportunity to gain popularity and acclaim.
What is Paul’s response? He rejoices that the Gospel is proclaimed, even though some are motivated by selfish ambition and want to “steal his thunder.” He openly shares his deliberations about whether it would be better for him to die and be with Christ or stay and continue to serve believers like the Philippians. He is content with either path because for him, Christ is all, and his only desire is to glorify Jesus. He is motivated neither by fear of punishment nor sole adherence to moral principles, but rather, out of love for God. He is a man who knows his purpose; who has a reason to live and a reason to die. He has found the answers to the deepest questions of life. He has come to know a God whose love is bigger than any trial, suffering, or death.
Paul was a man at peace, and neither death nor life, persecution nor well-being, could take that away. He could lose it only by giving it away. He knew a deeper reality that went beyond his time-now. Let us follow his example, embracing the deeper truth and person of Jesus Christ and making Him our all in all. Nothing else matters by comparison.
Making It Real
We are fortunate that violent assaults on Christians remain rare in the United States. But the hedge is coming down. In many countries, the threat of physical attack, having one’s church bombed or burned, facing discrimination, imprisonment, and executions have become real and prevalent dangers. To attend Mass knowing that there is a small yet significant chance one could come under attack and killed because of his or her faith in Christ has to change that person’s perspective. How readily we could justify staying home where it’s comfortable and safe. From now on, however, every time I go to celebrate the Eucharist I’m going to consider that it is just possible that on that day I may be asked to give my life because of my love for God,. And I will remember, honor, and pray for those elsewhere in the world who have given their lives for Christ and daily persevere under that threat.