I recently finished a biography on Roger Williams entitled, Roger Williams: Creation of the American Soul. Williams was a Puritan who lived during the tumultuous times of the early to mid-17th century in both England and the American colonies. I also recently listened to a biographical sermon, by John Piper, on John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. These two men were contemporaries. Williams moved to the colonies in America and went on to become the progenitor of the Separation of Church and State and the author of numerous books. He was thrown out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for believing in religious liberty in spite of the fact that he was a Calvinist like everyone else. Bunyan remained in England, became a pastor, and went through the roller coaster ride of Cromwell’s rule and the reintroduction of the monarchy after Charles I was beheaded. He was imprisoned for twelve years because he refused to give up preaching Baptist doctrine, during which he wrote his auto biography entitled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and he started writing Pilgrims Progress.
What struck me about these two men were the incredible hardships they faced to live out their Christian faith. Bunyan pastored his church from prison for twelve years. Williams lost everything he had. Religious freedom as we know it, didn’t really exist. You could lose your head for not showing allegiance to the Book of Common Prayer in England. You could lose your livelihood, or be murdered, for believing in religious liberty in early New England.
Both the book and the message were quite convicting. Today in America, Christianity is practiced with relative ease. We deal with budgets and buildings, constitutions and contemporary music, name changes, vision statements, and web sites. These are all important subjects at our church right now. We’ve spent an enormous amount of time talking about them. But the fact that we can even give energy to these matters is because of the religious freedom we have in this country. It’s not the same elsewhere.
Today, Christians all over the globe are being killed and persecuted for their belief in Christ. The hardships they experience are incalculable. We debate the changing of our constitution. They debate angry mobs intent on killing them. We get wounded over perceived personal slights on the part of another person. They are physically wounded just for being a Christian. The following is a true story of how one Christian community in an unnamed country decided to address the hardship of persecution: “So what do we do when the police come to take our lives?” asked a young man and his wife during a meeting in … 2010. An older man answered from his own experience, “Well, this is what I say when this happens to me. I tell them, ‘You are not taking my life. I am giving my life for you, and I hope you will come to know my Lord Jesus Christ so that we can be together in heaven some day.’” The young men and women in the room nodded their heads in agreement and said, “Okay, that is what we’ll say.”
What kind of faith creates that kind of response? What do they believe about God to have the courage to stand up for truth like that, while at the same time accepting the hardship, and possible death, that goes with it? The Psalmist gives us the answer: “You are good and what you do is good. Teach me your decrees” (Ps 119:68). And again, “Our God is in heaven, he does whatever pleases him” (Ps 115:3). God has a purpose for you, and for me. That may involve deep pain and suffering or it may not. But we know that in his absolute sovereignty he is infinitely good, so we accept what comes our way with all the confusion, mystery, and pain that accompanies it. Perhaps those I’ve identified in this blog understood one more thing necessary to deal with hardship! On the cross Jesus was unjustly condemned to death as part of God the Father’s plan to redeem us to himself. We deserved the cross. Jesus did not. We deserve hell. Jesus came from heaven to save us from it. So while we may not understand all the hardship in our lives, we know that God is not immune to it, having experienced it himself in the person of Jesus. So we take comfort and continue to live in faith despite the hardship realizing that God, in his sovereign will, allows it.