What do you aspire to most? Becoming famous? Being known as nice? Wealthy? Healthy? Comfortable? Happy?
I’d like to suggest that, given the times, a seemingly outdated virtue needs to come back in vogue: toughness. Do you aspire after toughness?
Years ago, my 6-year-old son, Graham, dropped like he had been hit by a sledgehammer when a baseball slammed into his forehead. I ran out to the infield. “Are you all right, bud?” I asked. Graham nodded his head. “I think so.”
I could already see the knot forming just above his left eye. Graham started to get up, and his coach said, “Here, we’ll help you off the field and put Tyler in.”
“No,” Graham protested. “Tyler lets the balls go by. We can still win this game. I can play.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
I looked at the coach, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “Graham’s better groggy than Tyler is clearheaded, so if it’s OK with you …”
The coach and I patted Graham on the back, and I returned to the bench, feeling very proud thoughts, saying to myself, “This is so cool; I’ve got a really tough son! Who knew?”
When a kid is just 6 years old, untested, you really don’t know his character, so I couldn’t have been happier. Now, as a young man who is 22 years old, Graham’s toughness has been proven many times over, in far more significant circumstances than these.
The reason this encourages me isn’t just from the perspective of a father; it’s from my perspective as a pastor. This is not a generation in which weak Christians will do well. Popular media is increasingly hostile to Christian sexual ethics and fond of ridiculing Christian beliefs in general, to the extent that if people don’t become tough, they may not remain confessing believers.
“Pain Unending … Grievous and Incurable”
The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah is a classic case study of toughness. What Jeremiah had to endure during a public ministry that lasted for about 40 years is enough to frighten the bravest saint. Early in his life, the call to become a prophet looked like a relatively convenient one: Jeremiah began his prophetic work under the reign of Josiah, a God-fearing leader who turned an entire nation back to God. But 12 years later, Josiah died. His replacement, King Jehoiakim, cowered under Babylon’s rule and turned to idols. Jeremiah soon found himself at odds with the entire leadership of Israel. Even his own family betrayed him (12:6). Standing up for God and against idolatry — two things that previously won him fame — now resulted in Jeremiah being called a traitor. The persecution was so intense and painful that Jeremiah described it as “my pain unending … my wound grievous and incurable” (15:18).
Ponder that thought for a minute: Faithfulness to God resulted in unending pain as well as a grievous and incurable wound.
The chief priest had Jeremiah beaten and put in stocks (20:1–2). All the religious leaders gathered and told the political leaders and citizens of Israel, “This man should be sentenced to death” (26:11).
Jeremiah lived to see another day, but he certainly never became a popular and revered religious leader, the equivalent of a bestselling author or a popular speaker on the religious circuit today. In fact, on one occasion, as Jeremiah wrote down prophetic words from God and had them delivered to the king, Jehoiakim simply burned the words of the scroll as they were read. Jeremiah’s masterpiece didn’t even make it into a second printing.
Jehoiakim died, as did his son after a very short reign, and then Jeremiah had to prophesy under one of the most pathetic, weak-willed leaders you could ever imagine — King Zedekiah. Zedekiah asked Jeremiah to pray for him, but after Jeremiah prophesied, the king had him arrested on a trumped-up political charge. Jeremiah’s dungeon was disgusting, but he was kept there, in the words of Scripture, “a long time” (37:16). When Zedekiah finally brought Jeremiah back out, Jeremiah made a special plea: “Do not send me back … or I will die there” (37:20).
Think about it: called to a public ministry, betrayed by your own family and the religious rulers, considered a traitor by your government, truly standing alone, persecuted for your faithfulness. Who among us wouldn’t grow bitter at such treatment? Who among us, indeed, would ever think of developing a prosperity gospel out of such a life?
Yet Jeremiah’s struggles had just begun.
Some local officials pleaded with Zedekiah to put Jeremiah to death. The weak-willed king couldn’t say no to anyone: “He is in your hands … The king can do nothing to oppose you” (38:5). They lowered Jeremiah into a cistern. Imagine being lowered into a narrow well that is dark at the bottom, with no fresh air. This particular cistern had no water in it, but the bottom was covered in muck. Jeremiah likely stood waist-deep in a stinking bog, surrounded by darkness, insects, his own filth, and a merciless, unceasing stench.
When the king eventually had pity for Jeremiah, it took 30 men to tug him off the muddy floor and raise him onto dry ground, but Jeremiah was still held in captivity.
In the end, Jeremiah’s warnings failed. He and his fellow Israelites were carted off into exile. If you measured Jeremiah’s anointing and stature by any standard used for Christian celebrities today — fame, Twitter followers, book sales, large attendance, success — he would be considered an absolute, total failure.
Yet he stands tall in Scripture as a model of tough faith, persevering faithfulness and tenacious commitment to the will of God.
“Through Many Tribulations”
Who among us today would have the strength, the perseverance, the courage, to live such a life and endure such a ministry? A weak man or woman, expecting nothing but prosperity, comfort and health, would wilt within two weeks.
It is the church’s duty and calling to raise men and women with the strength of Jeremiah who will not wilt in the face of the fiercest persecution imaginable — whether it’s being strong in facing down their own temptations or being tough in not seeking to please popular opinion above the approval of God. Scripture and Christian history both teach us that God allows the church to go through seasons of persecution, and while North America isn’t physically torturing believers, popular society is certainly ridiculing and sometimes ostracizing us. If we aren’t prepared for this — and if we don’t prepare others — we’ll either “adjust” our message accordingly or collapse into bitterness, thinking that God hasn’t kept up His end of the bargain.
According to the book of Acts, one of the Apostle Paul’s great ministries was “strengthening the souls of the disciples” by “encouraging” them with the words, “Through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The early church expected persecution and so was strengthened and encouraged by it, as opposed to being cast into a season of doubt and despair.
We serve a God of many kindnesses and mercies, who treats us far better than we ever deserve. But we also serve the General of all generals, who leads His men and women into battle for the truth. Brothers and sisters, we need to take up our spiritual arms and march bravely forward. We need tough Christians in the days ahead.
Copyright 2012 Gary Thomas. All rights reserved.