“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12)
If any Christians have ever been set to be surprised by a fiery trial, it is American believers today. We’re comfortable. Our culture has felt like a good fit around us. Christianity shaped much of it, and the parts that haven’t been so biblically influenced have at least felt familiar.
Preachers and other Christian leaders have been calling for us—pleading with us—to wake up. There are many ways to be roused from sleep. On June 28, 1992, my wife and I were awakened early—4:57 am, to be exact—by a magnitude 7.3 earthquake centered just 20 miles away. Our nine-month-old son was in his crib upstairs.
No one had to plead with me to get out of bed that morning.
Scientists have been stymied in their attempts to foretell earthquakes. Today a more predictable quake is rumbling through our culture, one that I believe will wake up the church the way we were woken up that morning. There’s no need to be caught sleeping for this one, though. It ought not surprise us at all.
It ought not surprise us because of church history. Christianity was birthed and raised in the Middle East. What happened there? For centuries it was strong in North Africa, but not anymore. Where the faith has formerly flourished, it has often been squashed by opposing spiritual forces. Even Europe has fallen away from Christianity, though perhaps faded away is more accurate. It’s naïve to think the same could never happen here.
It ought not surprise us because of the church worldwide today. Persecution has always been normal for large portions of the church. It’s as rampant now as ever. Day after day in Africa and the Middle East, churches are being burned: 60 of them in just one extended incident last year. Thousands of Christian-owned homes were burned at the same time. Examples like this could be multiplied almost endlessly.
It ought not surprise us because our whole culture is careening toward a cliff. I’m no economist, but anyone can see that America is heading toward severe economic crisis. The current recession has been bad enough, but when our nation’s ever-accumulating debt catches up with us, things are probably going to get worse. I doubt our culture will feel so comfortable around us then.
It ought not surprise us because the seeds of persecution have been planted right here at home. A new thing has happened in the history of the West: Christianity has been painted as evil. It is evil (so they say) because it is anti-woman, anti-equality, anti-freedom of thought. It is evil because it opposes science and our culture’s march into the future. Most of all it is evil (so they say) because of its bigoted and judgmental stand against equality in love and marriage.
There have always been those who have hated Christ and Christianity. Never before in the West, though, has that opinion dominated media and education as it is now.
It ought not surprise us because our Scriptures have told us to expect it. “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13). “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you. . . .” (1 Peter 4:12). We have no reason even to be surprised at the way sin is applauded among us. The Apostle Paul’s panorama of sin’s progression culminated not with “murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness”; not even with “dishonorable passions”; but with this: “they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:18-32). Where we are today is where the Bible said we would be, thousands of years ago.
A New Kind of Opportunity
But I’m suggesting—hoping, even predicting, dangerous as that is—that things might start to get better. You see, I know what gets me out of bed in the morning. Sometimes it’s the excitement of a new day ahead. Sometimes it’s the necessities of job and family. Sometimes none of that works and I practically sleepwalk through the day.
How will the church wake up? Pastors have been trying to rouse us by reminding us of what great things God has for us, and the desperate needs around us. Still we pray for awakening, because it’s not noticeably happening. The church is sleepwalking.
I have another earthquake story to tell, one I’ve laughed over many times. I was a single guy living in Pasadena. I’d had a horrible week. I went to bed exhausted on Saturday night. As I did so, I told the Lord, “I want to sleep in tomorrow. I’m not setting the alarm clock. If you want me to go to church you’ll have to wake me up.” Church started at 7:30. At 6:45 AM a minor earthquake struck, just big enough to do for me what an alarm clock would have done. “Okay, okay, I’ll go to church!” I said to God, as I flung myself out of bed.
If the excitement of the day ahead with God won’t wake us up, and if the world’s desperate spiritual and physical needs won’t do it, maybe a metaphorical earthquake—increased economic woes or increased persecution in the West, for example—would do it.
Please don’t think I’m hoping for trouble ahead; I’m just saying it seems unavoidable. And as I peer into a potentially dark future, by faith and with hope I can picture a bright light shining out of it, the light of prayers finally answered: a church finally awakened, alive in Christ, and demonstrating his goodness and truth as never before.
A Solid Foundation
Still I know that apart from a sovereign move of God, good will come of such things only to the extent that we are prepared. Californians are taught earthquake readiness. Preparedness requires knowing something about earthquakes: what they can do, how people have made it through them in the past.
More than anything it means living on solid foundations. One home near us had been built without its framework properly bolted down, and in the 1992 quake it was jolted almost a full foot off its foundation. Needless to say it was uninhabitable until some very expensive repairs were done. The mess could have been prevented with about a dollar’s worth of nuts screwed down onto the foundation bolts.
Our Christian foundation is of course a life lived deep in Jesus Christ, characterized by communion with God, community with others, and habits of self-sacrificing service. Need I point out that we need not wait for an earthquake to wake us up?
Building upon that, now is the time to make specific preparations for what lies predictably in our path. We’re being challenged on the truth and goodness of the faith. Our best defense against that challenge is knowledge coupled with practice. The challenges are demonstrably false: do we understand why this is so, and can we explain it?
Here’s a test. If you have teenaged children it fits you perfectly; if not, then imagine you’re leading a youth group. Are you equipped to teach them, clearly enough so that they can stand upon it, that Christianity is built on truth, that its moral standards are good, that there is a reason to stand for life, that the gay-rights attack on Christianity is misguided? Can you train them to stand up to the challenges that will come their way? Bonus question: Can you show them examples from history that God has preserved His church through attacks from within and without? If so, then great! If not, then the coming crisis is going to be much harder on you—and on your children, too. It’s time to buckle down and get prepared.
Knowledge must be coupled with practice. If Christianity is good (and it is) then Christians should do good. This is standard preaching fare—old news, in a sense. If a crisis for the faith comes, though, we’ll have new opportunities to share, to show patience, to show faith in the goodness of God. We might even look back at today and say, “I’m glad I practiced for this.”
Be Awake, Be Prepared
I hope I’m wrong. I hope no crisis comes. I hope awakening comes regardless, and that revival and transformation of our culture come with it. It would be foolish for us, though, to count on peaceful, quiet times ahead. It’s time to wake up, to prepare, and to look to God to accomplish his good purpose in and through us.
Tom Gilson is a writer, ministry strategist, and speaker, and author/host of the Thinking Christian blog. He’s closely involved in developing curriculum for global discipleship use through Campus Crusade for Christ, and in co-founding a new Life Leader Institute at King’s Domain near Cincinnati.
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