The Unbiblical Absolutes of Self-Protection
There is a mind-set in the prosperous West that we deserve pain-free, trouble-free existence. When life deals us the opposite, we have a right not only to blame somebody or some system and to feel sorry for ourselves, but also to devote most of our time to coping, so that we have no time or energy left over for serving others.
This mind-set gives a trajectory to life that is almost universal—namely, away from stress and toward comfort and safety and relief. Then within that very natural trajectory some people begin to think of ministry and find ways of serving God inside the boundaries set by the aims of self-protection. Then churches grow up in this mind-set, and it never occurs to anyone in such a community of believers that choosing discomfort, stress, and danger might be the right thing—even the normal, biblical thing—to do.
In this book, John Piper celebrates the lives and ministries of 27 leaders from church history, offering a close look at their perseverance amidst opposition, weakness, and suffering—inspiring readers toward a life of Christ-exalting courage, passion, and joy.
I have found myself in conversation with Christians for whom it is simply a given that you do not put yourself or your family at risk. The commitment to safety and comfort is an unquestioned absolute. The demands of being a Christian in the twenty-first century will probably prove to be a rude awakening for such folks. Since we have not embraced the Calvary road voluntarily, God may simply catapult us onto it as he did the home-loving saints in Acts 11:19: “Those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word.”
Stress and Danger Are Normal
One way or the other, Christ will bring his church to realize that “in the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33); that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12); that we are called to “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8); that “we . . . groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23); that “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for [Christ’s] sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35); and that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
If we will not freely take our cross and follow Jesus (Mark 8:34) on the Calvary road, it may be thrust on us. It would be better to hear the warnings now and wake up to biblical reality. Existence in this fallen world will not be pain-free and trouble-free. There will be groaning because of our finitude and fallenness, and many afflictions because of our calling (Rom. 8:23; Ps. 34:19). Frustration is normal, disappointment is normal, sickness is normal. Conflict, persecution, danger, stress—they are all normal. The mind-set that moves away from these will move away from reality and away from Christ. Golgotha was not a suburb of Jerusalem.
Christians Move toward Need, Not Comfort
For the apostle Paul, following Christ meant bearing the marks of his suffering. “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:8–10). Being a Christian should mean that our trajectory is toward need, regardless of danger and discomfort and stress. In other words, Christians characteristically will make life choices that involve putting themselves and their families at temporal risk while enjoying eternal security. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing . . . having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
The Biblical Urgency of the Call for Endurance
All of this raises the question of endurance. How can we keep on loving and serving people when life has so much pain and disappointment? What are the roots of endurance? The magnitude of this question in the real world is one reason endurance has such a prominent place in the New Testament. One of the great themes of the Bible could be summed up in the words “You have need of endurance” (Heb. 10:36).1 Or the banner flying over the whole Book could be, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints” (Rev. 14:12).
It is not a small consideration, since Jesus said, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13). And Paul said, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). And the writer to the Hebrews said, “We . . . share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14).
“Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3:14).
Repeatedly we are commanded to “stand” in the face of opposition that would knock us down or lure us to fall down or bow down. “Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13). “Stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Phil. 4:1). “Brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us” (2 Thess. 2:15).
We are admonished, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thess. 3:13). “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3:14). “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10:23). “Hold fast what you have until I come” (Rev. 2:25). A blessing is pronounced on those who endure under trial. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
The assumption behind all these biblical texts is that the Christian life is hard. “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life” (Matt. 7:14); the word of God can be “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14); “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8); and “there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:9).
Therefore the danger is real that professing Christians will simply grow weary in well doing (Gal. 6:9); that we will fail to take heed to ourselves (1 Tim. 4:16) and each other (Heb. 3:13; 10:24–25); and that we will just drift through life (Heb. 2:1) and fail to see that there is a fight to be fought and a race to be won (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7).
- For an extended treatment of the doctrine of perseverance, see Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, The Race Set before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001). For an old and standard classic, see John Owen, The Doctrine of the Saint’s Perseverance Explained and Confirmed, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 11 (orig. 1654; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965).
This article is adapted from 27 Servants of Sovereign Joy: Faithful, Flawed, and Fruitful by John Piper.
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