Every now and then I run across a Christ follower who has never really suffered.
Some would call them fortunate.
I call them unprepared.
Those of us who have never been hassled or marginalized for our faith are ill-equipped to face genuine persecution.
I’m reminded of a church member who came to me, crushed after he’d been passed over for a major promotion at work that effectively put a lid on his career.
He was an outspoken Christian. His immediate supervisor was an atheist. He was sure that was the reason he didn’t get promoted.
Through tears he told me he was angry and frustrated with God. He felt that the Lord had let him down. He wondered what good it had done him to follow Jesus for all these years.
I didn’t know what to say. I thought the main reason we follow Jesus is because He’s God and He forgives our sins. I didn’t realize there was a career advancement component as part of the deal.
To make matters worse, he had a prickly personality. From what I’d seen, he didn’t play well in the sandbox. I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t get the promotion.
Now I have to admit that what I did next might not seem very pastoral.
I told him the truth.
I reminded him that he still had a job, a decent one at that. It put food on the table and a roof over his head. In some parts of the world, he wouldn’t even be able to get a job as an outspoken Christian. In some places, his faith could cost him his life.
I suggested that his failure to be promoted might be a spiritual boot camp experience. Maybe it was God’s way of showing him he was too soft, not yet ready for battle. After all, if a lost promotion could put his faith into the ditch, there was no way he was ready to handle the genuine persecution he was so sure was just around the corner.
He immediately fell on his knees and repented. He thanked me profusely for telling him the hard truth he needed to hear. He went home with a new perspective, praising God for the job he had and the many blessings he’d been taking for granted.
And if you believe that, I have some money waiting for you in a Nigerian bank account.
The truth is, he didn’t appreciate my perspective.
He told me I was a lousy counselor.
He was probably right. But I still think I’m a lot more empathetic than a drill sergeant.
As our society and culture become increasingly hostile toward Christianity and Christian values, there are some spiritual qualities that become especially important. There are five in particular we can’t survive without. And God will send us through whatever spiritual boot camp it takes in order to build them into the fabric of our lives and character.
Quality #1: Obedience.
This is the essential trait of discipleship. It’s always important. It’s the one thing that proves we know and love Jesus, and it’s the ultimate goal of the Great Commission.
But it’s especially important in the middle of a firefight. There’s no time for hesitation or discussion when all hell breaks loose. That’s why obedience to the chain of command is one of the first things a new military recruit has to learn. Survival and victory depend on it.
It’s no different in the spiritual realm. Under the onslaught of a spiritual attack, it’s imperative that we obey without pause. When God says, “Jump!” the only appropriate question is “How high?” on the way up.
Now you’d think that kind of obedience would come naturally to us as Christians. After all, we claim that our Lord is King of kings and God of the universe.
But let’s be honest. When the path of obedience doesn’t make sense, appears too costly, or doesn’t seem to be working, we’re quick to blaze our own trail.
It’s easy to obey God when we agree with Him. But that’s not really obedience. We haven’t learned obedience until we do what He says despite our doubts, confusion, or concern that His way won’t work out.
That’s the kind of obedience Solomon had in mind when he exhorted us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
And that kind of obedience doesn’t come naturally. It has to be learned. And it’s only learned in the framework of hardship and suffering, the spiritual boot camp experiences where we learn the key to success is found in trusting God, even when we don’t agree with what He’s up to or wants us to do.
Quality #2: Perspective.
Without perspective, everything gets blown out of proportion. The loss of privilege becomes harsh persecution. Opposition becomes hatred. And every legal or electoral setback becomes cause for anguish and despair. In short, we evaluate and extrapolate without putting God into the equation.
Unfortunately, those who most lack perspective seldom realize it.
Why does a 2-year-old think waiting five minutes is an eternity?
Why does a little league parent scream and yell at an umpire’s bad call?
In each case, it’s a lack of perspective.
The 2-year-old doesn’t understand time. And the little league parent has no idea how insignificant his son’s game will be in a few years—or days—or hours.
But once we truly have perspective, it changes everything. It allows us to see the bigger picture. Consider the amazing lens through which the apostle Paul evaluated the many persecutions he faced. It’s mind-boggling.
Here was a man who endured repeated floggings, beating, assassination attempts, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and a life lived on the run. Yet he came to the point that he viewed them as mere momentary troubles in light of the heavenly glories to come.
So how did he get there?
He got there through the things he suffered. Each trial left him stronger, more certain than before that he could handle the enemy’s best shot. He learned to rely on the strength and power that Jesus provided, and he learned that it was enough to allow him to cope with anything that came his way.
That’s what the backside of hardship and suffering does. It teaches us perspective. It takes the fear out of the things that terrify others. It keeps us calm when everyone else is panicking.
Quality #3: Endurance.
I was a basketball player in high school. At least I thought I was. Though we were a championship team, we didn’t win many games by a large margin. Most of our games were close until the fourth quarter. Then we’d pull away, leaving our opponents in the dust.
Our practices were harder than our games. Much harder.
We didn’t win because we had more talent than other teams. We won because we had more endurance. When other teams were gassed, we still had plenty left in the tank.
Looking back, I guarantee you we wouldn’t have complained nearly as much if we’d understood the rewards our increasing endurance would soon bring. We might have even thanked our coach instead of cursing him under our breath.
It’s much the same in the spiritual realm. Endurance reaps great rewards. But it’s no fun getting there.
Perhaps that’s why Paul and James both made a point to encourage us not to give up when stressed or pushed to our limits. They knew what happens to those who cut bait and run away. They also knew what happens to those who hang on and let endurance finish its work. They knew they end up handling the kinds of trials that break most others.
Quality #4 and #5: Confidence and courage.
Endurance produces the mental toughness we’ve come to call confidence and courage. Any time we overcome something we once feared or dreaded, we walk out with a new level of confidence and courage.
In the athletic world, there’s a reason why a veteran team almost always outperforms an inexperienced team in a big game. It’s the confidence and courage that comes from having been there before. Veterans know that a couple of bad calls, careless turnovers, or even a big deficit can be overcome. They don’t panic. They stick to the game plan, even if it doesn’t seem to be working right away. They know how to win. They have the scars and the trophies to prove it.
In contrast, inexperienced teams tend to wilt at the first sign of trouble. After a couple of miscues, a growing deficit, or a bad break, panic sets in. Their cockiness and hubris disappear, quickly replaced by fear and insecurity. Players sulk, point fingers, or jettison the game plan. In some cases they even turn against each other.
Yet the crushing defeat of an inexperienced team need not be final. In some cases it lays the foundation for future victories. If they curse their luck or fail to take responsibility, they’ll keep on losing. But if they lick their wounds, take a long look in the mirror, and set out to acquire the things they lack, a crushing defeat can become a major step toward future championships.
It’s no different in the spiritual realm. Our failures don’t have to define us. It all depends on how we respond.
Don’t forget that the vast majority of biblical heroes failed spectacularly at one point or another. What set them apart was their refusal to let these failures define them. Instead of becoming angry and disillusioned with God, they repented and turned to God. And once they did, He turned losers into champions.
That’s exactly what God wants to do with us today. No matter what we’ve done or where we find ourselves—and no matter if our scars and failures have been self-inflicted or innocently obtained—He wants to turn us into trophy pieces, displaying the incredible depth and power of His immeasurable grace and mercy.
But in order to do so, He asks us to embrace the boot camp experiences He chooses to send our way. It’s how He builds into us the courage and confidence we’ll need in order to face and win the battle.
Granted, it’s not a lot of fun. At times it’s miserable. But it’s the only way to get there. As the writer of Hebrews said:
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees (Hebrews 12:11-12).
So hang in there. No matter what you’re going through at the moment, God hasn’t forgotten you. He has a master plan. He may well be preparing you for hardship in a hostile culture. And if He is, it’s not so that you can survive.
It’s so that you can thrive.
Copyright © 2015 Larry Osborne. Thriving in Babylon is published by David C. Cook. All rights reserved.