Written by Victor Stanley Jr.
I read a lot. I study Scripture, its doctrines and theology. I study philosophy, Christian, secular, and Eastern philosophy. I teach theology and do ministry training, I write a lot of cultural commentary and practical theology, I serve in various leadership roles. My dad is the pastor of a large church, one of my mentors is a globally renowned missiologist and theologian, one of my other mentors is a high ranking executive at one of the world’s largest Christian organizations. I’m told by many people that I am highly respected and greatly beloved. By all counts I’m on a path to become, by human standards, a great teacher and leader. This is not me boasting or bragging, I’m trying to tell you a story.
Five days ago I landed in Bangkok, Thailand, this is my first time outside of the United States. In two days I will be traveling to another country that I cannot name as I was just told that the government in that nation has been tipped off to our upcoming activities and now has sent police to monitor the Christian community there; I’ve been warned that prison or deportation is a real possibility. How quickly your understanding of life and your faith can change.
In this last week I’ve taught on persecution, racism, prejudice, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the power of the name of Jesus. What has so profoundly shifted my thinking and given me much perspective is the practice of faith. All of those things I stated at the beginning that seem to have put me on a path to notoriety and success have grown strangely dim in the last few days. The topics I have taught on are things that I have studied extensively and taught about numerous times. Yet with all the study and teaching those topics are things that I rarely have had to face or truly wrestle with in any significant way.
When I as an American teach on persecution to pastors and Christian leaders who are working in countries where their Christian brothers and sisters are being thrown in prison and killed for proclaiming the Gospel, all of the sudden my theological knowledge and theoretical faith in practice meet the reality of the Christian life as described in Scripture. When I say during my teaching that the name of Jesus has power and we must proclaim it, and an Indonesian pastor looks at me and says that if they speak the name of Jesus they will be killed, all of the sudden I begin to truly understand the power and offensiveness of the name of Jesus.
When I teach that the Kingdom of God has come near to those who are poor, weak, and outcasts of society, and a Bhutanese pastor tells me he works among the leper colonies in his country bringing the Gospel to them, all of the sudden the truth of the Kingdom being for the sick, the weak, and the oppressed becomes a truth that I can reach out and touch. When I share on how the gentiles were included in God’s plan for salvation from day one, that we must not allow personal prejudice and discrimination to cause us to exclude anyone from the inclusiveness of the Gospel, and a pastor comes up to me and says that my teaching has convicted him of the racial prejudice he’s held toward groups of people in his own church, all of the sudden the recognition of the power of the Holy Spirit speaking through me humbles me as I realize that I am no great man, but rather simply an instrument of His divine will.
When these pastors look me in the eye and tell me that they are attacked, beaten, abused, imprisoned, their people killed, their well-being stripped from them and all manner of evil done against them, and then say, “But don’t worry Vic, these persecutions are a blessing,” all of the sudden Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:10-12 become powerfully grounded in a reality in which my brothers and sisters actually live that I can pray into even as my own soul is grieved by their suffering. Not only that, but as I mentioned earlier I myself will be stepping into a country where the threat of persecution is great. I will only be there for a couple weeks, yet these men and women I’ve spent the last week with live in that context everyday of their life.
If they can, with confidence, say that the constant and continual persecution they face daily is a blessing, then I have no excuse for not being willing to trust God to walk with me through 14 days of suffering. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:17 must shape my heart and mind: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (ESV).
Matthew 5:10-12 now sits heavy on me as I reflect on the stories I’ve heard from the pastors and leaders working in the various nations represented here. Jesus’ concludes His opening remarks to the Sermon on the Mount by saying:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12 ESV)
I’m not going to really elaborate on these verses, check the endnote for an explanation.* I simply encourage you to reflect on this passage of Scripture. Do you recognize as have these leaders I’ve spent the week with, that to suffer for Christ is a blessing?
Two things I have learned thus far: 1) All of the measures of success I listed at the beginning mean very little, honestly they mean nothing, not that they are bad things, but they are simply starting points, not end goals. God has and is showing me that to truly serve Him with the entirety of my life it is going to require much more than reading books, studying, and teaching in my locality. Much of Jesus’ teaching and ministry was about reversals, meaning He took the standard thinking and practices of the day and flipped them on their heads. He is doing this now by showing me that the things I value as far as ministry accomplishments are worthless in the Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The accolades, credentials, and accomplishments are nice, they’re even blessings, however, I’m coming to understand that it is the things I view as insignificant and lowly that are truly accomplishments in the Kingdom. It is sharing a meal, suffering together, wrestling through weaknesses together. It is listening intently to a person who does not speak your language well, but having a desire to know them, who they are, what their life is like, so you take the time to listen, to have them repeat things so you can understand what they are saying, leaning in close and connecting on a soul level. What we do matters a little, but it is who we are and how we share ourselves and our lives with others that really shapes what we do and why we do it.
The second thing I have learned is the reality of faith in practice. The biblical principles I study and teach have now become palpable realities that I can live into. The testing of our faith refines and strengthens it, it prepares us for all that we will face in this life. St. Luke says in Acts 14:28, “…through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.” There’s no space for maybe in that statement, it is an axiomatic statement that ought to form the contours of our day to day lives as we live out our faith.
Faith without works is dead, and faith that is untested is fragile. As God reveals my blind spots, ignorance, and weaknesses my faith is fortified through the power of the Spirit by the grace of the Father in Christ my Lord.
*I mentioned that I would not work through Matthew 5:10-12. This is because we will be publishing a series on the Beatitudes here on the Double Edge starting in July. We have a team of nine writers including myself who will each write on one of the Beatitudes as well as relate it to an Old Testament character. We will publish each piece on Monday of each week starting July 9th. The writers include Christian thinkers from various walks of life: biologists, apologists, psychologists, lay theologians, church leaders, pastors, etc. I hope that you’ll read the series as it’s released. I believe it will provide a very unique perspective on Jesus’ most studied teaching.