Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:&-10 NASB
How many of us, I wonder, would opt (or have opted) out of the opportunity to be conduits for the perfected power of Christ on the earth because to do so would necessarily entail suffering and weakness. Let’s be honest. The idea of suffering as a child of God just does not preach well. When was the last time you heard a speaker identify the sufferings of Job or Paul as unavoidable features of the victorious Christian Life? When they dare to be so biblically honest, attenders recoil;
“Messengers from Satan? No, no, no! We are covenant people; therefore, we are to be a blessed, not a cursed people. Insults, distresses, persecutions and difficulties? No, sir. Our lips will not confess these. We are called to be the head and not the tail. Get thee behind me, thou confessor of negativity!”
Were Job and Paul anomalies, exceptions that we can just sweep under the rug? Or, do their stories reveal truths (perhaps badly needed ones) that western Christianity, in our prosperity and independence, simply cannot swallow? Does a kingdom that requires one to take up his cross daily dovetail neatly with a national psyche that lauds the individual’s right to pursue personal happiness? Or, is the Spirit of Jesus Christ at cross-purposes with the spirit of this age? Is it possible, as the apostles and prophets slept, that the father of lies, fashioned a gospel without the inconvenience of a cross and sold it to western culture?
I recently read Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. It is a superb account of the rise to prominence of Adolph Hitler, a megalomaniac, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a saint. It is not only fascinating history, it is has a sobering subplot involving the church. Germany was the birthplace of the protestant reformation. The church and Germany were tied at the hip. If ever there ever was a “Christian” nation, Germany was it. Yet where was the church as the Nazis harassed, persecuted and ultimately destroyed the weak, the undesirable, and the non-Aryan citizens of their own country? The church as a whole was silent with the exception of a very few voices crying in the wilderness—Dietrich Bonhoeffer being one.
The religious gatekeepers of Germany were some of the world’s most elite theologians. They recognized Bonhoeffer as brilliant, but also as one having drifted from their pack. He had begun to think of the Christian life as this all-or-nothing experiential affair with Jesus, and he began pointing to the very hard teachings of Christ as the foundational underpinnings of that relationship. As time passed, his commitment to his national German religion faded in light of his ever-deepening personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sound familiar? “The things of earth (especially religion) grow strangely dim?” As millions were marched into labor and death camps, the German attenders of church sang…
Blest be the Lord, who foiled their threat that they could not devour us; Our souls, like birds, escaped their net, they could not overpower us. The snare is boken–we are free! Our help is ever, Lord, in Thee, Who madest earth and heaven. (from If God Had Not Been On Our Side by Martin Luther)
In his capacity as prophet, Bonhoeffer dug deep. With his (now classic) The Cost of Discipleship, he introduced the phrase cheap grace. He also coined another phrase that drew fire—religionless Christianity. He had found the bad roots of the great German religious tree that was felled without a sound by the ingenious Nazi propaganda machine. But it was too late. Bonhoeffer was executed by Hitler, who took his own life three weeks later as the war ended in Europe. But like all true prophets, his voice has continued to reverberate in the spiritual realm where our hearts operate. May those present age prophets arise, those who will steward these vibrations and sustain these notes.
The sobering aspect of this story involves the larger spiritual warfare over Germany. What lies had the dark principalities and powers sown into that nation that would allow them to be taken in by a madman? Where our American DNA is composed of independence and the personal right to pursue liberty and happiness, the Germans were driven by a wounded and offended national pride. Their tarnished national self-image was that of a noble and good people, capable of great self-sacrifice for their nation (from which Lutheranism was inseparable). This was the piper’s song. Using these national themes, Hitler duped the church into thinking he was one of them. By the time they discovered the masquerade it was too late—they had surrendered their freedoms to the wrong master and the wrong kingdom.
If Bonhoeffer had published The Cost of Discipleship earlier, before the deception—would the church have embraced the gospel he was preaching? Would they have adopted it if following Jesus would have meant grappling personally with Jesus’ harder words, such as the necessity of hating one’s mother and father and selling all? What would it have taken for the German church to have resisted “the ancient foe who sought to work them woe?” Why did they not see “the right man on their side, that man of God’s own choosing?” How did a world of devils undo Germany? Sadly, Luther’s hymn gives the answer as well: Germany, in her own (theological and national) strength did not confide in the right man, and, therefore, her striving was losing.
So, what is the difference between the church of mid-20th century Germany and the 21st Century church of America? Is it our superior theological foundation and religious résumé that has kept America’s judgment at bay? Or, is it just that we have not been backed into a national economic corner yet as Germany was, a corner in which it becomes too late to exercise the powers to choose righteousness? I am inclined to think it’s the latter.
Paul had grown content with his very un-blessed looking (at least by our standards) life, satisfied that, in light of the prize, there was literally no cost to following Jesus—only a current joy, complete with peace and infinite union with God. Paul was content to wait upon God who would one day swallow up the momentary suffering that so often accompanies the grace and mercy of God.
Many of us who think of ourselves as Christian are still busy fine-tuning our rights to comfort and blessing. Surrendering the title to his national Jewish identity and his reputation, forfeiting his right to pursue independence and personal happiness—none of these things even registered as costs to Paul in light of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ. But that was Paul. What about us? We must decide for ourselves whether Paul was an anomaly or an example.
Father, may we in the west expose the principalities and powers that, with cruel hate, manipulate the masses and even the church with customized deceit. Where mortal ills prevail and a flood of evil threatens, let grace prevail all the more. May we recall that you have willed that your truth will triumph through us. Helps us to let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Help us to always remember that it is You Lord, from age to age the same, and that You shall win the battle. May our hearts faithfully note that Satan’s doom is sure and that one little word shall fell him.
Help us to cede title of these mortal lives, which we so over-value, to You so that we, too, like Paul, might be messengers of revelation, we—who are becoming expressions of that one little word (Jesus) which shall fell the enemy.
Help us to become those who can say, “Your grace is sufficient for us” so that we might be those who demonstrate that Satan was never your equal. Help us to recover the Spirit and the gifts which are ours and vindicate You as our Mighty Fortress and a bulwark never failing; that your truth abides still and that your kingdom is forever. Amen