Muscles tense. Eyes focus. Breathing deepens. Bang. They’re off! The world’s finest athletes leap forward, eyes fixed on the finish line and the prize—Olympic gold! It is easy to watch the Olympics and forget the years of devotion to the prize that drove each athlete. A documentary on Sydney McLaughlin, the women’s Olympic 400m hurdles champion, revealed years of single-minded focus, control of appetite, personal sacrifice and lonely morning runs. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one” (1 Cor. 9:24-25, NRSV). Without enduring to the end, no prize is ever won.
In the West, Christians historically have been accustomed to a supportive legal environment. Our social elites have not sought to block our message nor change our beliefs, and the public has not seen Christianity as a dangerous oppressor or enemy of freedom. That is all changing. Our social elites are seeking to cancel the Gospel, forcing changes in biblical understanding related to morality, marriage and personal identity. The Church is increasingly seen as a dangerous oppressor that spreads hate, limits personal freedom, and causes suicidal ideation among oppressed groups.
Western Christians have grown used to, and dependent upon, financial prosperity and public applause, increasingly relying on budgets and buildings, people and programs rather than the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, the apostolic church thrived under persecution and poverty. And as we see the storm clouds of compromise and persecution gathering, we need to prayerfully consider what God’s people will look like before Jesus comes again. Flight is possible, often motivated by fear, but this hides our lamp and witness. In the lake of fire, among the wicked, will be cowards (Rev. 21:8). Resistance is possible, but how can we pray for those who persecute us when we are fighting them? Compromise is an ever-present danger, tearing the Body of Christ apart as the Gospel bows to fallen ideologies.
As the Free Church, we are to learn lessons from the Persecuted Church (2 Cor. 1:3-4). It is from the Persecuted Church that we learn how to shine in the midst of spiritual darkness. In the midst of darkness, we not only oppose evil, but we are to live more fully as the Body of Christ. It is our willingness to love our enemies that ultimately advances the cause of Christ.
This calls for faith. We cannot switch faith on in the final crisis like a light switch at midnight. Faith involves courageously choosing Jesus over fear today, and living today in the light given us, regardless of today’s consequences—long before the final crisis of conscience erupts around us. Yes, people today are crippled by fear. Fear is beyond reason or logic. Fear is existential. And where there is fear, there is little faith. Yet, faith drives out fear and engenders courage. As the darkness gathers, we are not invited by God to focus on the coming crisis, but on Jesus Himself. Will we believe only in what visible circumstances allow, or in the God for whom all things are possible? “See, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27).
And what is our prize? Paul writes of himself and all who endure to the end: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:7-8, NRSV). By God’s grace, let us all meet at the finish line! Until then, be faithful.