If you live in the prosperous West, you are blessed like very few people ever have been in the history of the world. A glut of digital technologies abound, like the chain of technology we are using right now to communicate with one another. More importantly, things like infant- and child-mortality rates are lower than ever. Life expectancy rates have peaked and are projected to keep rising. Here in America, few if any die of starvation. Famines are unheard of here. Motor-vehicle fatalities have been in steep decline for the past fifty years — same with plane-related deaths. Poverty rates in the States have plummeted in the past fifty years. National GDP continues to go up and to the right. Life is as safe as ever. We are some of the most comfortable people who have ever existed. And all these blessings together raise questions for Christians, who are promised that they will suffer in this life.
A listener named Marissa is trying to work this out. “Hello, Pastor John. I am leading a Bible study through 1 Peter right now. And as you know, Peter makes it very clear that Christians will suffer, just as Christ did. I’m curious how we Christians suffer in a first-world country like America, where we are not physically persecuted for our beliefs. I don’t think I have ever really suffered for the sake of Christ. Feelings get hurt on social media — there’s a cultural pushback, of course — but I’ve never lost anything of value in this world due to being a Christian. Does this make me a weak, or a lazy, Christian? Or should I simply thank God for the rare peace I have enjoyed in this age?”
This is such an important question for those of us who live in what, without exaggeration, we could call the Disney World of the nations. Even the poor in America, by comparison, live in luxury, compared to six hundred million extremely poor people with no access to adequate food, shelter, medical care, clean water, education — not to mention the saving message of Jesus. One of the reasons I live where I live in a poorer part of Minneapolis is because I dread becoming oblivious to the brokenness and the neediness of the world.
So, here are five things that I see in the Bible to give guidance to those of us who live in relative comfort and security and wealth.
1. Press more deeply into the darkness.
Both Jesus and the apostles said that if we are faithful Christians, we will experience some measure of persecution and other kinds of suffering in the path of obedience. Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” They will be. Jesus said in Matthew 10:25, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” In John 15:20, he said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” And Paul taught in Acts 14:22, to every new believer, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
If we never taste any affliction or persecution or maligning for Christ’s sake, we probably are not pressing into the darkness of the world for Christ as far as we should.
2. Walk the path of self-denial.
Jesus calls us to a kind of death to our old selves into a new life of joyful self-denial — not morose self-denial, not self-pitying, but joyful self-denial. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25). So, we don’t just wait for others to persecute us and take away our pleasures and privileges and securities. Instead, we voluntarily make choices that deny ourselves some of these things freely, willingly, joyfully in order to serve others.
“There is a Christ-exalting self-denial, and there is a Christ-exalting enjoyment of God’s gifts.”
Jesus said in Luke 6:27–28, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Doing good — actually doing things — for those who hate you is costly. You might say it is a freely chosen embrace of being disliked. Whether it’s outright persecution or not, it demands self-denial. Doing good to other people who don’t like us is hard. It’s costly. It’s like persecutions, like affliction. There is always someone to bless in this world, someone who doesn’t like you, who would be easier not to bless.
3. Learn the secret of facing plenty.
Paul said that he had learned not only how to be abased, but also how to abound.
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11–13)
Paul did not say it was a sin to abound or a sin to face plenty. He said it takes a certain learning, a certain God-given secret, not to sin when you face plenty, not to sin in need. And not only that, he said in 1 Timothy 4:4–5, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” In other words, self-denial is not the only way we honor God with the good things of life. Thankful enjoyment is another way. In 1 Timothy 6:17–18, he said,
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.
So, there is a Christ-exalting self-denial, and there is a Christ-exalting enjoyment of God’s gifts.
4. Pursue love, not pain.
Don’t pursue pain; pursue love no matter the pain. Freely chosen self-denial or unchosen persecution is never an end in itself. The aim is love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” Love blesses. Love praises. Love does good. Love serves. “Therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Therefore, pursue love — love for people, not pain. There will be pain enough.
5. Live to make Christ known.
Finally, yes, God has given most of the developed countries, east and west, a season in these centuries of spectacular wealth and leisure and comfort and health and peace and security. Why has he done that? What’s the meaning of this providence? And I think the answer is in Psalm 67: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us . . .” And here’s the answer: “. . . that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:1–2). “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us” (Psalm 67:6–7).
“Don’t pursue pain; pursue love no matter the pain.”
And then he closes the psalm by telling why. Why has he blessed us? Why will he bless us? “Let all the ends of the earth fear him!” (Psalm 67:7). God has made America and the West and parts of the East wealthy and healthy and secure, so that we would not lay up treasures here on earth, but use our freedom and our wealth and our peace for the sake of reaching the nations with the message of salvation (Psalm 67:4–5).
Stand up for this. Work for this, and you will find enough resistance — in yourself, in your church, in the world — that you won’t have to worry too much anymore that being a Christian is too easy.