November. The weather has begun to change, the air is cooler, and the whole world seems to let out a sigh of relief as the end of the year approaches and the beginning of the holiday season is upon us. It is the month marked by gratitude, when believers and non-believers alike reach deep into their hearts, and decorate their Facebook pages with a daily 'thankful' post as they reflect upon the year.
But for many Americans, the year 2015 marked a decided change in their view of the future of our culture and way of life. With the Supreme Court's decision imposing a new definition of marriage on all 50 states, with far-reaching implications for gender identity, personal privacy, and the ability of Christians to freely live out their convictions in the public sector, many are struggling to see hope when they reflect back on this year. Likewise, with the increasing reality of militant Islam as it sweeps across the Middle East, pops its head up in scattered places throughout the US, and its most recent horrific actions in Paris on November 13th, many are struggling to remain hopeful of the future.
In March I was at a conference where the speaker told of a young man from the war-torn Middle East who asked him to pray for his family, whose lives were in danger due to their Christian faith. The speaker shared that as they began to pray and he asked the Lord to protect the lives and safety of the family of this man, the young man abruptly interrupted him. He urgently conveyed that he had been misunderstood. He was not asking for prayer that his family would not have to endure suffering for the cross, because suffering for Christ is an honor. He wished, rather, for prayer that his family would persevere, and that many would come to Christ through their witness in the midst of persecution.
As American Christians we have been pretty lucky. We've seen no overt religious persecution on our home turf. If we're willing to acknowledge persecution, the closest many of us have come to it is through a few photos or articles about churches overseas. Some of us are aware there are people who must hide in China with mattresses covering the door to muffle the sound of their worship if they wish to worship Christ. Thanks to ISIS's exhibitionism, even more of us are aware of the cruel deaths or endless torture imposed on those who refuse to deny Christ in the Middle Eastern areas controlled by them. But with the recent turn of socio-political events in America and the greater Western world, many Christians, thus far not affected by persecution, are starting to become nervous about the future and what it may hold.
Standing on the edge between what has been and what is to come, we are faced with two options: fear the future, or lean onto Christ and rejoice in the opportunity to make Him known whatever the cost. This is not to sound trite; those that are suffering in the Middle East at the hands of ISIS are right to be weary of what their faith will cost them. But when our eyes are set on eternity, our present circumstances dim in comparison. Basically this is the age-old issue, regularly resurrected by atheists, dubbed 'the Problem of Evil.'
The Problem of Evil: How can a good God, who is omniscient (knows all) and omnipotent (all powerful), allow bad things to happen? I remember struggling over this very question in my 'Why God Allows Evil' class in my Masters program. I remember thinking, as the professor spoke about how evil dims in comparison to eternity, that it was a trite answer that would bring no comfort to those in the midst of suffering. But thankfully, God didn't leave me in that frame of mind. You see, the problem was not that the answer wasn't sufficient, the problem was that my vision was too small. My scope consisted only of this world and what it had to offer. The 'now' and the near future were as far as I could see. In other words, I was so focused on the things of this world, that I could not find comfort in the things beyond this world.
Yet, we are told 'not [to] be conformed to this world, but [to] be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind' (Romans 12:2), to 'set [our] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth' (Colossians 3:2), because 'the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever' (1 John 2:17). Why? Because this is not our home, 'our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ' (Philippians 3:20).
The reason this question is perpetually resurrected by non-believers is because a satisfying answer to it requires a kingdom mindset. In order for the suffering of this world to dim in comparison to eternity, eternity must actually mean something in the heart of the sufferer. In other words, if we're looking forward to our Saturday night plans, our dream vacation, or our new home more than we're looking forward to seeing Jesus face to face, then of course we're not going to be satisfied with the above answer to the Problem of Evil. Why? Because in that case Jesus isn't first in our life, our desires are.
I hope you won't stop reading now, because this is a journey that takes a lifetime of dying to ourselves daily and recognizing that 'I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me' (Galatians 2:20). This is what grace is all about. There are some days when we will struggle to lift our eyes above this world, but we shouldn't be satisfied with it. Our prayer should always be that Christ would bring us to the place he brought Paul to, which enabled Paul to say, 'For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain' (Philippians 1:21); that Christ would daily bring us to the place where we recognize that 'all things were created through Christ, and for Christ and Christ is before all things and in Christ all things hold together' (Colossians 1:16-17). In other words, Christ is the point of the entire story! The Bible from beginning to end is all pointing to Christ, whether it's his coming, his life, or his return. He's the point of all things. When we let that sink in and drive us, then we are able to be like the young man who asked for prayer for his persecuted family, and like so many others who have gone before us. It is only then that we can rejoice to be 'counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name' of Jesus (Acts 5:41).
So, in this season of thanksgiving, let us be thankful for what Christ has done for us in His coming, which we will be celebrating soon; in His death and resurrection, which we will be celebrating in a few months; for the religious tolerance we've experienced as Americans in our journey thus far; for the opportunity to share Christ in a way that will bring others to Him in the future; and for the grace that makes everything we could ever endure worth it. Let us rejoice and give thanks, for every day, both good and bad, is a day the Lord has made!