I am convinced that the single biggest thing that keeps Christians in the West from being open about their faith is the specter of being reviled. Reviling is when someone says something false and damaging against you. Maybe you want to tell someone that they are in sin, but you worry that they will say that you are judgmental. Maybe you want to tell someone that they must believe in Jesus to be saved, but you worry that they will say you are some sort of weird religious guy.
Reviling, in some ways, strikes fear in ways that the threat of physical harm does not. I remember daydreaming about what it would look like to lose my life for Jesus. But what was interesting about these imaginings was that somehow everyone would know that I was a martyr and people would be impressed by it. At some level I was still seeking the applause of people. What I was really looking for was a great and glorious end where everyone would say how stunning and brave I was.
But realistically, martyrdom would rarely work out like that. First, do you think that whoever would kill you would not slander you? You think they would kill you and then report to everyone what a great and glorious missionary you were? Second, even if they didn’t, whatever you did in the cause of Christ to to lose your life would likely be seen as unnecessary, grandstanding, and reckless. As a modern example, I think of the recent death of John Allen Chau.
Chau was a missionary to the isolated hunter-gatherer society of North Sentinel Island, off the coast of India. At 26 years old, he was killed in 2018 by the people he was trying to reach.
But the heartbreaking thing for me is the amount of vitriol thrown on the man who had just died. Of course the world would think he was crazy, that’s to be expected. But the worst part was the Christians that joined in the fray. Was there a wiser approach to reach the Sentinelese? I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is much easier, with the benefit of hindsight, to criticize someone else’s engagement of an unreached people than to try to reach them yourself. A helpful thought experiment is to see whether your rubric for criticizing a martyr would also exclude the work of Stephen, John the Baptist, James, Paul or Jesus. If so, then perhaps it is your rubric that needs to change.
But criticism will come, from the inside and from the outside. And the terrible part of this reviling is that it will keep people from sacrificing for Jesus. In the Gospel of John, John speaks of the authorities that believed in Jesus but would not confess him because they feared being put out of the synagogue. And the ominous reason that John gives for the actions of these people was this, “for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” (John 12:43)
But in that indictment of those who shrunk back in fear there is–by implication–a hope. These authorities could have had the bravery to confess Jesus regardless of the cost. But they would have to have flipped the loves of their heart. They would be bold if they loved the glory that comes from God more than they loved the glory that comes from man. Just like the power of physical punishment and death is broken when Christ promises us a new body, the power of reviling is broken when Christ promises us a new name. (Revelation 2:17)
The good news of the gospel is not just that we are forgiven of sins, but that we are loved. And the breathtaking reality is that we are loved by God just as Christ is loved by God. (John 17:23) Is God proud of Christ? Then he is proud of us. Is God pleased in Christ? Then he is pleased with us. And that is the solid foundation we work from. That is the truth that will give us unshakable confidence even in the face of the worst reviling. Paul, who knew better than most people in this world what it was like to be honored and and then despised, put it like this,
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”