The Sin I’d Never Commit

My wife is recovering from a stroke. It is a good and hopeful process, but the path is pocked with frustrations. One of the smaller ones is that I get accused of things.

A medication causes my wife’s skin to bruise easily, and a visual problem results in frequent collisions with furniture. A social worker, well-meaning if overzealous, saw marks on her arms and jumped to the conclusion that I must be hitting her. Neither her denials nor mine were accepted. Instead, I was told that, if the bruises continued, I would go to jail.

Despite better things to do and much to be thankful for, I wasted some energy in sputtering indignation and resentment. And then I very nearly lived up to the labels placed on me.

A stroke can strip away layers of self-restraint. Doctors speak of “disinhibition,” but sometimes it is more like a child’s tantrum. On one particularly bad day, when a scene went on and on, something snapped in me. I grabbed my wife’s wrists and yelled “Stop it!” several times. She was terrified.

How does one come back from such an ugly, sinful outburst? I tried to justify myself, but the rationalizations sounded lame even to my ears. So I confessed my sin to God and to my pastor. I apologized to my wife. I tried to retreat more quickly when tempers flared. And, eventually, I read a statement by a godly man.

Capable of Violence

Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic who has devoted his life to serving, and learning from, people with severe intellectual disabilities. He founded the first L’Arche (“The Ark”) community in France in 1964; today there are 145 in 40 countries (see

In Befriending the Stranger (2010), Vanier describes Lucien, a man unable to speak. Disoriented and afraid when he was brought to L’Arche, he resorted to constant screaming. A calming touch or gentle words served only to increase his anguish. Listening, Vanier writes, “I could sense anger, violence, and even hatred rising up within me. I would have been capable of hurting him to keep him quiet.”

At this time, Vanier had been living in the communities for 15 years. He might have concluded that he wasn’t cut out for it. Instead, with profound insight, he suggests that our brothers and sisters who have severe disabilities become our teachers by revealing to us “our inner limits and brokenness,” so that we may live together in a more honest dependence on the God who is our loving Father.

Understandably, we want to set any fence we can between ourselves and sin. But our best resolve and the full force of our disapproval are flimsy barricades. As Paul says, “Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands” — who says, “Oh, I would never behave like that” (Living Bible) — “take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). The Message adds, “Forget about self-confidence; it’s useless. Cultivate God-confidence.”

Consider Peter’s vows to stand by Jesus even if it meant death (Matthew 26:33, 35). Before morning, he denied his Lord three times.

Certainly we can make progress. Peter lived to write about the possibility of never falling (2 Peter 1:10). Paul changed from a merciless and violent man (Galatians 1:13; Acts 9:1) to behaving as gently as a mother with young children (1 Thessalonians 2:7). But we can’t dare to be smug, or to entertain the thought that we’ve arrived (Philippians 3:12-16).

The Power of Defenselessness

In Luke 18:9-14, the self-righteous man is sincere in thanking God that he hasn’t stolen money or committed adultery. He is saying, in effect, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Yet he is not justified in God’s sight; he is really exalting himself, not magnifying grace. In contrast, God hears the flagrant sinner who has the humility to plead only the divine mercy.

The first man in this parable excuses himself by focusing on “especially bad” sins. Some sins may be worse than others, but God’s rating scale isn’t necessarily the same as ours. David is punished less severely for adultery and murder than for the arrogance of numbering his troops (2 Samuel 12:10-14; 24:13-15).

In this life, we never get beyond the position of the second man, confessing our sins (1 John 1:8-10), clutching a holy dread of sinning (Jude 23; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Romans 11:20; 1 Peter 1:17).

When I was accused, I was quick to defend myself. I thought that I was maintaining my integrity and my Christian witness. What if, at least in private, I had seen an opportunity for self-examination, a fresh revelation of my heart, and a deeper confession? “Come to terms quickly with your accuser,” says Jesus (Matthew 5:25). We “come to terms” not through bluster and bravado, but by confessing honestly and pleading the cleansing blood of Jesus.

I am trying to meditate more on Jesus, standing silent. Accused of many things before Pilate and Herod, He “made no reply, not even to a single charge” (Matthew 27:14).

Jesus could have said, accurately, that He had never claimed any authority that wasn’t rightfully His. He never lied; He never stole. But you and I couldn’t say this. And because Jesus was already bearing our sins, or because He refused to distance Himself from us, He kept silent. He stood there, completely defenseless.

In some movies, the actor playing Jesus looks proud during this scene — as if He won’t deign to answer. But it had to be painful for One so innocent and so sensitive to be associated with evil. He bore the stinging shame for us, allowing our sins to be like a gag on His mouth.

If I had been the only sinner, and He had taken my place, He still would have had to stand silent. I am capable of any sin; I am not better than others; apart from Jesus, I can make no claim of heart innocence. Only as I embrace these truths can I live and walk “in Christ.”

Beyond the Tithe

I am a layperson sitting in a pew. Yes, I groan whenever there’s a sermon on giving, but not for the reason my pastors suspect. My problem is that they ask too little of me.

Last month they showed a videotaped teaching by Robert Morris, a minister who has written a popular book on finances. In this talk, he said that the “spirit of Mammon” (or riches) rests on money; but if we tithe, God’s blessing rests on the 90 percent that remains to us, and we have great liberty in choosing how to spend it.

My first thought was, This can’t be right. Jesus testifies of the Pharisees that they tithed even their spices (Matthew 23:23), yet Luke 16:14 calls them “lovers of money.” The practice of tithing had not served to purify their hearts. This should not surprise us. When Paul states that the Law of God merely stirs up sin, he uses the example of covetousness or desire (Romans 7:7-8), the insatiable craving that becomes a driving force (Ecclesiastes 5:10; Proverbs 27:20). No formula, no rule followed in our own strength, can deliver from this.

Stewards with Christ

“Do preachers always have to talk about money?” Yes, indeed. We are called to become like God, and one of His chief characteristics is lavish generosity. He is “the giving God Who gives to everyone liberally and ungrudgingly, without reproaching or faultfinding” (James 1:5, Amplified). “You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16, NIV).

This has nothing to do with percentages. Most of us don’t observe a literal Sabbath, setting aside one day in seven, because we believe that all our time belongs to God and can be spent in fellowship with Him. With goods, similarly, all that we have is His, and we disperse and use and enjoy it as He guides. It is significant that at least 12 of Jesus’ parables involve stewardship, or the wise use of resources (Matthew 13:44, 45-46, 52; 18:23-34; 20:1-16; 24:45-51; 25:1-13, 14-30; Luke 7:41-43; 12:16-21; 16:1-8, 19-31). Yet we are not acting as stewards, but as clerks or debtors, when we simply write a check for 10 percent and place it in the offering basket. Tithing is prescribed, compelled, dutiful; Biblical giving is prompted but free, and joyful (2 Corinthians 9:5, 7).

Where should we give? Sermons often quote Malachi 3:10, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (NIV), but what precisely does this mean? Many pastors say that the storehouse is one’s local congregation. Benny Hinn argues that it’s the source from which one is fed, so that it can refer to his parachurch ministry. Isn’t the storehouse of God bigger than both? Even the Old Testament tithe seems to have been split between the central sanctuary and local needs (Deuteronomy 12:11; 14:22-29). And when Paul gives directions about regular, proportionate giving, the context is the special collection for Jerusalem, not the local church (1 Corinthians 16:2).

What does Godlike giving look like? We see tremendous variety in the early church. The Jerusalem Christians share everything (Acts 4:32); the Macedonians don’t, but they give “beyond their ability” (2 Corinthians 8:3). Some in Ephesus are rich (1 Timothy 6:17-19), whereas in Thessalonica some must be exhorted to earn a living (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

After the apostles died, around 156, Justin Martyr wrote that, each Sunday, “they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit,” funds which were then distributed to those in need (First Apology 67). Around 180, Irenaeus taught that, instead of tithing, Jesus said “to share all our possessions with the poor” (Against Heresies IV.13, 18).

So it has continued throughout history; Francis of Assisi and George Müller managed money very differently, yet neither got past the point of praying to the Father each day for daily bread (Matthew 6:11), and each aimed at “bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10).

Does this seem unrealistic in the modern world? In Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, James Bryan Smith describes how the Christian songwriter and singer embraced simplicity, gave things away, and asked others to manage his money. When he died in 1997, everything he owned fit into an eight-by-ten storage space.

The Challenge

The tithe is useful when we need a benchmark for our giving (to ensure at least a minimal compliance), but the New Testament calls us higher. Most of us try to dodge Jesus’ statement, “Give to the one who asks you” (Matthew 5:42), as a Sermon-on-the-Mount command for a perfect world — though some, like Oswald and Gertrude “Biddy” Chambers (authors of My Utmost for His Highest), have made valiant efforts to obey it literally.

It is more difficult to evade the force of Paul’s words, when he urges believers to give with the clear expectation that someday they in turn will be the needy ones; he even calls this cycle of giving and receiving “equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). Christians can live this way because we are grounded in a dependent, childlike faith, knowing that “God Himself has said, ‘I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. I will not, I will not, I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down (relax My hold on you)! Assuredly not!’” (Hebrews 13:5, Amplified). Such extravagant promises free us to go beyond dutiful calculations to abundant liberality.

Paul is an intellectual, and might be expected to qualify and hedge every claim; yet on this subject he overflows with superlatives: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. . . . You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, . . .” (2 Corinthians 9:8, 11, NIV).

Here there is no stopping to ask, How much do I have to give? We don’t even ask, How much can I give? because we aren’t keeping track (Matthew 6:3-4). It’s not numbers but needs, not counting but a way of life. Money is a “store of seed” (2 Corinthians 9:10). Giving is a way to stand with those who are suffering (Philippians 4:14; Hebrews 13:3) and to confess the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 9:13).

“I know what it is to be in need,” said Paul. His generosity in preaching without pay meant that he often went hungry (2 Corinthians 11:27). Yet he rested content, confident that provision was on the way: “And my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:12, 19). For in the world of the New Testament, we “lack nothing” not when we have money in the bank, but when we have endured trials and developed perseverance (James 1:2-4).

How do we walk in this divine generosity, this “grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7)? When, if ever, does discernment close the pursestrings, and when do we allow ourselves to risk being cheated (1 Corinthians 6:7)? When do we feed the hungry, no questions asked, and when do we insist on Paul’s rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)? When do we expect to be “made rich in every way” (2 Corinthians 9:11), and when do we go hungry (2 Corinthians 11:27), and glory in seeing our savings melt away (James 1:9-11)? I don’t know, and the answer probably looks different for each of us. The point is, it’s no formula, but an opportunity and a responsibility that should drive us to walk closely with the God of giving and to depend on His Holy Spirit. His extravagant promises free us to go beyond bookkeeping to abundant liberality.

The Value of Futility

“You will be unsuccessful in everything you do” (Deuteronomy 28:29, NIV). This is an apt description of some of us. We have a history of failed relationships, unfulfilling work, abandoned dreams, moral and spiritual defeat. With Job, we can say, “I have been allotted months of futility” (Job7:3); “when I hoped for good, evil came” (30:26).

Yet the Bible says of the righteous man, “Whatever he does prospers” (Psalm 1:3). The verdict “unsuccessful in everything” is part of a long passage describing the curses that come upon those who disobey God. Similarly, a sketch of people who “earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it” (Haggai 1:6) applies to those who fail to put God first and give to His work.

Why is it, then, that some of us who love Jesus lead lives characterized by frustration and futility? Does a failure to prosper always indicate that we are walking in disobedience?

Futility’s Many Levels

Taken as a whole, the Bible may be black and white about moral standards but it is faithful to the complexity of human experience. And so statements that the wicked “will sow wheat but reap thorns; they will wear themselves out but gain nothing” (Jeremiah 12:13) do not exhaust its teachings on futility. The poor, simply because they are poor and in a fallen world, also see their plans frustrated (Psalm 14:6).

In fact, God has subjected the entire creation to frustration and futility (Romans 8:20-22). The Lord Almighty has determined that our labor goes for nothing (Habakkuk 2:13). This is a universal experience, above all because we all must die (Ecclesiastes 2:15-16). “For what futility You have created all men! What man can . . . save himself from the power of the grave?” (Psalm 89:47-48).

In this setting, believers, no less than the most disobedient, are tempted to conclude, “It is futile to serve God” (Malachi 3:14); “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Psalm 73:13); “I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing” (Isaiah 49:4). We are tested precisely in this regard. The patriarchs spent their lives wandering (Hebrews 11:8-9). Job lost everything and felt, “. . . my days have no meaning” (Job7:16). David was a fugitive, wondering if his integrity was “useless” (1 Samuel 25:21). Several of the prophets were commissioned specifically to speak to people who wouldn’t listen (Isaiah 6:9-10; Ezekiel 2:3-5). Jeremiah recorded one set of prophecies only to have them burned, and another set only to be told to sink it in a river (Jeremiah 36; 45; 51:60-64).

God Himself — whose every word accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:10) — at times expresses frustration. “In vain I punished your people; they did not respond to correction” (Jeremiah 2:30; 6:29). He looks in vain for the righteous (Isaiah 59:15-16; Ezekiel 22:30). Jesus weeps over Jerusalem: “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34; Isaiah 65:2)

Futility and Hope

God grieves (Genesis 6:6; Isaiah 53:3), yet He does not succumb to despair. Rather, in a wonderful paradox, it is “in hope” that He has subjected creation to futility — hope in the glory that will be revealed when we have despaired of our flesh and put it to death (Romans 8:18-21). He frustrates human wisdom and striving in order that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Habakkuk 2:14; 1 Corinthians 1:19).

There is a suspense about our lives. We groan with creation, and grieve with God and neighbors. Like farmers, we sow our seeds of effort and obedience, but may wait a long time for any indication of fruit. Yet because “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7; 4:18; Romans 8:24), we continue to hope for a harvest and to trust that our work is not in vain. Sometimes, like Habakkuk (3:17-18), we must resolve to rejoice even in the absence of any prosperity.

We see this tension in Paul. At times he worries that he has wasted his efforts and labored for nothing with some converts (Galatians 4:11; Philippians 2:16) — that he, or they, might thwart or nullify the grace of God, receiving it in vain (Galatians 2:21; 2 Corinthians 6:1). At other times, he is confident that godliness is profitable (1 Timothy 4:8) and labor fruitful (Philippians 1:22), that our work “in the Lord” is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58; Galatians 6:9-10; 2 Peter 1:5-8).

If Paul’s confidence occasionally wavers, it’s because he is “hard pressed on every side, . . . perplexed, . . . persecuted, . . . struck down, . . . We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He compares himself to a broken jar (verse 7). Our English word futile comes from a Latin term meaning leaky or easily poured out. Paul lives with precisely this frustrating inability to retain and accumulate. Yet he refuses to “lose heart” (verses 1, 16) because, by the grace of God, what leaks out of him is “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (verse 6).

Paul also reminds us that, no matter who we are, our real work is other people. His converts are his joy and crown (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20; Philippians 4:1), his boast (2 Corinthians 1:14), the result of his work (1 Corinthians 9:1). If they frustrate him and cause him anxiety, still they are in his heart for life or death (2 Corinthians 7:3): that is, he is so identified with them that his own salvation is bound up with theirs. For their sake, he is willing, not only to leak, but to be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6).

We are not apostles, but on this point we are not so very different. Wittingly or unwittingly, we all sow into the lives of those around us. People watch us. Some may even be “won over without words” by our behavior (1 Peter 3:1). When we die, they may present evidence of our good works (Acts 9:39).

I sometimes wish that we could retire the phrase “full-time Christian service.” Of course we should honor our leaders, but every believer is a full-time servant of Jesus and of our neighbors. Paul makes this clear when he tells even slaves — who had little freedom to choose how they spent their time — that they are “serving the Lord, not men” (Ephesians 6:7; Colossians 3:23). In truth, we are all slaves marching in a procession that honors Christ (1 Corinthians 4:9).

So failure shouldn’t surprise or overwhelm us. I am not called to realize my artistic vision, but to be a vessel shaped by the finger of God. I may never inherit the promises in this life, but I can die still living by faith (Hebrews 11:13). I may never prosper, but I can sow abundantly. I may never proclaim, but I can leak.

The Truth of Persecution

In the Book of Revelation, when John is caught up into heaven, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9). The seraphim proclaim God’s holiness (4:8), and the host of heaven fall down and sing the worthiness of God and the Lamb (4:11; 5:9-14), but these souls are not praising, at least not at the moment. It is as if their sacrifice has qualified them to take up the calling of Isaiah’s watchmen on the walls, who “will never be silent day or night. You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give Him no rest till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7).

As John looks on, these martyrs are “told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed” (Revelation 6:11). We presume that it will not be a small number; in 17:6, the city symbolically named Babylon and presented as a woman is “drunk with the blood of the saints.” As Jesus Himself warns in the Gospels, His followers “will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of Me . . . but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:9, 13). Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, says that he was converted from Platonic philosophy largely because he saw that Christians were “fearless of death” (Second Apology 12). In the early third century, Tertullian famously boasts, “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apology 50).

Yet now scholar Candida Moss writes that none of this ever happened.(1) Surveying early Christian history, with a skeptical eye concerning the reliability of our sources, she finds “fewer than ten years out of nearly three hundred during which Christians were executed as the result of imperial initiatives” (129; cf. 159, 241). “Christians were not consistently persecuted, hounded, or targeted by the Romans. Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons” (14). She argues that the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, along with hagiographers (authors of saints’ lives) from the same period, were responsible for inventing a narrative of courageous suffering, which served to exhort other believers to stand firm for orthodoxy, and also to promote specific shrines (216-17, 245).

What should we make of this? I suggest that Moss’s claims, while overstated, can still help us to clarify and correct important aspects of our beliefs, attitudes, and outlook.

Defining Persecution and Martyrdom

First, it must be said that Moss sets the bar impossibly high in her definition of persecution. To take one example, “If persecution is to be defined as hostility toward a group because of its religious beliefs, then surely it is important that the Romans intended to target Christians. Otherwise this is prosecution, not persecution” (162). In other words, no attack, however severe, can be called religious persecution unless it can be established that the persecutors had bothered to acquire a theologically sophisticated understanding of the victims’ doctrines and practices. This despite the fact that, as Arthur J. Droge and James D. Tabor write, “. . . no one really seems to have cared what the Christians did or did not believe.”(2)

Moss takes as her starting point the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a Christian martyr as one who “chooses to suffer death rather than renounce faith in Christ or obedience to his teachings, a Christian way of life or adherence to a law or tenet of the church” (29). Notice, though, that the OED leaves it up to the martyr to decide whether a renunciation is at stake. Moss transfers this judgment to the persecutor. This leads to some absurd conclusions — most notably, that Stephen (in Acts 6-7) cannot be called a Christian martyr because the term “Christian” had not been coined (132-34)!

The Biblical tradition is not so stringent. Daniel’s friends are sentenced to death because they will not worship a gold image (Daniel 3:12), Daniel himself because he defies a ban on praying to the Lord (Daniel 6:12), and Mordecai and all his people because he will not bow down to honor a mere man (Esther 3:5). This is all that their enemies know, or care to know, about Jewish beliefs and customs. It is a crisis of conscience only for the faithful Jew, who feels he must disobey a ruler’s edict. For the ruler, all that matters is quashing any appearance of insubordination.

Similarly, in the New Testament, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God” (1 Peter 2:19). 1 Peter recognizes a distinction between suffering “as a Christian” (4:16) and suffering “for doing good” (2:20; 3:17), but it is of little consequence; what matters is that one has not incurred the suffering as a deserved punishment “for doing evil” (2:20; 3:17). The Beatitudes pronounce a blessing upon both those persecuted for righteousness and those persecuted specifically for Jesus’ sake (Matthew 5:10-12).

In the cases of Jesus and Stephen, both Jews and Romans (for different reasons) were afraid of Messianic pretenders. They did not need either the name or the concept “Christian” to recognize that Jesus’ followers were claiming for Him a unique and destabilizing authority. When they acted to silence such claims, they were, in effect, persecuting Christians.

The Extent of Persecution

Moss requires so much of persecutors that it is no wonder when she finds little evidence of persecution. Still, it is surprising that she focuses so much on the books of the New Testament which she, in common with most modern scholars, believes to be relatively late compositions. She pays scant attention to the letters of Paul, several of which are widely accepted as the earliest New Testament writings.

Paul himself bears witness that he once persecuted the church of God (Galatians 1:13, 23; 1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6). This may not mean that he put people to death, or that he had extensive power or effectiveness, but it does indicate a deliberate, targeted campaign. It will not do to explain away as “prosecution,” the enforcement of a law (Moss 14), what the agent himself confesses was persecution carried out under a cloak of law.

Paul’s example also suggests a prime motive to persecute: the fear that one’s traditions and values are being threatened. Such fear easily clouds dispassionate inquiry; Peter Brown quotes a magistrate from about the year 200 who said to Christians, “I cannot bring myself so much as to listen to people who speak ill of the Roman way of religion.”(3) According to R.H. Barrow, such a reaction was typical:

The attitude of the Romans to foreign religion can be shortly described. When the official curators of the state religion admitted into public recognition a non-Roman cult by granting it a place among public festivals or a site for a temple, they saw to it that the cult was transformed in a way suitable to Roman tradition. The legend or story often underwent changes, the ritual and terminology were modified, and the cult bore a strong Roman imprint. When this was not possible, at least the objectionable elements were purged out of it.


Barrow goes on to say (147) that Romans would fully tolerate only those religions that were neither threatening to the dominant position of Roman cults, politically unsafe, nor morally undesirable. But Moss insists that Christians were subversive and rude, so that Roman officials held the moral high ground (186-87).(5)

It is striking to see that, with the exception of the Corinthians, the congregations to whom Paul writes are currently experiencing persecution. The Thessalonian believers have suffered opposition and hostility from their countrymen (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15); the Philippians must stand firm against opponents (1:28); the Galatians have suffered much (3:4); the Romans are reminded to bless their persecutors (12:14).

And Paul himself is encountering persecution. James Kelhoffer, to whom Moss refers in a footnote (291n23), suggests that Paul cites his many enemies as a way of legitimating his apostolic authority.(6) Perhaps. But his long and detailed catalogues of sufferings endured (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23-25) indicate that he was not simply viewing the world through a persecution mania, convinced that everyone was out to get him. He lists specific, severe punishments.

What is most interesting, though, is that these discussions of sufferings and afflictions open up to take in much more than incidents of persecution. Alongside his beatings and imprisonments, Paul lists hunger and anxiety (2 Corinthians 6:4-5; 11:27-28). Epaphroditus is said to have risked his life “for the work of Christ” because he fell ill (Philippians 2:25-30). The Corinthians, at present free from afflictions of their own, are encouraged to relieve others’ suffering by giving sacrificially (2 Corinthians 8:14). Indeed, the picture that emerges is not of a community in which martyrdom is prized as a mark of courageous conviction and orthodox doctrine, but of one in which suffering of any sort is valued as developing character by uniting us to the weakness and utter dependence on God modeled by Jesus (Romans 5:3-4; 2 Corinthians 12:10). We shall return to this point in a moment.

Varieties of Noble Suffering

Moss devotes a chapter to showing that both Christian and Jewish writers consciously imitate Greek stories of “noble suffering.” Both in the New Testament and in accounts of martyrs, early Christian writers “drank deeply from the well of the noble-death tradition” (81). This is an important step in the reasoning that leads her to conclude that “none of the early Christian martyrdom stories is completely historically accurate” (124).

She observes that, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus appears “emotional and lost” as He faces death — and that the pagan critic Celsus mocked Him for this unbecoming weakness. In contrast, “Luke’s Jesus appears resolutely self-controlled”; He is depicted as a philosopher, a second Socrates (56-61).

There are a couple of points to be made here. First, the “weak” Jesus of Mark (and Matthew) was included in the New Testament, alongside Luke’s “edited” version; He continued to be read and preached and worshiped. Paul also emphasized Jesus’ weakness, and his own (1 Corinthians 1:25, 27; 2:3; 4:10; 9:22; 2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:21, 29; 12:9-10; 13:3-4, 9). So it cannot be said that this picture was simply abandoned as shameful. Rather, its contrast with, and challenge to, stories of noble suffering has had an incalculable impact, as John Stott said so well in The Cross of Christ:(7)

In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.

But Moss also overstates the extent to which Luke transforms Jesus into a second Socrates. He is distressed or under pressure until His work is accomplished (12:50), and in Gethsemane He is in agony or anguish (22:44) — though Moss dismisses the latter passage (267n5). Moreover, it is Luke who records Jesus’ prayer that the Father forgive His killers (23:34). This has tremendous significance. It is not part of the Greek tradition; Socrates says only that he harbors no resentment against his accusers and judges because they have done him no real harm (Apology 33); to a philosopher, death is good, as it liberates the soul from the body (Phaedo 33-35). In the Old Testament, the righteous sufferer usually calls for vengeance: “Pour out Your wrath on them; let Your fierce anger overtake them” (Psalm 69:24). The Lord is glorified through justice, not forgiveness.

In Christianity, though, from the very beginning, persecution offers an opportunity to show the love of God that is stronger than hate. The radical and counterintuitive idea that one should forgive one’s persecutors is present in Jesus’ teaching (Luke 6:27-28) and in the early letters of Paul (Romans 12:14; 1 Corinthians 4:12), and Stephen imitates his Lord in putting it into practice (Acts 7:60). It is simply not true that “[t]he historical facts of what occurred during Jesus’s last days were overwritten with a theology of noble death and martyrdom” (Moss 61).

Some Points to Take Away

Despite these caveats, believers have much to learn from Moss’s work.

First, Moss repeatedly calls attention to the dangers of demonizing and dehumanizing those who persecute us, or who simply disagree with us. “Claims of being persecuted are used in order to exclude and suppress other groups, to identify them with demonic forces, and to legitimize rhetorical and perhaps also literal violence against them. . . . This myth of persecution was, paradoxically enough, a way to marginalize others” (246).

I can learn from this even though I do not share Moss’s faith that, if we just appeal to reason, we can always find common ground with critics and adversaries. (She briefly entertains the thought that persecution implies “blind hatred” [164], but this doesn’t sit well with her requirement that persecutors must be students of Christian theology.) Paul, for one, clearly believes that demons exist (1 Corinthians 10:20-21), and that most people walk in spiritual blindness (2 Corinthians 4:4; compare 1 Corinthians 2:14) or under a spiritual hardening (Romans 11:7, 25; 2 Corinthians 3:14). Nevertheless, he tries to persuade (2 Corinthians 5:11). He can slip into harsh language sometimes (Galatians 5:12; Philippians 3:2), as we do, but his conviction is that human foes, unlike demons, can be converted — as even Nebuchadnezzar, pagan king and destroyer of Jerusalem, turned from casting Daniel’s friends into a furnace to honoring their God (Daniel 4:34-37). Persecutors are to be blessed, and loved, in hope. Paul is convinced that he is not some unique trophy as one “preaching the faith he once tried to destroy”; others like him will be saved by grace as he was, and the church will praise God who works such miracles (Galatians 1:23).

Secondly, Christians should expect persecution. Of course we are not the only group to experience persecution (a straw man that Moss spends much energy demolishing). But 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4 affirms that Christians are “destined” to be persecuted (see also 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 2:21). Perhaps someone will attempt to answer Moss by proving that many Christians before Constantine suffered martyrdom. Yet it seems equally important, and considerably more urgent, to support today’s persecuted Christians, and to share their stories. Open Doors ( is a great place to start.

At the same time, persecution is only one form of suffering, and all righteous or innocent suffering draws us closer to Christ. Therefore we should honor the sick in our midst, the disabled, the mentally ill, the grieving, the outcasts, the abused, and the oppressed of all faiths, alongside those persecuted for following Christ. Jesus may have suffered particularly by drawing out human hostility toward God; in His kindness, though, He accepts almost any variety of pain as sufficiently similar to grant us entry into “the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).

Lastly, when we encounter conflict, Moss’s critique can help us not to jump too hastily to the conclusion that we are being persecuted. We should at least apply the test spelled out in 1 Peter, asking, Have I done anything wrong, anything to cause unnecessary offense and bring this trouble on myself? Moreover, can I put this right by dropping pride and defensiveness, and reaching out to the other? We witness (the root meaning of “martyr”), first and foremost, by being people of integrity.

(1) The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (New York: HarperOne-HarperCollins, 2013).

(2) A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity (New York: HarperSanFrancisco-HarperCollins, 1992), 133. Droge and Tabor also cite Augustine as the source of the distinction between persecution and prosecution, but understand prosecution as “the necessary and legal repression of criminals” (170), not as any non-theologically motivated exercise of state judicial power.

(3) The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (1971; New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1989), 17.

(4) The Romans (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1949, 1953), 144-45.

(5) Barrow acknowledges that “Christians often deliberately invited persecution,” but balances this with the observation that “Christianity was particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation” because, like a state or an empire, it claimed the allegiance of all peoples (181-83).

(6) Persecution, Persuasion and Power: Readiness to Withstand Hardship as a Corroboration of Legitimacy in the New Testament (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 43.

(7) The Cross of Christ (1986; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 326-27.

The Restlessness That Accompanies Peace

I keep hearing sermons that urge me to walk in God’s peace. Anxiety and worry arise, I’m told, when I try to control events. As I learn to trust, to “cast my cares” on Him (1 Peter 5:7), I step into His kingdom of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). And this peace — understood as an unshakable tranquility — will draw others to Christ.

On many days, this is a good message for me to hear. I do worry about inconsequentials; I do cling to illusions of control. But I have concluded that the advice is incomplete, and that it is based on a picture of Christian character that is grossly distorted.

Godly Anxiety

Paul writes to the Corinthians that, after sending them a severe letter, he “had no peace of mind”; despite a God-given opportunity, he couldn’t preach. Yet he doesn’t view this as a lapse in faith; on the contrary, God led him in triumph, as he “manifested” Christ without words (2 Corinthians 2:12-14). This presents a rather different image of Christian equanimity. It also suggests that people are drawn to Jesus, not when they see believers who are carefree and happy, but when they encounter suffering, sacrificial love.

As we read the Scriptures, Paul’s is not an isolated case. Nehemiah prays for four months, and then makes a bold request of a pagan king, because the walls are down in faraway Jerusalem; his opening comes when the king observes that his face is sad (Nehemiah 2:1-2). Boaz becomes a Kinsman-Redeemer when love causes him to lose his composure; he cannot rest (Ruth 3:18) until he establishes rest for those who need it (1:9; 3:1).

I am still very far from sharing or understanding the emotional life of the Lord Jesus, but I believe we oversimplify when we imagine Him as ever calm and smiling, free from agitation. In the Gospels He is exquisitely sensitive. He weeps easily (Luke 19:41; John 11:35), and is moved to grief (Mark 3:5) and indignation (Mark 10:14). Often, He seems driven (Mark 10:32; Luke 12:50; 22:15). His peace and joy are hard-won, and they don’t banish a wide range of emotions.

All through the Bible, we see a tension. Jesus invites His followers to rest (Matthew 11:28-29; Mark 6:31), but rebukes them for resting at the wrong time (Matthew 26:45). We are told to work hard to be at peace (Romans 14:19; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 3:11), and to strive to enter into rest (Hebrews 4:11). The same Paul who says to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4) also declares that he has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” because so many Jews do not know Christ (Romans 9:2). He also desires his converts to be free from anxiety (1 Corinthians 7:32; Philippians 4:6), and yet remarks that he carries “the daily inescapable pressure of my care and anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).

Perfect Peace

This is not a new observation. John Patrick noted in 1902 that the rest promised by Jesus “is not a rest from toil but in toil (John 5:17), not the rest of inactivity but of the harmonious working of all faculties and affections.” Thus, when Jesus invites the disciples to come aside and rest (Mark 6:31), and a crowd follows them, He does rest, actively, even though the twelve are surprised and frazzled.

William Barclay devotes a chapter of New Testament Words (1964) to the Greek word merimna — to “right and wrong care.” He identifies worry about worldly cares, the future, opposition, and pleasing people as wrong, while care for others and the church is right and honorable: “what is forbidden is disabling worry and not enabling foresight.”

This formulation is too rational and tidy; Paul’s worry did disable him from preaching. The Biblical picture is paradoxical. Just as Paul is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10), so he appears to be both anxious and at peace. For Biblical peace is not a condition of blissed-out tranquility or placid repose. It is a wholeness not yet fully realized, and a connectedness that may begin as we share in the cares of God Himself. It is a fruitful garden, a ministry of reconciliation, a holy community, an arsenal of weapons repurposed as earthmovers, a river that sweeps away lies. It is dynamic, richer and broader and deeper at the end of a well-lived life. It stands very far from the “personal peace” that Francis Schaeffer defined as the desire to be safe from the world’s problems, and that he called an idol.

Though we work intentionally toward peaceful relations with others, the peace of God doesn’t descend upon us as we seek it. Rather, it “passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7), in part, because it comes when we aren’t thinking about it at all — when we are focused on God Himself: “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You” (Isaiah 26:3).

There is a faith that prays once and stops, assured that the Father has heard. And there is a faith, no less rooted and grounded, that keeps on praying: “You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give Him no rest till He establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (Isaiah 62:6-7). It would be a great loss if we were to discourage such intercession in the name of “having peace.”

I need to relinquish control and to stop being “anxious about many things” (Luke 10:41). But I also need to lose some sleep over the condition of my city, and of hurting people far away. I need to care, and even to carry some of the burdens of some of my brothers and sisters. Rest lies in the work; joy, I know by faith, “comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). And peace? I won’t always be aware of it, but the God of peace will be with me (Philippians 4:9).

Weigh Station

I like the New International Version’s translation of 1 Corinthians 14:29. Paul has just been saying that, at Christian gatherings, every believer should have something to share — a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a message in tongues, an interpretation — to build up the church. Now he continues, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.”

Weigh carefully. The Greek verb, diakrino, might more literally be rendered, Judge thoroughly. It is used of discerning or interpreting the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3), distinguishing good and evil (Hebrews 5:14), deciding disputes (1 Corinthians 6:5), examining oneself (1 Corinthians 11:31), discerning the Body of Christ at communion (1 Corinthians 11:29), and the spiritual gift of discernment of spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10) — and also of discrimination against the poor (James 2:4), intellectual contentions with those weak in faith (Romans 14:1), and the Jewish believers’ criticisms of Peter’s association with Gentiles (Acts 11:2).

In none of these other passages do our English versions translate diakrino or diakrisis as “weigh.” But in 1 Corinthians 14:29, the NIV is not alone. The RSV also has “weigh”; the Amplified, “weigh and discern.”

In the Balance

The word “weigh” echoes an Old Testament image that is too often overlooked. “The Lord abhors dishonest scales, but accurate weights are His delight” (Proverbs 11:1, NIV). “Honest scales and balances are from the Lord; all the weights in the bag are of His making” (Proverbs 16:11, NIV).

The picture comes from the marketplace. A merchant or a government official owned a balance and a set of weights. When a man came to purchase land or pay taxes, a one-tablet stone might be placed in the dish on one side of the balance; the man’s silver would be added to the other until the two sides were level. Cheating could creep in if the balance itself were “off,” or if the weights actually weighed more or less than their declared values. D.J. Wiseman and D.H. Wheaton report that “no two Hebrew weights yet found of the same inscribed denomination have proved to be of exactly identical weight,” and they cite a study finding a margin of error of up to 6% in ancient balances.(1)

But in the Book of Proverbs, something more than business dealings is at stake. Note this passage:

When a king sits on his throne to judge,
he winnows out all evil with his eyes.
Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure;
I am clean and without sin”?
Differing weights and differing measures —
the Lord detests them both.
Even a child is known by his actions,
by whether his conduct is pure and right.
Ears that hear and eyes that see —
the Lord has made them both. . . .
The Lord detests differing weights,
and dishonest scales do not please Him. (Proverbs 20:8-12, 23, NIV)

The subject here is the human faculty of judgment — not how honestly we measure gold or grain, but how fairly we evaluate human behavior, including our own. We are warned that the Lord weighs even thoughts or motives (Proverbs 16:2).

Part of God’s plan is that His people should learn to assess and discern. This requires, first, that we have an accurate set of weights. I submit that we possess these in the Scriptures, God’s own words to us. Then we also need an honest balance; this describes our faculty of judgment. We need minds renewed by God (Romans 12:2) and continually quickened by His Spirit, and “faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14, RSV).

For Good Measure

Returning to 1 Corinthians 14:29, we are called to “weigh carefully” or “judge thoroughly” what is said. We are blessed to live in a time when much is being said; the Web has removed some barriers to communication. But our weighing has not kept pace. I read and hear many statements in which believers pursue one pet theme to the exclusion of all else, or determine truth by placing a single text in the balance, ignoring the rest of Scripture.

We cannot hope to live Biblically unless we learn to think Biblically. We should aspire to know, declare, and obey “the whole counsel [or purpose] of God” (Acts 20:27, RSV). Hence this blog.

Weigh Station is a place to examine some teachings, assumptions, behaviors, judgments. The goal is not to silence, shame, or condemn anyone, but to find what is right and grasp hold of it: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, RSV).

I cannot do this on my own. The “thorough judgment” that is diakrisis easily becomes the critical spirit; it also turns into doubt, hesitation, wavering (e.g., Romans 4:20; 14:23; James 1:6; 3:17). Our aim must not be to keep forever adjusting the scales, but to buy, and then use what we have appraised to build each other up. Indeed, the hope is to move beyond human hairsplitting and quarrels to judging with Divine generosity: “full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over” (Luke 6:38, Living).


(1) “Weights and Measures,” The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962, 1975), 1319-25, esp. 1320.