Joy & Mourning

Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief. Proverbs 14:13

In hindsight we can often see God transforming evil into good. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China were horrendous, but planted the seeds for tens of millions to come to Christ. A devastating earthquake in Guatemala in the 70’s birthed a huge revival to where over a third of the country was saved. The tsunami in the Indian Ocean brought the gospel where it had not been able to penetrate. The Sichuan earthquake brought tens of thousands to eternal life. We can hope the same for the awful suffering in Haiti even while sending relief. But how about the other way around, having the foresight to anticipate the evil seeds inherent in things that are so very good? When wonderful things come to pass and dreams are joyously fulfilled, our celebrations hardly allow for consideration of dangers that may be lurking around the corner. Autumn, 1950: Imagine the joy of North Korean Christians when the Allies counter-attacked in the Korean War and drove the North Korean army not only out of South Korea which it had just overrun but even North Korea itself, right up to the Chinese border. NK pastors could suddenly preach enthusiastically without fear of being tortured and executed! Freedom had come! The kingdom of God was at hand! Seoul and Pyongyang churches re-opened and held special days of celebration welcoming the UN and South Korean forces. South Korean Christians joined the chorus. Who wouldn’t do the same when persecution had lifted and the gospel could be proclaimed openly? Just weeks later China joined North Korea and suddenly launches a counter-attack, pushing the Allies back out of North Korea and then across South Korea back into a small corner of the country at Pusan. Those who had celebrated mere weeks before, thereby identifying themselves as anti-Kim Il Sung, were slaughtered. Furthermore, because Christians had now clearly been marked as enemies of the North Korean Communist revolution, the fires of persecution in North Korea have intensified ever since. Indeed, how quickly joy may end in grief. Other times the destruction is more subtle and gradual, though just as deadly. The Roman Empire, as you probably know, also intermittently persecuted the church for over 200 years. It reached its terrifying peak around 300 A.D. under Emperor Diocletian, who martyred literally hundreds of thousands of Christians. After over two whole centuries just think how discouraging that must have been: from bad to worse, then from worse to worst. Where was God?? Finally Diocletian’s reign ended in 305. Civil war broke out with the two main players being generals named Maxentius and Constantine. Maxentius had by far the larger army, plus he controlled Rome itself, while Constantine’s smaller army was marching there for the decisive battle. It came in 311. Maxentius consulted a pagan oracle, which assured him of victory, so he confidently took his army outside Rome to go confront Constantine’s. Constantine, on the other hand, saw a vision of the cross with the Latin words “By this you conquer.” Ordering his men to paint the cross on their shields, he went to battle. Well . . . Constantine did win that day and became Emperor! He openly declared himself a Christian, so obviously persecution abruptly ceased. He died in 337 but freedom lived on—in fact in 381 Christianity was named the official state religion. What a turnaround! Who’d’ve figured? Imagine that celebration! Twelve years after Constantine ascended the throne, Christian leaders from across the Empire took advantage of their newfound freedom to gather for a great conference in a city called Nicaea. The main topic? Formulating a doctrinal statement of faith, the Nicene Creed. And a very good and important thing it was! But it’s also worth noting what was NOT a main topic: reaching the lost outside the empire or even inside the empire, for example. No, the main issue became the difference between “homo-ousias” vs. “homeoi-ousias” (same essence vs. similar essence). Actually an important distinction, but perhaps millions of lost souls could also have merited a place somewhere on the agenda? The pattern of priorities was set. Another council came at Chalcedon in 451, when the western empire was in crisis and about to be overrun by “barbarians.” It was here that Mary and the Bishop of Rome (pope) were exalted to their lofty positions. The doctrinal issue dropped from the essence of Christ at Nicaea to whether Mary was “theotdokos” or “Christokos” (God-bearer or Christ-bearer). Probably not a hot topic among Christians hiding in the catacombs from the persecution of Emperor Diocletian. Later major councils took on the earth-shaking questions of literally how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, and the color of Mary’s eyes. It all started with religious freedom, followed by a subtle shift in priorities. How gradually joy may end in grief. This winter Christians are rejoicing that Shouwang Church in Beijing, an unregistered (illegal) but wide-open church with up to 1000 in attendance, is actually being allowed to publicly purchase a building for its meetings. An historic breakthrough! Great . . . maybe. Note Matthew 24:1,2:

“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see all these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’”

We may conclude Jesus was not too impressed with the building, the very temple itself. China after Mao has been experiencing the greatest revival in history. What characterized it? People not buildings, “lay people” not clergy, evangelism not systematic theology, relationships not institutions, sacrifice not status, realities not formalities, native not foreign leadership, and outward focus balancing inward focus. Could it be all these things are related? How will greater religious freedom affect them? Jesus sternly attacked dead formalities that stifle true spiritual life: Matt 21:23 Insincere leaders attacking truth when unauthorized by themselves :28ff Talk vs. obedient action :32 Status vs. real repentance :33ff Hirelings persecuting true sons :43 Status revoked in favor of the fruitful 22:1-14 Status reversed in favor of responsiveness :29 Teachers ignorant of the Bible and without spiritual power :37ff Law vs. Love 23:1-4 Words vs. actions :5ff Pretentious honor vs. servanthood :13ff Leaders actually obstructing God’s work :16ff Traditional human interpretations contradicting God’s ways :23ff Reversed priorities: observing the petty while missing the point :25ff Outward appearance vs. inner reality :29ff Pretense of honoring God’s messengers while actually fighting them Which side grows best when buried under the soil of persecution? Which characterizes the Christian life I am experiencing, both around me and within me? How might persecution impact that experience? Who would seek leadership roles when it means becoming a target? How would we function without any buildings? Would differences between the redeemed and the lost become more distinct or more blurred? What would happen to luke-warmness? What would I value the most? The least? Would my love for Christ grow or diminish? What aspects of church life would disappear? Which would survive—or even increase? Why? How would I handle the prospect of prison? Paul indicated there is a secret to godliness in easy times and a secret in tough times; neither is automatic. Each presents its own set of challenges and temptations from the world, the flesh and the devil. China’s Christians need to be alerted to the nasty seeds of formal religion, materialism, pride, pettiness and self-centeredness which we have seen bloom brightly in the sunlight of freedom. At the same time, we might consider our own need to learn the other side from them. by Gary A Russell, International Director for China Harvest