It was reported recently that several warships of the Royal Australian Navy lay empty at anchor because they cannot find enough sailors to man them. This has been an ongoing problem for the Australian defence force. Not too long ago, more than half of the country’s submarine fleet was in mothballs. For the same reason.
Like ancient Rome in its final years, in many western countries people do not want to sign up to a career of service that asks much. It requires them to take orders; to be away for long stretches; and to brave danger. Like ancient Rome, many western nations find it so hard to staff their military with their own local populations, that they resort to hiring willing foreigners. Some even poach their personnel from services in other countries.
If the trend continues, it will be only a matter of decades before some western nations are defended largely by the modern equivalent of mercenaries. Gone are the days when young men joined their nation’s service in droves, whether from a sense of duty and honour, or for adventure and excitement.
If there is any phenomena that tells us something important about the moral collapse of our society, it is this. It tells us that there is now nothing – absolutely nothing – left in the western world for which people are willing to suffer. For which people would deny themselves for a greater purpose, not even their own national defence.
Life in the average secular democracy is secular, comfortable, safe and beige. The main preoccupation of most people is material matters. Money in the bank; shares in the portfolio; paying the rent on time; feeding the kids. But a secular, materialistic outlook has a nasty side effect: it deadens people’s passions for grand journeys and quests. It makes them fretful, fearful, and risk averse.
Stories of ultra-committed men and women who are willing to suffer in the pursuit of their beliefs are now isolated to the movie screen or to history.
It is a glaring paradox of modern life that the people least exposed to danger have an expanding appetite for superhuman movies, and stories about characters who face deadly dangers with bravado. No car chase is too high powered; no free fall from an aeroplane is too swift; no gunfight is too bloody that it can wipe the twinkle from their eye and stop their backhanded jokes.
Meanwhile, in real life, college students are so fretful they need cookies and puppies to recover from hearing or reading viewpoints they disagree with. We have a therapeutised culture, with counsellors and psychologists on speed dial. Enormous numbers of people are depressed, anxious, or are diagnosed with an ever-expanding catalogue of mental disorders (video game addiction!). Drugs are dispensed like candy to deal with it all. Young people – traditionally the most adventurous and reckless – are more likely to be welded to their screens than doing something bold. They are so insular, that young people are reportedly not even seeking romance and sexual intercourse.
It is one of those sociological angularities. The contradictory grit in the wheels. On the one hand, an appetite for bravery and high principle in entertainment. But then, a near-complete aversion to bravery and principle in daily life.
Modern capitalism has led to marvellous inventions that would seem nearly magical to a person living just a hundred years ago. Mobile phones; the internet; interactive computers; fast food; cheap clothing; sleek motor vehicles, all are remarkable achievements of our age. Standards of living are so high that even people who experience poverty in the western world still enjoy food and conveniences that would have astonished medieval kings.
Our standard of material comfort has reached a point where it has become the primary goal of life. Attaining it. Keeping it. Interpreting the world in the light of it. Even negative social phenomena in the west, like crime, is explained in terms of prosperity or wealth. It is a lack of money that makes a person a violent criminal, we are told. Conversely, distributing prosperity will make people more moral.
There is only one sense in which this is true. If a person has nothing then they have nothing to lose. If you have nothing to lose, then a great handbrake on recklessness is gone. That is why the poor are often least guarded in what they say in public, or on internet comment forums. No one is going to sue them. It is why so many reality television shows revolve around people in relative poverty saying brutally honest, even inflammatory things for the vicarious titillation of the better off. Such people need not regulate themselves because they fear no loss. In fact, their lack of a filter may even prosper them.
Materialism makes people tame. It renders people inert. It makes them unwilling to rock the boat and become too much of a social outcast. This is why westerners look out into the rest of the world at people who are willing to give their lives in service to their beliefs and reel back. “That’s radical,” they explain, “and dangerous.”
In the west we use the term “radicalisation” to describe positions that are often fairly normal elsewhere. What does radicalisation mean? It’s very vague. It means different things to different people. But in normal usage here in the west, it now almost always refers to a value system in which human life is put on the line. It means to have a belief system or a set of values for which you would be willing to die or suffer. The fact that this is now described as “radical” – and was not by past generations when they saw the same things we do – shows us the change invisibly happening before our eyes. In the western world, deep commitment to principle unto death is now always considered inherently dangerous, whether it is a maniac waving an AK-47 and a black flag, or an unarmed missionary with his Bible going to North Korea.
It is dangerous because it is a threat to people who live in materialistic torpor. Self-sacrificial commitment to beliefs and principles represents an attack on materialism itself. It says that there are things beyond the material that are worth living for, and dying for. It points to a greater invisible reality that is incompatible with materialism. Materialism works best when you ignore death, refuse to your life into a wider context, and do not contemplate your own mortality. When you airbrush eternity away.
Moreover, any person who embraces a belief so strongly that even the potential loss of his goods and comforts will not restrain him from acting on it becomes a wild man in a materialistic culture. He is truly dangerous because he cannot be tamed. It does not matter what his beliefs are. They could be as peaceful and gentle as you like. But once a man cares more about his beliefs than his own life or material advantage, he is ultimately attacking the fundamental assumptions of safe, materialistic, comfortable, secular, democratic society.
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Jesus is always forthright when he deals with people. He is clear; uncompromising; and honest. He lays down on the table the price of discipleship. He will deal with us if we are prepared to deal with him on his terms. And one of those terms is that Christians must be willing to pay any price to know him, to follow him, and to abide with him.
What if this is too frightening? What if the price is too steep? Then Jesus flatly states that such a man cannot be my disciple. There is only one way. And if we are not prepared to pay the price, then we need to be honest and just admit that we do not love him enough.
When Jesus speaks to his Apostles in Matthew 10 he calmly outlines the stratospheric level of commitment he expects from them. It is one of the most remarkable passages in Matthew’s narration because here it is Jesus of Nazareth himself who is defining what it means to follow him. The words he speaks are radical and illusion-shattering because they were meant to be. They sound dangerous, because they were meant to show us how great salvation is. And how fearful damnation.
Here the Lord was expressly intending to radicalise his disciples and thereby to thin out the ranks. For if this is what following Jesus looks like, anyone with a superficial or fleeting enthusiasm would not stick around for very long.
Jesus lays out five key points. This is his criteria for discipleship:
- Do not fear death, for to be killed in service to Jesus is victory
- Do not be afraid of any harm done to the body by unbelievers
- Be bold in publicly proclaiming the lordship of Christ
- Love Jesus more than every other love, passion, or relationship
- Prepare for social exile; discipleship will be a final departure from the world
Top of the list is a willingness to die. Literally die. This is utterly contrary to the west, where people are so soft and cossetted that they do not even like to talk about death, much less talk about how to die well. Neither is this true only of unbelievers. It is a sad reflection on the church that too few western Christians really contemplate martyrdom. Too many Christians are not mentally and spiritually prepared for it. It is not preached. It is not our concern. We do not cultivate a willingness to put our lives on the line if it should ever be necessary for our testimony to Jesus.
When Jesus speaks of taking up the cross he means an inward disposition toward the world and toward life. We are to live as if martyrdom were around the corner. Taking up the cross gives us a new enlightened outlook in which we start to see the world for what it really is: our temporary camping ground en route to the Promised Land. Cross carrying yields a disposition that punches through the materialistic, languid illusions of our age. For once a man is condemned to crucifixion, and walks the dusty road up to Calvary with the crossbeam over his shoulder, what does he think about? What holds his attention? How does his view of things change?
The man on the march to crucifixion no longer existed. His community reviled him. He might have to walk between rows of a jeering crowd. He had no possessions. Even his clothes were up for grabs by the guards on execution duty. He no longer was master of his own life for it was shortly to be taken from him. The man on the road toward his own personal Calvary would see no future for himself on this side of eternity. If he believed in God, at the hour the nails were riven home, amidst the flaming agony, he surely believes with all his heart. There is no longer anything left to cloud his faith; no longer anything of this earth to hold him down. He is truly free. Free enough to die for God.
Faith that sneers at death, and holds pain in derision for the sake of Christ is in short supply today. And this is why the church withers in the west. Christianity was never meant to be transmitted in safe and cosy ways, without price, without sacrifice, and without tears and sweat. It is a shortage of these things that suggests to unbelievers that Christianity is not really believed, even by those who profess it. And maybe we don’t. Maybe, in the west, we don’t believe in eternity and the glory of God. Not really. And that is the real reason we are so scared of the radicalism of Jesus.
Leonard Ravenhill – the great evangelistic preacher whose ministry blazed with indefatigable zeal for thirty years – once remarked that the Islamic world had seen a revival that was even then causing the Muhammadan creed to be transmitted deep into Western nations:
My dear country of England, in the last 25 years, they’ve closed 600 branch churches of the Church of England alone, leave out the Methodists and others.
But in the place of 600 churches, we have now six hundred mosques. The greatest revival in the world right now is amongst the Muslims. Why? Because they’re prepared to die. You can’t scare them.
Leonard Ravenhill had his finger on the pulse of Islam ten years earlier than most Christians in the west, who remained blissfully unaware of the Islamic Revival that began in the early 1970’s until it crashed into their awareness in a swirl of burning wreckage and splintering metal on September 11th, 2001. Despite the efforts of global authorities and the expenditure of uncountable pyramids of gold, radical Islam continues to spread across the world. Why? Because they are not afraid. Islamic radicals impress their fellow Muslims with the sheer weight of their courage. Although their religion is false, men and women will always recognise genuine belief when it manifests itself in a person unafraid to die.
Before Christianity will revive in the west, it is going to take the outbreak of this kind of faith and consciousness of the eternal stakes. This is something that Ravenhill understood very well.
Few men have looked, worked, prayed for the approach of Christian revival like Ravenhill. He was a watchman on the city walls who strained his eyes for a lifetime searching for the first rays of sunlight that would herald the dawn. As far back as 1959 he wrote the book that has become one of the modern classics of Christian literature: Why Revival Tarries. In this book, he flatly declares that there is no Christian revival because modern Christians do not really want it. Too many Christians are too contented not to see great movements of the majesty and work of God. There is a shallowness in our witness; in short, we have lost the dangerous, radical dynamism of the earliest disciples who embraced the cross with a full willingness for the glory and the cost.
This spirit of self-preservation was unknown to the earliest Christians. They were mostly poor people, and they lived in the shadow of death cast by the sophisticated totalitarian government of ancient Rome. For them, martyrdom was not repellent, but a privilege. They drank deeply from the spirit of the words “take up the cross and follow me“. Some of the earliest saints were so desirous for the promised martyr’s glory that they courted death. Some of the more radical Christians set pagan temples on fire, and then waited purposefully for a howling mob to show up and kill them.
They revelled in the chance to die. This fact alone teaches us in our timid 21st century how much we have drifted from the fiery, self-sacrificing zeal and eternal outlook known by the first Christians. This, we see in the life of Ignatius of Antioch, who was famously taken to Rome for martyrdom. En route to his certain death, he wrote numerous letters that were soaked in the craving for a victor’s crown from Christ. Many of these express an eagerness to die and exalt in suffering for Christ’s name. The most famous is his letter written to Christians at Rome, “I am God’s wheat”:
I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread. Pray to Christ for me that the animals will be the means of making me a sacrificial victim for God.
No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He who rose for our sakes is my one desire.
The time for my birth is close at hand. Forgive me, my brothers. Do not stand in the way of my birth to real life; do not wish me stillborn. My desire is to belong to God. Do not, then, hand me back to the world. Do not try to tempt me with material things. Let me attain pure light. Only on my arrival there can I be fully a human being. Give me the privilege of imitating the passion of my God. If you have him in your heart, you will understand what I wish. You will sympathize with me because you will know what urges me on.
Ravenhill predicted the return of martyr flames in the West. Certainly the walls are closing in on the church. The day is already here when orthodox Christian belief fits so uncomfortably with the spirit of the age it is even now irritating it like a particle of sand under the skin. This is a sign of our times – a demonstration of great spiritual realities unfolding around us – that in the space of less than a hundred years, the ancient landmark of Christianity which stood unchallenged for centuries has made the transition from being normal to completely offensive and alien.
Biblical Christianity is only tolerated because it is not understood. When the core tenets of Christianity are explained unbelievers reject it as “hateful”. Each point of the doctrine taught by our Lord is questioned and challenged by this world. Dr. Michael Jensen, rector of St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Australia, wrote a few years ago to prove this very thing:
It is pretty obvious from recent public discussions of the place of faith in public schools that completely orthodox, historic Christian teachings, held by the vast majority of Christian denominations, are held by some people to be “extreme”.
Recently, a fellow panellist on an ABC TV show “accused” me of believing that Jesus was the only way to God – which I do believe – as if this was somehow news, or evidence of cult-like weirdness. In another context, something I had written about the sinfulness of humankind – the most easily verified of Christian doctrines I would have thought – was thrown at me as if I had just called for a holy war.
The NSW Greens Education spokesman John Kaye was aghast that Christian material taught sexual abstinence outside of marriage, again as if this was somehow evidence of the kind of radical extremism that we ought to use the force of law to stamp out.
A great movement of God is desperately needed in the west – that Christians would again be radicalised by Jesus and filled with so much courage that we can throw caution to the wind in service to him. It is for this that we ought to be earnestly praying; for ourselves and for our fellow believers. We have become so weak! So pallid and limp. We are spiritually sick and have so little appetite for spiritual bread and spiritual riches in Christ that we no longer even realise it. The patient’s pulse is nearly undetectable.
Meanwhile, our brethren in China forsake their possessions and comforts for the sake of Christ, and the church is now at least sixty million strong. Our brethren in Africa are shot by marauding Islamists, or they travel for miles on foot to worship the living God and have not a bite to eat when they return home. But though they have nothing – like the church at Smyrna – yet are they rich! They do not meet in polished buildings or have flawless services, but they have a habitation that is secure for all eternity; mansions of glory.
The Spirit and the bride say, Come Lord Jesus! This must be our prayer. That there would be a great movement of God in our hearts and the wider church. That we would be transformed so that that Christianity would no longer be a hobby confined to Sunday morning and a few prayer sessions, but that it should be the ceaseless motion of our lives. That a pursuit for holiness and sanctification would dominate our passions, and overcome our fear of loss. That we would invest serious time on our knees, travailing as in birth, for a greater awareness of God and the true conversion of precious souls.
Come Lord Jesus, indeed. That we would have the vistas of eternity open large before us, shrivelling the few years of this life up before our eyes. That we would thirst for God himself, and for holiness. And be so set on fire with love for our Lord Jesus Christ that we would truly take up our cross daily, and follow him.