For 2,000 years Christians have struggled with non-Christians who made them feel small and alone. The thing is – we’ve never been alone. Not only do we have a “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on (Heb. 12:1), but Jesus Himself is with us. “Consider him,” the writer of Hebrews wrote, “who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (v. 3).
Third-century pastor Origen knew the scornful words of non-Christians could potentially leave deep scars on the hearts of his fellow Christians. That’s why in his book Exhortation to Martyrdom he encouraged Christians to pray the following prayer whenever they felt like giving up:
It is probable that we shall be insulted by our neighbors, and certain people we associate with will turn up their noses and shake their heads at us as though we were mad. When this happens, let us say to God: … All these things have come upon us, yet we have not forgotten Thee … our heart hath not turned back. (Emphasis added.)
I’ve lost track of the number of times conversations with non-Christians have left me feeling stupid. Oftentimes I’ll nod my head and think to myself, Maybe he’s right. Maybe I am seriously messed up in the head. Maybe everybody goes to heaven regardless of his or her faith, and I’m inviting ridicule for nothing.
But when that happens, something deep inside of me always brings Jesus to mind. It’s weird. Like Origen instructed, I’ll force myself not to allow the insults to cause me to forget what Jesus went through for me. Then I’ll calm myself and pray Origen’s simple prayer: “Jesus, I will not turn back.” Sometimes I’ll have to repeat this over and over again, but eventually I regain my perspective.
I’ve felt that feeling of shame and apprehension many times before, especially when the topic of hell has come up. Maybe you have, too. For 2,000 years Christians have felt immense pressure to give up their beliefs because of the insults they faced. Christians have received high marks on the crazy meter in every century since Christ walked the earth.
Embarrassment is nothing new for the Christian.
Fortunately, neither is the cure. The apostle Paul boldly declared in Romans 1:16–17, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” That’s quite an understatement. If ever there was someone who wasn’t deterred by insults and persecution, it was Paul. The lengths to which he and his band of followers went in order to spread the gospel are unparalleled.
But there’s always one aspect of Paul’s story that many historians and biblical scholars leave oﬀ his list of accomplishments, and that’s confused truth seeker. There was a time soon after his conversion in which the apostle Paul “went into Arabia” (Gal. 1:17). It was there, where he spent a few years before his high-proﬁle ministry began, that he wasn’t conﬁdent about anything. Ransacked by the risen Jesus, Paul had to construct his understanding of Christianity from the ground up. Paul still had to ponder the nature of heaven and the existence of hell. He had to let God show him everything. There were no teachers, no Christian books, and no New Testament Scriptures (he hadn’t written them yet). All Paul had were the Old Testament Scriptures and a well-worn spot on the ground where he met the risen Jesus in prayer.
I ﬁnd Paul’s searching phase incredibly encouraging. I didn’t instantly become convinced about the reality of hell either. It took time. I had to process it. I had to believe it, reject it, and then come back to it again. Paul asked his questions, aired his doubts, and the Holy Spirit answered him while he was alone in the desert of Arabia. “I want you to know,” Paul proclaimed, “that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11–12).
Paul went into the desert a man full of questions and emerged a few years later a man on a mission.
Here’s my question about that time: What happened? What did Paul discover? New Testament scholar C. E .B. Cranﬁeld states, “The gospel is something of which, in this world, Christians will constantly be tempted to be ashamed.” What was revealed to Paul about the gospel that had the opposite eﬀect on him?
Paul discovered spiritual truths during those years in Arabia that so profoundly impacted his thinking that they carried him through 30 years of suﬀering and eventual martyrdom for Christ.
These truths will create a sense of boldness in us like no other.
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