Steadfastness

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Steadfastness

Lamentations 3:22-24      Mark 4:14 -20   1st Corinthians 15:58      2nd Corinthians 1:3-7     Revelation 14:12

   It’s easy to mistake a personal defect for Christian character.  For instance, it’s easy to mistake low self-esteem or self-belittlement for humility.  It’s easy to mistake financial self-advertisement for generosity.  It’s easy to mistake calculated lechery for affection.  And it’s easy to mistake rigidity for steadfastness.  The rigid personality is unbending.  It won’t move an inch, often because it can’t move an inch: it’s rigid because brittle, and if it moved at all it would break.  Therefore it won’t budge.  Even if someone is wrong, knows he is wrong, and knows he is known to be wrong, he still won’t budge.

   When it was proved that the earth revolved around the sun and not the sun around the earth, some authorities shot back, “It can’t be.”  When the earth was shown to be much older than commonly thought, many still covered their ears and eyes.  And then there’s the story of the dear old gentleman who regarded anything new as belonging to the devil.  When he prayed aloud in church he cried, “Lord, you don’t change -- and we don’t change.”  Rigid.

   Steadfastness, however, is different.  We must never confuse steadfastness with a rigidity or a narrowness or an inflexibility born of fear or obstinacy.  Our steadfastness ought always to be formed and informed by God’s.  And God is steadfast in that he keeps his promises.  God’s steadfastness is neither more nor less than this: God keeps the promises he makes.  God keeps his promises regardless of what non-rigid adaptations he must make in order to keep them.  As a matter of fact, so determined is God to keep his promises to us, and so very faithful is God in doing so, that he will do anything consistent with his character to adapt himself to us and our needs.  Inflexible?  On the contrary, he will flex himself until he resembles a pretzel.  God’s steadfastness never means he’s frozen, immobile. God’s steadfastness means, rather, that he’s endlessly flexible, adaptable, accommodating in remaining faithful to himself and to us.

  We in turn are to be steadfast inasmuch as we remain true to our promises to God; namely that we are going to think and do and live as the child of God he has made us by his grace, as the child of God we in turn are determined to be through our gratitude.  We shall ever render God, at least aspire to render God, our loyalty, our love, our faithfulness, our obedience, our public acknowledgement in worship and witness that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.

   There are many situations in life where such steadfastness is sorely needed.  What are they?

I: -- Affliction is one; suffering, difficulty, distress, pain, confusion, everything that can be gathered up in life’s relentless anguish.  Job’s wife watches her husband suffer even as he declares his unswerving confidence in God.  Job suffers still more, and only intensifies his trust in God and loyalty to him.  His wife, helpless before her husband’s suffering and angry at God’s seeming indifference, shouts at her husband in exasperation, “Curse God and die.”  And what does Job say in reply? “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.”  Many people wouldn’t fault Job if his steadfastness evaporated in the heat of his suffering, and Job himself became either a theoretical atheist (someone who declares that God isn’t) or a practical atheist (someone for whom it makes no difference whether God is or isn’t.)  Who would blame Job if he told friends and family that his pain had driven away his confidence in God, his love for God and his obedience to God?  Nevertheless Job remains steadfast.

   The apostle Paul urges the Christians in Corinth to remain steadfast in the midst of their afflictions, for as they remain steadfast in faith and hope and love, he says, they will know the mysterious comfort of God.  Countless Christians from his day to ours have come to know it too.

   Every couple of years I re-visit the Huron encampment at Midland .  The reconstructed Huron village and the Jesuit mission change very little between visits.  In other words, there’s nothing new to be seen, but I go anyway.  I go because I find my own faith fortified and therefore my steadfastness stiffened as I tramp around the precincts of the Jesuit martyrs.  Just how difficult life was for those men we can scarcely imagine.  The winters; the black flies; the longhouse lack of privacy; the isolation; the twenty-two day canoe trip to their headquarters in Quebec City; the final bloodletting at the hands of hostile natives.  Yet when I read about Lalemant and Brebeuf and the others I find no bitterness, no resentment, not even resignation; certainly no cursing of God or fate or misfortune.  Those men were comforted with the mysterious comfort of God.

   Mysterious?  Sure.  Just as there is a peace that passes all understanding; i.e., a peace that only God can give in situations where there is no earthly reason for peace, so there is a comfort that passes all understanding, an innermost comfort with which God comforts those who remain steadfast in their love and their loyalty and their confidence concerning him.  If we are asked to explain this, we can’t.  Mystery, by definition, admits of no explanation.  Yet the reality of it is undeniable.

   What I have learned from the Jesuits in 17th Century Midland I have found repeatedly in godly men and women whose lives have touched mine.  Their steadfast love for their Lord, even in situations where they hadn’t a clue as to where the difficult developments in their life were going to come out; their steadfast love for him and their confidence in him -- all of this was as great as, greater than, the affliction harassing them.

  

   Approaching this topic from a slightly different angle Paul urges the Christians in Corinth to remain steadfast not merely because they will know the mysterious comfort of God, but also because their steadfastness will comfort others.  Their steadfastness will be the instrument God uses to bring comfort to other sufferers.

   “Just how does this occur?” the sceptic queries.  “How does someone’s steadfastness in the face of her affliction comfort another person in the face of his?”  At the very least the first person’s steadfastness will reassure us profoundly: just as her suffering hasn’t issued in a bitterness that corrodes her heart and embitters anyone near her, so ours need not.  Just as her difficulties haven’t eroded her certainty concerning that brighter day when God’s people are going to be released and relieved definitively, so ours need not erode our certainty of that day either.  Among suffering Christians, steadfastness is contagious.  Someone else’s steadfastness amidst her pain and perplexity will lend us at least this much comfort amidst ours.  And where human pain and divine comfort are concerned, to say “at least” is to say “a lot.”

 

II: -- Not only is steadfastness associated with suffering throughout scripture, it’s associated as well with temptation.  We are to remain steadfast when we are tempted.  The book of Revelation speaks of “the steadfastness of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.”

   We must remain steadfast in the face of temptation, because steadfastness keeps our heads thinking aright.  Please note what I said: “Steadfastness keeps us thinking properly.”  I didn’t say, “Proper thinking keeps us steadfast.”  Most people don’t understand what John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards and countless other giants in the history of the church, as well as all of scripture, have understood; namely, our heart governs our head.  We post-Enlightenment types appear not to understand this.

   We post-Enlightenment people maintain the opposite; we think our head governs our heart.  But the Christian tradition is sound: our heart, what we love (whom we love), controls what we do and how we think in the long run.  In the short run, to be sure, we can always love one thing but will ourselves, steel ourselves, to do something else.  But in the long run invariably our heart, our love, controls what we do and how we think.  Steadfastness is simply our persistent love for our Lord whose steadfast love for us never diminishes.  Steadfastness is love for him whose love for us can never be discouraged or deflected.  As long as we love him, we shall obey him; and as long as we obey him, our thinking will proceed aright.

   If, on the other hand, steadfastness crumbles as love for our Lord collapses, then we do now what previously we declared to be wrong, and do it now announcing to everyone that it’s right.  As soon as our heart leaks away love, our reasoning becomes blatant rationalization.  Such rationalization the sober alcoholic calls “stinking thinking.”  “Stinking thinking” is thinking, so-called, that the addicted person regards as the soul of logic and common sense but which everyone else recognizes as the shabbiest, self-serving rationalization.

   The heart governs the head.  Steadfastness governs thinking.  Insofar as we remain steadfast our rationality retains its integrity.  But as soon as steadfastness falters our “thinking” becomes “stinking”; that is, rationality becomes a logically consistent rationalization that we can’t recognize to be rationalization.

   The embezzler.  He spins a tale 65 pages long justifying what everyone else sees instantly to be self-serving corruption.  The abuser of wife or child or workmate: his story is perfectly sound to him, but to him only.  The chemically habituated.  (We’ve said enough about her already.)   The “paper hanger.”  “Paper hangers” are those who write worthless cheques.  Do they have a “reason” for what they’ve done? an explanation?  Of course they have.  And no one believes it, least of all the judge who sentences them.  The vindictive.  The “stinking thinking” that a pastor hears as to why someone at work or at home or in a community organization should be speared, must be speared, had to be speared, is -- is what, when even the pastor may find himself tempted to spear disagreeable folk in church life and display the “stinking thinking” that now he can’t recognize.

   Just in time we recall the faith of Jesus: when he was reviled, he didn’t revile back.  Just in time we recall the commandment of God: “See to it that no root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble, and by it the many become defiled.”

   Steadfastness, the persistent love of our heart for our Lord Jesus Christ; this stiffens our resolve to keep the commandments of God; this preserves the integrity of our reason and prevents reasoning from turning into a rationalization that legitimates sin and sinks us ever deeper into it.

   The question that has to be on someone’s lips is, “If steadfastness keeps our thinking and our doing from degenerating, then what keeps steadfastness steadfast?  What fortifies it?  There’s one thing for sure:  when temptation assaults our steadfastness we shall never fortify it by staring at the temptation, as though by staring at it we could stare it down and make it go away.  The longer we stare at temptation, even with the best intentions, the more it fascinates us, the more it doesn’t go away, and the more likely it is to collapse us.

   We remain steadfast, in the face of temptation, by the simple yet profound, God-ordained device of distraction.  A friend of mine, a physician, waggishly tells me that when patients come to him complaining of minor, niggling, half-imagined aches and pains, the best medical cure is a swift kick in the knee.  He means, of course, that distraction works wonders.

   People in the grip of besetting temptation ask me if they shouldn’t pray about it, pray more about it, and I always answer (to their surprise) “No.  The more you pray about it the more you are preoccupied with it.  Let someone else pray about it for you.  You need to go to a baseball game.”

   There’s a distraction that’s even better than a baseball game.  Paul speaks of “steadfastness in love.”  Love is self-forgetful concern for someone else’s good.  Love always directs us away from ourselves to someone else.  Now we are profoundly distracted for the sake of someone who needs us.  Steadfastness in love orients us away from ourselves and thereby allows us to remain steadfast in the face of our own temptation.

 

III: -- Lastly, scripture speaks of our steadfastness in our work for God’s kingdom.  “Be steadfast, immoveable,” says the apostle, “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.” 

   We read these words at the service of committal as someone’s remains are lowered into the ground.  Well, was that person’s “work of the Lord” in vain finally?  After all, he lived only 37 years, or 57, per chance 87.  But against the immensity of human history (never mind eternity) the difference between 37 and 57 or 87 is radically relativized.  And however helpful his “work of the Lord,” how much help could it have been in view of the enormity of human need? 

   A year or two ago the undertaker in Mississauga asked me to conduct a funeral for a man whose clergyman had refused to bury him. (The 35 year old married man, father of a six year old child, had gone to New York City, had explored sexually what is better left unexplored and had died of AIDS.)  There was to be visiting only one hour before the service, my only opportunity to meet the family.  I went to the funeral home one hour early.  Already those gathering for the service had rock music roaring through a “boom box” perched on the organ: “Thumpa thumpa thumpa.”  While I was speaking with the widow whose husband I was to bury, a man approached me, introduced himself and told me he was going to speak at the funeral.  “That’s odd,” I replied, “I thought I was.”  Next he told me how long he was going to speak: three times as long as I have ever spoken at a funeral.  Defiantly he told me he wasn’t going to abbreviate his address.  I knew right then that this situation was out of my hands.  One hour later the funeral service began.  Halfway through it the widow walked in.  (I hadn’t seen her in the first row or two, but I had assumed she had to be in the chapel somewhere.)  She made a grand entrance, sashaying down to the front row, waving to all and sundry as she paraded herself, grinning from ear to ear as if her ship had just come in.  When she reached the front row she looked at me, and waved and grinned even more ardently.  I didn’t know what was going on.  I simply did “my thing” and went home.

   Tell me: in view of the fact that I had gone to the funeral to hold up the gospel in its truth and reality amidst the power of sin and death in their deadliness, had I gone in vain?  What I went there to do was plainly an unwelcome intrusion in a rock concert.  Was it also a “work of the Lord” that couldn’t be in vain?

   And then there’s what you people do.  Sunday School teaching.  To what end?  How much strikes home in the little fidget-bottoms?  The never-ending church committee meetings.  To what end?  The same question can be asked of any kingdom-work to which we give ourselves.

   And while we are at it let’s think of the smallest details of our lives, such as the quiet, unremarkable help we try to render needy people.  The harried mother we smiled at in the grocery store as we picked up and rearranged the shelf of breakfast cereal boxes one of the four children she was contending with had strewn on the floor.  The distraught neighbour we spoke with gently just because he seemed so very fragile.  Think of any one of these tiny, daily details.  Then think of them accumulated over 75 years and gathered up into one big bag.  The one big bag is labelled “My Life.”  What does the bag amount to?  We know that on the day that the earth and the heavens pass away the bag is going to be consumed.  “Be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”

   And therefore we won’t quit.  We won’t give up.  If we have even a glimmer of fruitfulness about our work, we shall thank God for allowing us to see this much.  And if no fruit is yet visible, we are going to remain steadfast in it anyway.

   I am sure that when the Christian missionaries were driven out of China in 1948 they felt that the sacrifices they had made were now dribbling away like water running through sand.  For not only had they been expelled; the deadliest anti-Christian campaign was mobilized and enforced by a communist government.  The campaign was maintained for years, only to be intensified by Chairman Mao during The People’s Revolution.  It was an extermination policy.  But today there are congregations, thriving congregations, throughout China .  The seminaries have students.  Labour in the work of the Lord wasn’t in vain.

  

Then you and I must ever be steadfast in such work, even as we are steadfast amidst temptation, and steadfast amidst our suffering as well.

Reverend V. Shepherd                             St. Bride’s Anglican Church, Mississauga                                     March 2009