Every human existence that is not conscious of itself...before God,...every human existence that does not rest transparently in God,...whatever it achieves, be it most amazing, whatever it explains, be it the whole of existence, however intensively it enjoys life esthetically--every such existence is nevertheless despair SUD, 46 (XI 158).
You will doubtless have heard on a number of occasions those who bewail the present day. I admit to having limited sympathy with those who argue that we are living in the absolute worst of times. I read of the social conditions, cultural norms and spiritual battles of past days and I sometimes think, "We do not have it so bad." However, very often, those who have decided that these are the worst of days use that conclusion to drive a certain way of thinking and acting. Perhaps it is the pastor's conference where the prevailing mood is one tending to despair, where most of the older men are quick to suggest that the nation is under judgement, or some such assertion, ready to root any sense of believing anticipation out of the heart of those naive young bucks who think they have a prospect of blessing. Perhaps it is the crippling affliction of a whole congregation, maybe under the influence of a more negative spirit in the preaching, by which the diagnosis of local, national or global malaise has become an excuse to attempt and expect nothing. After all, why bother?
My gut instinct - and, I hope, my scriptural instinct - is to reject that spirit of defeatism, even where it comes from men whom I otherwise esteem and respect. And yet, it is worth bearing in mind that there are harder times and easier times. Paul wants Timothy to "know this, that in the last days perilous times will come" (2Tim 3:1). It seems that Paul means that, in the period between the first and the second and last coming of the Lord Christ, there will be seasons marked out by distinctive and heightened spiritual danger, periods of intensified spiritual combat. The apostle goes on to describe those seasons: "men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2Tim 3:2-5). I would suggest that it takes no great exegete to recognise that, in the modern West, and perhaps in other particular places around the world, we seem to be heading into - if we are not already in - a perilous time.
And so Paul goes on to counsel Timothy: "Whatever you do, boy, don't try anything. The Spirit has departed and prospects are poor. Keep your head low, and don't make eye contact. Batten down the hatches, retreat behind the barricades, and hope against hope that somehow you and a few others make it through relatively unscathed. Dodge, duck, dive, and do whatever it takes to survive. Try and keep it painless. Maybe once the storm has swept over you will be able to creep out of your hole and try again. Keep face, of course! Learn to preach and pray primarily against the failings and compromises of other Christians and churches. Build up your sense of superiority on the graves of their reputations. Teach about faithfulness in the midst of trials in such as way as to allow everyone to paint their own face in the portrait. Present revival as a panacea, as something that happens to bad people out there, resolving all our difficulties without requiring faith, repentance, or Spirit-stirred activity among the saints. Press on in this way, Timothy, and perhaps I will see you on the other side."
What nonsense! I trust we are all aware that Paul spoke in rather different fashion:
I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5)
So it is quite possible that we look out and see something of a present spiritual wasteland, perhaps increasingly a spiritual battleground. We may be troubled at a perceived paucity of proven men and fear a sickly trickle of younger ones. We recognise surges in atheism, paganism, idolatry and false religion, some of it militarised. Old errors are stalking the land, and capturing many hearts. And it may in some measure, even in large measure, be true. We may shortly be living through one of the perilous times, if we are not already doing so.
But is now the time to run or hide? Can we responsibly and righteously walk away when others may be ready to walk in and make the sacrifices necessary to exalt Christ? Who will call sinners to repentance? Who will hold the line and set the standard for those who may be following? Should we interpret these as the days of small things, and so make our excuses for little faith and low expectations?
Surely a field of battle on which holding the line, let alone advancing it, is hard, is a field of honour? If our analysis is in any degree right, have we considered the privilege of being called to serve Christ in this hour? To what has he called us? "You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2Tim 2:3-4). We cannot say we were not warned! In the words of Andrew Fuller, "A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns" (Complete Works, 3:320). How much more ought we to count it a privilege and an honour to serve such a Saviour as Christ in dangerous seasons?
We must of course beware of vainglory, that casual and carnal bombast that presumes that heroism runs in our veins. It is probably still the case - it certainly has been in past conflicts - that the men who are most full of themselves on the training ground are not often (even rarely) the ones who acquit themselves well on the battleground. It may be worth remembering the words of Ahab, albeit in a different context: "Let not the one who puts on his armour boast like the one who takes it off" (1Kgs 20:11).
All the same, surely now is the time to rise to the challenge. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up. It may or may not be ours to see great advances made, but those advances might need to be weighed rather than numbered. To accomplish a little something in the darkest hours of the hardest fights may be worth as much in the grand scheme of things as to do great deeds when the enemy is already running. Brands snatched from the burning are worth risking much to save. The enemy may not start running until some of those hard stands and have been taken and those hard yards have been won. Besides, "when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Lk 17:10).
Now is the time to assess the days, count the cost, and preach the Word. We must be ready in season and out of season. It is our duty and our privilege to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. This is part of the good fight of faith, what Spurgeon called "the greatest fight in the world." It is the hardest; it is the best; it is the most worthy, being fought for the best cause and the best Master, and offering the best reward.
Remember how Mordecai spoke to Esther as the people of God faced devastation and she began to explain her circumstances and make her excuses. He informed her bluntly that her circumstances would not save her. He assured her confidently that the Lord had not forgotten his people. He promised her soberly that cowardice might see her swept away. And he questioned her graciously, stirring her soul: "Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"
Are we living in the last days? Certainly? Is this one of the dangerous seasons? Possibly, even probably. Yet who knows whether or not this is our high privilege: that we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.