A non-Christian friend of mine recently returned from a trip overseas. When I asked him how his trip was, he looked me in the eye and, with finger pointing and shaking in my face, steadfastly declared to me, "There is no God." That was the first thing he wanted me to know. He knew I was a Christian, and he was anxious to give me one more reason why he was not. His reasoning was that, if there were a God, the places that he had seen on his trip would not be in the reechy and augean conditions that characterized so much of what he saw. For him, the suffering that he saw was so overwhelming that it was a sure and certain indication that God could not exist. My response to him was very simple, and it stopped the conversation (at least for a while). I simply said to him, "What makes you think that God is responsible for such things?"
The first epistle of Peter is written to a group of suffering Christians. These are Christians who have been "grieved by various trials" (1:6), they are in exile (1:17) and thus living in places that are foreign to them; they are encouraged not to be surprised when fiery trials come upon them (4:12) - note: not if fiery trials come, but when they do. The Christian perspective on suffering is in diametrical opposition to my friend's. This is not surprising; there is an antithesis between Christian and non-Christian. That antithesis is not theoretical. It applies to the way we think, the way we act and the way we view the world. In the midst of their suffering, Peter gives this command:
...sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (NASB; 1 Peter 3:15).
The command is to "sanctify Christ as Lord." In the previous verse, Peter refers to Isaiah 8:12ff., which includes a command to regard Yahweh as holy. Peter attributes the prerogatives of Yahweh to Jesus Christ. The New Testament application of Isaiah 8:12f. is that Christians, in the midst of their suffering, are to remember and recognize, in their hearts, that Jesus Christ is Lord. Instead of looking at the overwhelming suffering around them and declaring that there is no God, they are rather to declare, "Jesus is Lord." They are to "sanctify" or "set apart" the Lordship of Christ in their hearts by showing his Lordship when suffering comes. Peter then goes on to tell them (and us) that the way to sanctify Christ as Lord - the command to set Christ apart as Lord - is met as we ready ourselves for a defense of that which we believe.
If we are honest with ourselves, it may be that our mindset is more in sync with my friend's oftentimes than with Scripture. It may be that, when suffering comes, or when it threatens to overwhelm us in some way, we may think that belief in God seems foolish. How could God allow such a thing to happen? Why wouldn't he prevent this?
Last month, I had the privilege of teaching in Jakarta, Indonesia for two weeks. Indonesia has the highest Muslim population, by ratio, than any other country in the world; 86% of its population is Muslim. I have no idea what it must be like to live there from day to day, but I had a glimpse of it when I was there. It is impossible to put into words the intensity of the pressures and problems that persist in a country like this, especially if one is a Christian.
A few decades ago, Dr. Stephen Tong determined that the best response to the overwhelming suffering and pressure that is replete in Indonesia was to build a Christian church as a testimony to the truth of the gospel. So, in keeping with the law of the land, he applied for a permit to build. He waited and pleaded and waited and pleaded. As expected, his petition was either ignored or delayed - for fifteen years!
When the authorities finally agreed to let him build his church, they insisted that he could not put a cross on it. The cross is a sign of offense to Muslims; it is an affront to their religion, he was told. Dr. Tong told the authorities that he had to put a cross on the church. There was no other way, he argued, to show that this was a Christian church. Whether the authorities relented or not is unclear. What is clear is that a cross sits atop this Indonesian "megachurch," now housing a few thousand Christians on Sunday morning. After preaching to the initial hordes at 7:30 each Sunday morning, Tong moves into the Mandarin service, on a separate floor of the church, and preaches there. Meanwhile, someone is preaching on another floor at the English service.
The church building itself (see picture below), designed by Tong, is cylindrical. As one drives along near the church, visible from any side of the cylinder are carved, in bold relief and written in Latin, one of the "Solas" of the Reformation - Sola Fide, Solus Christus - or the command to Love God and our neighbors. Tong has made sure that anyone who drives by that building will know what it is. The building itself clearly indicates that Christ alone is Lord.
On Monday thru Friday, over 400 children attend the Christian school that is housed at the church. They are preparing for the future of Christianity in Indonesia. In a Muslim culture, young people of all ages are daily learning about Christ. Not only so, but conductors from around the world reserve the Concert Hall (also designed by Tong) in the church and bring their orchestras to perform in the largest Hall in Indonesia. The Jakarta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Tong, performed on one of the weekends that I was there. The orchestra is composed of some from the church, but others from outside, and many who are Muslims. Dr. Tong conducted the orchestra through Haydn's "Summer" and "Spring," and made sure that the near-capacity audience understood that the music itself was testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Dr. Tong, and a goodly number of his parishioners, have been prepared to defend their Christian faith; they are ready to give an answer. They have to be ready in a culture that is so hostile to them. They've defended their right to build a Christian church, to have a Christian school, to have a Concert Hall, a museum, a seminary... These things wouldn't happen without a defense of Christianity. They wouldn't happen unless one was convinced that Christ, not Allah, is Lord.
It is impossible for most of us in the West adequately to recognize the tremendous, almost miraculous, developments that have allowed this church to exist. In the midst of an overpowering Muslim presence and control, there stands this enormous church building. To drive by this building and read the words, "Solus Christus" which tower high above the bustle of the city is incredible beyond words.
I wondered, as I tried to take in something so foreign to me, how many Christians in the West would have the same tenacity as Tong, were they in his shoes. Would the hegemony of Islam cause confusion and fear among us? Would Western apologists, in these circumstances, try to form a syzygy with Islam and call it "Together for Theism" - T4T? Would we Westerners, like my friend, in the face of so much suffering, pressure, and persecution conclude that there is no God?
It is difficult to translate my Indonesian experience into a Western context. Whatever the context, however, Peter's admonition is the same. Our responsibility as Christians is to be prepared to give an answer to those who would ask us the reason(s) for our hope.
Perhaps the most significant point of Peter's command is the reason that he gives for it. It is as simple as it is profound: "For Christ also died for sins, once for all..." (3:18). The ironic twist that just is the transposition of the gospel is not that when we see suffering we should conclude that there is no God. Rather, it is that when we see suffering, we should remember that God himself, in the Person of his Son, did exactly that, so that suffering and sin would one day cease. Suffering is clear evidence that Christ is Lord; it is not a testimony against that truth. Dr. Tong recognized that, and defends the faith, giving testimony to Christ in the midst of enormous opposition.
The suffering that is the cross of Christ - the very thing that, on the face of it, might lead us to believe that there is no God - is, as a matter of fact, the deepest expression of his sovereign character as Lord.
Sanctify Christ as Lord, and be ready to give a reason for the great and only hope of the Christian gospel.