For the modern, western Christian, the picture of running is often a positive one. Perhaps it is a few kilometres on a Saturday morning to clear our head, or a late-night jog on the treadmill at the gym. Throw in a nice hot shower and maybe a coffee or protein shake, and our picture of running becomes purely recreational. While we should applaud such healthy forms of recreation, let us be clear—running the race of faith is no pass time.
Running with purpose; running though it costs; this is not the kind of running many of us imagine in our fitness-crazed age. Rather, to truly run with purpose the race of faith is a desperate rescue mission which calls us to cross enemy held land and navigate inhospitable environments. It is a race where we will inevitably face opposition and resistance. It is only concerning runners of this kind that we can remark, “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news” (Isaiah 52:7, ESV).
The great church father, Tertullian, famously wrote, “the blood of the martyr is the seed of the Church.” Over the centuries, this has turned into an an oft-quoted remark noting the positive role persecution can play in sanctifying the people of God as we run the race of faith. Yet, it is an easy line to glibly reference, especially when we are expected to shed no blood, when any severe persecution for us seems far off. For most of us, the race of faith involves few enemy lines to be crossed, but instead at most a lap or two around the local track to be jogged at a mild pace.
Frankly, when it comes to truly facing the consequences of our beliefs in a world opposed to truth, do we really believe in God’s great ability to turn opposition and oppression into victory? The Lord himself said in John 12:24 (ESV), “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Such is the counterintuitive, topsy-turvy essence of the Kingdom of God. In death alone will we find life, but are we willing to persist, to run our race with endurance, even into the gale-force headwinds of insult, enmity and criticism?
In this year’s Open Doors World Watch List, a summary of the 50 most dangerous countries in the world for Christians, Mozambique, the country I grew up in, featured for the first time. Radical Islamists in the north of the country, with support from the Islamic State (ISIS), have beheaded hundreds and led to tens-of-thousands fleeing their homes. Globally, 1 in 8 Christians face persecution for their faith. My heart is so heavy for the violence and suffering that our brothers and sisters must face in Mozambique, and in countries across the globe. God forgive us for how frequently, in the ease and comfort of our contemporary kiwi lives, we forget this.
Yet, it is not with pity we should consider our brothers and sisters in these situations. Our prayers should never be that they are not persecuted or opposed. No, our Lord promised that if we are living like he did, that we will be hated. John 15:19 (ESV) says, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Our brothers and sisters around the world, by the power of the Holy Spirit, are being sustained to run the race of faith, and they’re looking like Christ as they do it. They are truly running with purpose, with endurance. Persecution and opposition, expulsion and hatred, these are all parts of how we know we have been chosen and look a bit like Christ; beautiful feet and all.
The author of Hebrews writes concerning those that run with faith, with their eyes fixed on the “author and perfecter of our faith”, that they “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:36-28, ESV). I desperately want to live in a way that the world is not worthy of me, to live a life full of faith for the things of God as I run with purpose, and chase down the fullness of life that God intends for me; opposition and all. I’m not interested in a faith which calls me to casually run from 10am to 11:30am on Sunday mornings; I’m not interested in a race where I am simply competing against my personal best time. I want to run with the light of eternity guiding my way, drawing me towards a victory and a crown which may have come through death, but was the only true way to life.
In New Zealand, the once prominent and revered position the Church held in our society’s mind has been diminished by no end. Christianity continues to face greater marginalisation than ever before as the fruits of post-modernism, secular-humanism, liberalism, and an untold number of other anti-biblical and anti-Christian perspectives are more clearly seen. As a political advisor in the previous Parliament, I helped coordinate opposition to key issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and drug reform. To put it mildly, the public clearly did not appreciate the changes we proposed. Yet, let us in no way resent what it is to stand for Christ in our day, or the cost we are called to pay. This is the worship we have to offer our Lord, who is worthy of all we have.
Let me be clear. It is not that we should seek out persecution for persecution’s sake. Rather, let us always look with admiration on the people of God who are running with faith the race set before them. As we also run in such a way, the world will see Christ in us, and hate us too. And in that day, let us rejoice and be glad, that we “should be counted worthy to suffer for the name” (Acts 5:41, ESV). While it defies every fibre of our self-preserving, comfort-loving, ease-seeking natures, let us truly believe that we are blessed “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11, ESV).
As Christians, we are called to run. Though headwinds may blow and traps may be laid, we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14, ESV). The blood of the martyr truly is the seed of the church. While a grain of wheat may remain alone unless it dies, if it dies, it will bear much fruit. Let our daily deaths through insult, injury, and abuse bring forth a great harvest of fruit for our Lord, as we run with purpose and faith, not pushing into “the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18, ESV).
Contributor: Jonathan Ayling
Jonathan is a former Parliamentary political advisor who grew up on the mission field in Mozambique. He has postgraduate degrees in both politics and theology and spent much of his time in Parliament working as an advisor opposing legislation legalising euthanasia, cannabis, and abortion reform. He now travels widely speaking at churches across several denominations. He and his wife run a business in Carterton.
This article was originally published in Issue #1 April 2021 Empowered, NZ Assemblies of God National magazine.
Scripture: Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.