Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Breathing Through the Awe and the Guilt

In the first few pages of Ronald Boyd-MacMillan's book, Faith That Endures: The Essential Guide to the Persecuted Church, he reflects on the two emotions through which he initially related to persecuted believers: awe and guilt: He says "The awe came from what they had endured. They seemed like super-saints. The guilt came from knowing I would never face the same physical suffering as they, and it seemed so unfair. Their faith seemed so exotic, and mine so mundane."

I certainly admit to wrestling with these two emotions and I suspect that many others do as well. But even though these are common emotions, they're far from harmless. Boyd-MacMillan comes to realize that these are the emotions that "prevent [him] from having an experience of the persecuted that is useful to [his] own life, to [his] own church [and] to [his] own nation."

I believe these emotions are so harmful because they put the persecuted at a distance. If you give in to the awe, you push suffering Christians up on a kind of pedestal. Their faith seems more advanced or, as Boyd-MacMillan says, it seems "exotic." If you give in to the guilt, there's the temptation to distance yourself from the persecuted simply because they make you feel as if your own faith is too "mundane"---or perhaps just too 'easy.'

So how do we deal with the awe and the guilt? Interestingly enough, my answer to this question was inspired by a typo. You see, at first I intended to entitle this blog entry "Breaking through the Awe and the Guilt." Instead, I accidentally typed "Breathing." And as I went to correct it, I realized that it might be a better word to use after all.

Like Boyd-MacMillian, I think it's important to recognize that awe and guilt are logical emotional responses for Christians to have when they are confronted with the reality of Christian persecution. If you think about it, they are the two main emotions which arise when man is confronted with evidence of holiness. Think of when you pray, or sing praise or read scripture. Are they not times when you feel almost paralyzed by your awe for the Lord? Likewise, are there not times where you get tangled up in your own guilt in the face of such supreme love and sacrifice?

This is not to say that persecuted believers are, in themselves, holy (or, to use Boyd-MacMillan's phrase, that they are "super-saints"). But there's no denying that they are powerful evidence of God's holiness at work on earth. It makes sense many of the same emotions that characterize our relationship with God will characterize our relationship with them. In fact, I consider such feelings inevitable. (After all, the devil likes nothing more than to distance us from each other---and awe and guilt are two very clever and effective tools).

So perhaps instead of expecting ourselves to just break out of the awe and guilt, we should prepare ourselves to work through them. Just as breathing is a constant, everyday process, so is dealing with such feelings. There's no sudden or immediate fix. And even when we, like Boyd-MacMillan, realize their harm, there's no guarantee that they won't flare up again. When they do, it will do no good to deny them or to get discouraged; we have to take them to the Lord.

I recently found myself swept up in these feelings when reading detailed reports of the recent martyrdom of three Christians in Turkey. Such a painful and brutal sacrifice of life literally took my breath away. I had to rely on the Lord just to enable me to keep reading. Only He kept me calm, strong and focused.

The main reason I like the word breathing is because of its link to the Holy Sprit. We serve an omnipresent God of comfort who knows the human heart---every impulse, feeling and instinct. He knows can't free ourselves from harmful or misplaced emotions; He knows we will need to "breathe" Him in as we struggle to serve our suffering brothers and sisters. It is only by doing so that we will learn to relate to the persecuted in a way that is useful, effective and in accordance with God's will.

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