But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.
Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,
always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you
for a reason for the hope that is in you;
yet do it with gentleness and respect.
(1 Pet 3:14–15)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Being reviled is painful and triggers a Gethsemane moment with a choice—do we turn upward to God or inward into our pain? When we turn to God, our spiritual life blossoms and the church grows; but when we turn to our pain, individually or corporately, then our spiritual life suffers terribly because being reviled is seldom an isolated, one-time event.
Persecution in the modern and postmodern eras has taken on a whole new level of sophistication. The open slander of the Christian faith perpetrated by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche in the nineteenth century placed church leaders on the philosophical defensive throughout the twentieth century (Plantinga 2000, 167). More recently, the media and other large corporations have actively promoted lifestyles inconsistent with the Christian faith—causal sex, abortion, stores open on Sunday—and caused internal questioning of the faith among believers. What greater suffering could a parent experience, for example, then to see their children fall away from the faith and fall into every manner of sin and deprivation? Today’s lions may appear only on television, but they are perfectly capable of consuming our faith.
This persistent, low-grade persecution can result in spiritual lethargy which affects all three movements of the spirit—within us, with God, and with others. These can be described as loneliness (within us), illusion (with God), and hostility (with others). Let us turn briefly to examine each of these aspects of spiritual lethargy, starting with loneliness.
Evangelist Charles Finney (1982, 74–76) cited six consequences of squelching the Holy Spirit in our lives:
1. Darkness of mind—the truth makes no useful impression,
2. Coldness towards religion,
3. Holding various errors in religion,
5. Delusion regarding one’s spiritual state, and
6. Attempts to justify wrongdoing.
Cited on this list are each of the tensions—with ourselves (1, 2, 3, 5), with God (4), and with others (6)—suggesting different aspects of spiritual lethargy and fertile ground for church conflict.
Allusions to persecution fill the New Testament, but they are frequently left out in public readings of scripture leaving the impression that the postmodern church no longer faces persecution and that sin is not intrinsic to the human condition, not part of the context of daily life. Lacking a basic awareness of persecution and sin, the postmodern church struggles less with the emerging persecution evident in our culture and more with the residual context of spiritual lethargy of past decades.
The annual number of Christian martyrs in 2015 has been estimated to have been 90,000 people. This is a decline from 377,000 in 1970s in the heyday of world communism, but still about three times the number (34,400) in 1900 (IBMR 2015, 29). Communism is an atheist philosophy and remains widely influential in secular circles even today. Over time, communist nations have been fairly open in their persecution of Christians who are often accused of representing a foreign influence.
An important indicator of spiritual lethargy is a lack of interest in prayer. Prayer is difficult in the absence of faith which is obvious when the words spoken take precedence over the relationship that we have with God. In the absence of a relationship with God, prayer seems like happy thoughts or a type of poetic expression rather than communication with a close friend, confidant, mentor, or father. When we are in relationship with God, our prayers are structured, in part, by the nature of that relationship—a kind of personal theology or spirituality.
Another indicator of spiritual lethargy is the tendency to read scripture out of context or in view of our own personal agendas. One passage often cited out of context is: “always be[ing] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15). This hopeful snippet is often used to argue apologetically for the faith, but contains three important weaknesses. The first weakness is that the snippet ignores the context of persecution, an important reason that First Peter is one of the favorite books of persecuted churches (McKnight 1996, 35). The second weakness is that Peter’s admonition to speak “with gentleness and respect” is frequently glossed over by apologists anxious for debate. The final weakness is that the focus on offering a verbal defense ignores the Apostle Peter’s own emphasis which was on lifestyle evangelism—living out the faith. Consequently, highlighting only 1 Peter 3:15, which mentions offering a verbal defense of the Gospel, distorts the appeal, attitude, and main point of Peter’s letter, which is to inform Christian life in a world of persecution.
In a world of persecution, we expect conflict with others over our faith because of the work and power of the Holy Spirit, as we read: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) The power of the Holy Spirit normally acts in us to become witnesses, unless we give in to fear and squelch the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.
Fear of taking risks can squelch the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as Barthel and Edling (2012, 101) note:
When individuals or groups are motivated by fear of the opinion of other people (what others personally think about them) more than the fear of God, their hearts grow cold to the Spirit of God. Lacking God-consciousness, there is no restraining the motivation of the heart; only worldly passions and popularity with the crowd control. This is common in church conflicts. Defensiveness, self-righteousness, and pride rule the day when people give in to the fear of man.
While we frequently pray for protection—evidence of fear, the early church prayed for boldness in their witness (Acts 4:29–31).
Spiritual lethargy, the opposite of boldness, can also quench the power of the Holy Spirit, as Apostle John observed in the church of Laodicea: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. (Rev 3:15-16) Spiritual lethargy is widely viewed as a postmodern problem where evangelism is neglected, churches battle over music and decorations, and biblical illiteracy is a problem even among aspiring seminary students.
Church conflicts start with inattention to God’s priorities, a corporate dimension of spiritual lethargy. Barthel and Edling (2012, 89) observe churches in conflict coming to their senses when leaders are reminded of the need to remain God-centered and to reframe conflict around well-chosen questions for reflection. Centering worship and our spiritual formation in Christ is therefore an important starting point in reducing and averting church conflict, because the underlying problem is spiritual, not the conflict itself.
The good news about spiritual lethargy is that God is sovereign and the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of Christians everywhere to bring about spiritual revival. This is as God promised the people of Israel (Deut 30:2–3) and the Apostle Peter preached, citing the Prophet Joel (Joel 2:28–29), on the day of Pentecost:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17–18)
While some have become hamstrung with fruitless activities, others have been empowered through Christ’s Holy Spirit to work for the reconciliation of the world with Himself (2 Cor 5:17–20).
Barthel, Tara Klena and David V. Edling. 2012. Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.
Finney, Charles. 1982. The Spirit-Filled Life (Orig pub 1845-61). New Kensington: Whitaker House.
Persecution and Spiritual Lethargy
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