Persecution and Spiritual Lethargy


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,

4. Disbelief,

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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Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

In today’s podcast, I will offer a G328 Prayer and talk about Limits to Progress.

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Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Limits to Progress. Monday Monologues, February 5, 2019 (podcast)

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Rational Learning

“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut. I know that you
have but little power, and yet you have kept
my word and have not denied my name.”
(Rev 3:8 ESV)

Earlier in my preface, I argued that the act of knowing brings us closer to a holy God because holy means both sacred and set apart. Rational thinking sets us apart from the object of our reflection just like God was set apart from his creation, not part of it. Yet, knowledge is also at the heart of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3 when Satan tempts Eve. Scripture praises knowledge when its object is God, but cautions us when it leads to pride.[1] So we should take the attitude of the Apostle Paul vigorously defending the faith and pointing people to God (2 Cor 10:5-6).

So what is rational thinking?

The word, rational, implies that a conclusion comports with reason or logic. Rational thinking is thinking logically while thinking has to do with the work of the mind. Using logic and experience to judge rightly. In this context, rational thinking starts with making reasonable comparisons and associations.

Rational thinking benefits directly from logic, such as mathematics and mathematical relationships. We might argue, for example, that 1+1 = 2 which simply states that adding one to one makes two. Alternatively, we might argue that 1+1+1 > 2 which says that one plus one plus one is greater than two. Simple comparisons, like these two equations, make rational thinking extremely powerful in ordering our thinking and quickly admit substantial complexity.

Rational learning, which is based on comparisons, differs from behavioral learning because we need to stand back from simple responses to stimuli. For example, suppose I am a high school student trying to decide whether to take a full-time job or to enroll in college. From a behavioral learning perspective, the job provides an immediate benefit while college enrollment requires an immediate expense for tuition and living expenses so the obvious decision is to take the job. From a rational learning perspective, the lifetime earnings in the job may be only a small fraction of the lifetime earnings after completing a college degree, even accounting for costs involved so the decision likely is to enroll in college. While both alternatives involve uncertain outcomes, the behavior learning model focuses on short-term costs and benefits, while the rational learning model employs more information than simply immediate costs and benefits.

From a faith perspective, how we learn clearly affects our attitude about our faith, especially when it comes to future events. Think about our attitude about children. When our children are young, they require a lot of expense and attention. Even if they care for you in your senior years, such benefits are far into the future. Considering only the short-term costs and benefits, the behavior learning model suggests that having children is only a present cost, while the rational learning model weighs the current costs against future benefits. The calculation applies to living out our faith today in view of our future life in Christ. The sacrifice of praise on Sunday and of living a moral life the rest of the week has both present and future benefits, but only a rational evaluation sees beyond the sacrifice. Trust in God’s goodness and provision for our needs is also required

If blind response to stimulation leaves the exclusively behavioral learner at risk of addiction and of missing out of benefits preceded by costs, the exclusively rational learner falls prey to analysis paralysis. The rational learner patiently considers all available options, comparing costs and benefits. We all know Christians who get stuck evaluating all their options in life decisions and spend more time studying their faith than living it out. Coming to closure on decisions is frequently a problem for those specialized in rational decision making.

How do we come to closure on decisions? When should options be limited and a decision made?

In my experience, this is an opportunity to pray for God’s guidance. Where the behavioral decision maker needs to focus on developing patience in decision making, the rational decision maker needs to pray for guidance to be satisfied with the doors that God has already placed in front of them.[2]


Ortberg, John . 2015. All the Places to Go—How Will You Know? God has Placed Before You an Open Door: What Will You Do? Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

[1] Compare, for example, (Prov 1:7; Isa 11:1; 2 Cor 4:6; Phil 1:9) with (1 Cor 8).

[2] John Ortberg (2015, 257) sees the opened door is a fitting metaphor for how God invites us to step out in faith and service rather than having us wait for confirmation and comfort. He writes (10): “It’s an open door. To find out what’s on the other side, you’ll have to go through.” This opened door invitation always appears riskier than it really is because of who offers the invitation and for what purpose. The purpose that Ortberg sees is intensely interesting: “God’s primary will for your life is not the achievements you accrue; it’s the person you become.” (15). As God tells Abram: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3; 9, 35). In offering such blessings, God invites us to decide which doors to go through as part of our sanctification (16) and our decisions form our character and mold our identity (8).


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Senior Year Transition

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut.” (Rev 3:8)

Senior Year Transition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My senior year in college at Iowa State University (1975/76), I thought that I was bullet proof and signed up for 18 hours, including graduate level micro and macro economics classes. Other classes, like economic history, computer science, and statistics, provided important background for later studies and work in my career. Outside of class, I had a steady girl-friend—one of the few—in college, and I worked in the cafeteria in Wilson Hall, where I sometimes felt out of place.

For example, my floor in Wilson Hall had a successful basketball team that frequently went out to practice and played a game once a week. Although later during my time in Germany I was the star of the graduate student basketball team, here playing for Wilson Hall I mostly sat on the bench during games—most of my college buddies had played varsity-level basketball in high school, being from small high schools where everyone was given the opportunity to play. By contrast, because my own high school basketball team  took state champs throughout my high school years, only the most dedicated players made the team. Consequently, I felt out of place sitting on the bench while my team beat other teams.

But I also felt out of place trying to date small town girls. Most students at Iowa State came from Iowa and, because they hoped to remain in the Iowa after graduation, they remained closely tied to high school friends on campus. As an out-of-state student, it was difficult to break into these high school cliques. Unlike the movie stereotypes of rural kids dying to get out of their small towns, these were kids who were intensely loyal to their hometowns and chose careers to make that outcome possible. My cousin in Cedar Rapids, for example, never left Cedar Rapids—even to attend college; my roommate studied computer science, in part, so he could remain in Ames after graduation. Consequently, I felt out of place socially at Iowa State and ended up dating a bright young Iranian girl who I met in one of my economics classes.

My girl friend and I dated for several months, but later broke up because she criticized my car. In my sophomore year, I worked in construction for several months in the summer before transferring to Iowa State and used the money that I earned to buy a used 1967 Volkswagen beetle. I was intensely proud of my beetle, in part, because I had paid for it myself. Being Iranian, she assumed that my family could and should buy me a new and better car while I knew that the gift of a new car was unlikely. Thus, her criticism amounted to a cultural misunderstanding, but at the time this criticism simply cut too deep and we broke up. We remain friends, however, and she went on later to a doctorate and to teach agricultural economics at an important university.

Supporting my interest in international economic development, I took a series of classes in economic history. Although economists often envisioned economic development in terms of dollars saved and invested, the actual experience of economic development was often more of an historical process where key policies either supported productive investment or diverted resources away from useful investment into consumption activities. Understanding the difference was an important theme in economic history, which made it fascinating and helpful in explaining why some rather poor countries prospered while other comparatively rich counties squandered even better opportunities.

My history professor at Iowa State was a rather brilliant, but frustrated[1], professor from Yale University who did not like my term papers and was not particularly interested in explaining why. Actually, he threatened to flunk me if I signed up for the next class in the economic history sequence. After working unsuccessfully to please him with several papers, I went into his office and sat on his desk until he explained the problem. The problem was that I conceived of history as a chronology (or narrative) of events over time, while he saw history as the product of deductive reasoning. According to the deductive method, a paper should state a hypothesis and set out to provide it with historical observations. When I then adopted a deductive method in my next paper, he liked my papers and, in the process, I learned to pay attention to methods of argumentation when I would venture outside of economics to study other fields.

My lesson about focusing on argumentation methods came up again in studying macro-economics. The economics department at Iowa State was well-known for using quantitative methods, but my macro-economics professor preferred an history of thought method of argumentation.[2] The tension between these two methods set him at odds with the department so when he began drumming students out of this class (a common approach among professors trying to minimize their required teaching load) he quickly found himself isolated also from students—a class of over 20 students soon became a class of only 4 students. I soon had the distinction of being the only undergraduate student in the class after he  expressed open disdain for undergraduates generally and reiterated such comments even in private meetings.[3]

Stressful as some of my classes turned out to be, senior year was also physically exhausting and I frequently got only about 4 hours of sleep at night, preferring to catch sleep during dead time during the day. Not being a coffee drinker until much later, I took caffeine pills in a vain attempt to stay awake in the evening. Normally, I would study until eleven p.m. then go jogging to wake up so I could a couple more hours; then, at six a.m. I worked the breakfast shift in the cafeteria.

In the middle of my senior year, I applied to three graduate schools—University of Massachusetts, Iowa State University, and Cornell University, each of which had strong agricultural economic programs, according to my dad. I was offered admission and support at University of Massachusetts, but decided against it. Iowa State admitted me almost immediately, but was slow to offer me financial support. When financial support finally came through, I was assigned to work with a famous, but rather controlling professor. I went to see him several times to try to get to know him, but soon felt uncomfortable with this relationship. When Cornell University later offered me both admission and financial support, I changed my mind and decided to attend Cornell.

By May I had reached a breaking point because of stress and long hours and got sick. When I went to the clinic to get myself checked out, I was not ready to hear the news—I had mononucleosis. I freaked out—my history professor’s assistant just happened to be in the clinic at that moment and ran back to tell him the news—for a full-time student, it might as well have been the plague. Back in the dormitory, my roommate and my friends avoided me leaving me to eat and study by myself. When I told my parents, my dad told me that he had a business trip to Iowa later that month and promised to stop by and to bring me home in about a week. This meant that I had about a week to finish up my remaining classwork.

My remaining classwork turn out to less than expected because Iowa State had a rule that any graduating senior with a B average or better did not need to take final examinations. It was my policy in college to write all my term papers early in the quarter so that I could focus on studying for mid-term and final examinations later in the quarter. Being exempted from final examinations meant that I was essentially finished with my work—all but some FORTRAN programming and a few class projects. Time went by quickly and my father picked me up; we flew home to Maryland; and I spent the next 6 weeks in bed, missing out on graduation ceremonies.


Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

[1] He was from the east coast and felt that it was a hardship to work in Iowa.
[2] In broad terms, Johnson (1986, viii) classified the different schools of thought in economics as positivism, normativism, pragmaticism, and existentialism.
[3] He later failed to achieve tenure and ended up working for the Federal Reserve.

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