On Sunday our pastor began a brief sermon series wherein he plans to highlight the work of several more obscure, or unknown, individuals who gave their lives to the mission of God. The first of these individuals is a man named George Liele. Liele (pronounced like Lyle), began to follow Jesus as a young man in the bondage of slavery. Although he had never known his father, as was true for so many children of slaves, he had grown up hearing stories of his father’s deep faith in Jesus. Almost immediately upon his own conversion he began to preach. The call of God was so prevalent in his life that his owner, a professing Christian, freed him so that he could pursue the work God had for him.
Liele faced much suffering and opposition throughout his ministry. But despite the difficulty, God used him to build His church, both in the U.S. and later in his life in Jamaica. You can read more about Liele here.
In addition to this sermon series, our Sunday School class has been watching a series of videos called Dispatches from the Front. These videos follow a man named Tim Keesee, who travels to the front lines of missions to tell the stories of how the gospel is advancing to the ends of the earth. If you have not heard of these, you really should check them out. They are wonderfully done, and offer a real picture of the gospel advance through the poetic narration of Keesee.
This week’s video followed a family who moved from Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, to Bangladesh. Their gospel mission is sustained through their skills in operating a coffee shop. As in every video, the narrater highlights both the struggle and joys of life on the front lines. This family has left everything to follow the commission of Christ to take the gospel to the nations. At one point the narrator quoted the wife as saying, “I know I wanted my life to be about more than just collecting stuff, providing for my family, and then dying.”
In the video we were also introduced to a group of indigenous believers who have come to faith through the work of gospel people there. The brief moments highlighting a few of these brothers brought more conviction to my heart than perhaps anything else in the hour-long video. These few men have travelled to be a part of a small congregation of believers, partially because of their need for refuge. They have literally lost everything in following Christ. Their families have abandoned them. Their livelihoods have been stripped from them. One man in particular had been publicly beaten and mocked by an angry crowd calling for his death not long before the shooting of this video. Yet here they sat, joyful to know life in Christ and in the Body of Christ.
Prior to Sunday morning I had recently spent some time studying and teaching through Philippians 1:12-30, which happened to be the primary text of the sermon on Sunday morning. As Paul speaks of the bold advance of the gospel in this passage, he says something that has brought great conviction in accordance with the sermon and this video from Sunday. In verse 27 he writes, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” (ESV, emphasis mine).
While Paul’s first illustration of standing firm consists of a military term, the second one of striving side by side is derived from athletic competition. While it may have been borrowed from a form of team wrestling in his day, we might point to the offensive line of a football team as a good frame of reference for what he is saying. From this, we should get a picture of brothers and sisters in Christ, arm-in-arm, side-by-side, exerting every ounce of energy together to advance the gospel.
As I hear about a man named George who lived long ago, as I hear of a family who right now are giving the totality of their lives for the gospel’s advance, and as I hear of some brothers who face abandonment and persecution for the sake of following and proclaiming Christ, I am reminded that these brothers and sisters, along with myself, are one body. It has been granted to all of us, that, “for the sake of Christ [we] should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29), as we share in the same conflict and the same mission. This is the piercing point of my conviction: but am I really striving side by side with them?
The more I have thought about this, the more it seems that…
…as they have given up everything, I am captivated with the accumulation of things.
…as they press into suffering, I pray that God would keep me from any discomfort.
…as they boldly proclaim the gospel, I timidly shy away from potential opportunities.
…as they embrace dependency in Christ, I remain convinced that I am strong enough.
…as they lean into the Body of Christ for encouragement, I protect my autonomy at any cost.
…as they love, serve, and bear with their enemies, I harbor anger in my heart and post about mine on social media.
…as they grow more deeply in their affection for Christ daily, I offer my heart to a thousand things besides him.
As I ponder these things, I am left wondering what it even looks like in my context to strive side by side with those who face real suffering in theirs. Now, we do see a lot of striving here, but is it really a striving that is with them? I’m not writing this to necessarily offer the answer. I just pray that God will continue to convict me in this way and lead me in truth. And I can’t help but wonder if others feel the same.
Let’s pray together that God would help us to treasure him above all else. Let’s pray that through that he would awaken within us a burning passion for his glory alone. Let’s pray that this passion would change the very way we view and live our lives, right here, in the places he has already sovereignly placed us, or wherever in the world he would call us to go.
Let’s echo Paul in declaring, “that we may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10, emphasis mine). It is a gift, both to us and to our brothers and sisters in difficult places, that we get to strive side by side in this mission. Let’s embrace that by boldly living for Christ in our contexts, but also in praying for brothers and sisters around the world as they face a different level of suffering than we may ever know. And let’s encourage them in the way we sacrificially give this Lottie Moon Christmas Offering season (if you are among my SBC friends).