Dying by Inches
Romans 8:13: For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
I continue to be fascinated by the stories of heroism and suffering contained in the book Jesus Freaks, and its spiritual ancestor, Fox’s Book of Martyrs. These pages are filled with the gripping and tragic tales of persecuted believers, and their glorious and gory ends. Men drenched in oil and lit as human candles to light gardens. Young girls shot in cold blood because they would not spit on the Bible. Women and children, holding hands and singing hymns to the Creator while being slowly crushed under the giant roller of a construction machine. I think that beyond the magnificent stories of faith under trial, the gruesome details of those saints’ death speak to us of a real, physical peace that we daily desire and wish to call our own. A man who says he loves God above all else is rare. A man who says he loves God above all else as he is torn limb from limb is clearly empowered by the God he worships.
One of my favorite stories in Fox’s Book of Martyrs is the tale of Thomas Hawkes. Thomas Hawkes, while preparing for his execution, was approached by his friends who desperately wanted to know if the “rage of pain” was made bearable through God’s help. They requested that he raise his hands to heaven, in the midst of his death. A short time after, he was led to his stake, and the flames were kindled. His skin was burning away, and the spectators thought he was dead, when “this eminent and zealous servant of God… held his hands flaming over his head, and as if in an ecstasy of joy, clapped them thrice together.”
It is a gritty, teeth-clenching look at faith, and two things usually rise in me each time I re-read this tale. On the one hand, I question whether I would be able to do the same in similar circumstances. On the other, I find with myself the fervent and morbid desire to die quickly and never know such suffering.
The convicting and terrible irony of this situation is that we as Christians are called to the same heroic faith in our daily lives as these revered saints. No matter how I wish for a quick and painless death at the end of my allotted time on earth, I am called to slowly kill my sinful self by inches every single day. (Colossians 3:5)
As a boy, I would often imagine situations where I could risk life and limb to save my family in some outlandish and deadly situation, and wonder how would I react. When I grew older, I realized that given a life or death crisis, I could probably give my life easily for my parents and siblings. What brings me great pain now, is that I refuse to give my life for them each and every day. Every time I put off cleaning a room so that my comforts are met, every time I lose my temper over an irritating noise a sibling is making, every time I prioritize my own time over my family’s, I’m effectively staring down the gun of my own sinful self’s desires and refusing to make that sacrifice. One thousand times a day, I face the same sort of decision that is given to the heroes I read about and idolize, and I fail.
For the heroes in Fox’s Book of Martyrs, their story in this world has ended. They have finished the race, and received their reward. The task that remains for you and me is to spend this next day well. We have another few hours, another encounter with our fears, another struggle with our selfishness to contend with as we strive toward living up to that cloud of witnesses. Our story is not yet over. We have another chance to raise our hands in joy that the watching world may yet know that through the flames and woes of this life, our Lord provides grace to endure all things through His power. (2 Corinthians 12:9) Be encouraged. The flames do not last forever, but through God’s strength, you may yet leave an example to stand for many years to come.