I recently preached a sermon from Philippians 4:4-7, well-known verses, often memorized… but, dare I say, not often well understood. Paul calls on Christians to “let your reasonableness be known to everyone (verse 5, ESV).” Reasonableness?
Some translations use “gentleness,” older ones even “moderation.” As NT scholar Moises Silva explains, the sense of the word is “a frame of mind that does not put priority on personal rights.” Wait…what? Christianity isn’t all about my personal rights?!! How can that be?
As that thought was percolating in my mind, I came across the following quote from James Owen, a late 17th-century Presbyterian pastor (shameless plug, I wrote my dissertation about him):
“Be more solicitous to deserve a good name than to expect it on earth: to do well and to hear ill is divine.”
Stop and read that again; ask yourself, do I believe this to be true? Do I believe that it is more important to deserve honor than to get it?
What is our calling?
What Owen was getting at is this: Christians should live honorably, intentionally pursuing a course of conduct that pleases God, even while knowing that they will not be given honor by the world around them. Be respectful though you expect to be disrespected. Don’t expect to be loved, appreciated, honored though you live honorably and selflessly. Jesus put it another way,
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. John 15:18-20
Today, Christians, at times, appear to demand “a good name” even while they don’t “deserve it.” I hear (or read) so often that our rights are being impinged on, but I am not seeing the same effort, the same passion spent in living out Gospel love despite such conditions. Isn’t that our calling?
In the early church, under various levels of persecution, our Christian forefathers kept their focus. Although slandered, they kept their attention on living out a faith that was honorable and self-giving. Christians in the Roman Empire were often accused of all sorts of evil but they were known for taking care of the widows and orphans and rescuing infants left exposed.
Throughout the first three and a half centuries, Christians were outlaws, without equal rights—but that did not stop them from living well for the advancement of the kingdom of God. Their reasonableness was known to everyone.
Two Critical Aspects of the Christian Mindset
Owen adds this thought: “Religion teacheth us to expect a cross, and not a crown, in the present state: There is no exemption from troubles on this side of the grave, for sin and misery are twins that live and die together. The servants of God are often cloath’d in bear’s skins, and then baited. But we need something to wean us from the world.”
The two thoughts which Owen emphasizes are critical for believers to grasp:
First, the Christian life is cruciform; the road to glory is marked with suffering. Isn’t this exactly what Jesus teaches us when He tells us to take up our cross and follow Him? The apostles in the book of Acts were not surprised by their suffering, nor did they make their rights as Jews in good standing paramount to their efforts. They understood that their calling would lead them into circumstances that were difficult and they were called to endure adversity. But the goal of reaching the world with the Gospel was so much more important than their personal comfort; obedience to their Lord and Master so much more significant than ease of life.
Second, persecution, hardships, and suffering, are useful toward the goal of sanctification and necessary to “wean us from the world.” It is no wonder that persecution has often led to great church growth and deep displays of faith. Owen understood that the life we are now living is not the goal or destiny but a temporary sojourn. He grasped the Master’s vision—store up treasures in heaven and not on the earth. Why? This earth is temporary; heaven eternal. Our trials remind us of that reality and turn our focus from this world to the next.
Owen used a powerful image from English life that may be lost on us. Bear-baiting was a form of entertainment even loved by English royalty. Bears would be tied to a post (by neck or leg) and various dogs let loose to attack it. The bear would defend itself, although fresh dogs would be sent in regularly. There was enjoyment at the expense of the bear’s suffering (PETA might be right to shut this sport down!).
Owen wanted his flock to understand that though they may endure intentional threats, injustices, and affliction, their Lord still reigned and used all these things for their good. What good? The good of being weaned from this world. He saw being weaned from this world as the good, because he saw attachment to this world and the things of the world as displeasing to his Lord.
If we really believe our citizenship is in heaven, anything that prepares us for the life to come and conforms us to the image of the King of Heaven would bring us joy and satisfaction. If the citizenship we most value is the one here on earth, perhaps we aren’t following the King who said His Kingdom is not of this world.