Paul connected his own personal suffering to his responsibility for fulfilling his call. That suffering would be a part of his calling was stated explicitly by God to him. Since Paul had been a persecutor of the church before his conversion, he knew best what was waiting for him.
It is reasonable that most Christians, when they become aware of what it might cost them to follow Christ, have been tempted to reconsider their commitment. This is the occasion for an intentional, realistic commitment, recognizing that we may face incredible trials for serving Christ that we would not have had to face had we not made the commitment. The committed Christian may indeed be signing up for more trials and tribulations than they would have had to face as a non-Christian. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead. He is called out, and has to forsake his old life in order that he may “exist” in the strictest sense of the word. The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity” (62).
An example of the commitment Bonhoeffer refers to is that of Helen Berhane, who was imprisoned in a metal container without ventilation or sanitation for thirty-one months. She not only survived but she prevailed because she had determined in her heart that no matter what happened she would remain faithful. With God’s help, she did (Song of the Nightingale, 24).
A part of our self-denial is to intentionally set aside our basic need for personal safety. This is not done foolishly, but when the occasion calls for it, and when God gives us the grace and ability, we choose to give up our right to this basic need. The need for personal safety can become the occasion for a spiritual battle when it becomes dominate in our life and all other things are subjected to it. The old, carnal self desires to place personal concerns above God’s will. It will seek to put personal safety as the highest priority in our life. This carnal self (the self of self-centeredness) must die (Galatians 5:24). Many translations use the strong term ‘crucify,’ which has the very clear meaning of putting something to death. When it has truly died, we are free to choose to be safe in the center of God’s will and our physical safety will take its proper place.
Randy Alcorn relates the story of Emmanuel Ndikumana of Burundi, whose life was threatened because of the Hutu-Tutsi tribal conflict and resultant atrocities. His Hutu father and grandfather had been killed as a reprisal for Hutu atrocities against the Tutsis. He felt that he should return home and forgo his concerns for his own safety to prove to his people that he truly believed the gospel. He was free from the fear of death, which was not the case for unbelievers (If God is God, 380).
As a Bulgarian Christian once said, “A man who is already wet doesn’t fear the rain” (Hank Paulson, Beyond the Wall, 165).
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.