One of my closest friends was already writing my eulogy. However, that adversity was the occasion to see God move in my life in some amazing ways. Billy Graham once said: ‘Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.’ As a Jewish woman who has served as a missionary with Jews for Jesus for over 40 years, I can attest to that truth. And as part of a people who have lived with persecution, from slavery in Egypt to a master plan for our annihilation by Hitler, I have gleaned some principles on how not only to survive, but to thrive under adversity.
If we think in terms of an Adversity Scale that runs the full gamut of hardship Christians might endure, my Adversity Scale would look like this:
- Personal adversity is on the low end of the scale, not because it is less important, but rather because it is more common among all believers and what we should actually expect in this broken world.
- Political adversity is more complex and requires a more strategic response. Sometimes it is not clear what the right response should be and the sense of struggle may be more intense.
- Physical adversity—from moderate all the way to martyrdom—can be the most bewildering and challenging of all. At the same time the potential for testifying for Christ increases in proportion to the increase of the scale of adversity.
When you can understand where you are on the adversity scale, you can qualify your own feelings and calculate how best to deal with each situation.
Personal adversity: common testing (1 Corinthians 10:13)
For those in Christian leadership, the most common form of adversity shows up in the area of personal attack. However, as Paul says, much of this kind of adversity is ‘common to man’. Whether it is people you care about falling prey to illness, faith crises, or even situations where those you have trusted disappoint you, a basic principle to remember is: God knows what he is doing and he promises to be faithful.
I was in my early thirties when the cancer diagnosis hit. Leighton Ford, then the Chair of the Lausanne Movement and one of my mentors, asked if he could request prayer for my situation in a Lausanne letter to the larger leadership community. At first I was not sure if I wanted to expose my illness to so many people. However, I then reasoned that this was an opportunity for my Lausanne family to pray for healing and I should seize it.
In the last 20 years, I have had so many opportunities to encourage others who have had a life-threatening crisis because they were aware of mine and sought my perspective. When we face adversity, we should never forget that God knows what he is doing.
Responding to critics
Criticism is endemic to leadership. Often the most difficult and discouraging criticism comes from within our own ranks. Some of the most spectacular failures in ministry have been the result of internal criticism not handled properly.
Do not react or overreact. When dealing with fellow Christians, try to pursue peace and reconciliation as a first course of action.
Critics from outside the church are a different matter. While not compromising, we should again try first to pursue better understanding. However, we minister the gospel in cultures where our adversaries present themselves as defenders of truth and morality, while their understanding may be far from the biblical standard. A good principle to remember is: Understand your adversaries and what they really want.
They might appear to be reasonable people with reasoned arguments that seek to prove how uncaring and narrow-minded we are for defending biblical absolutes. They might advocate for a more inclusive worldview. Morality for us as Christian leaders comes down to a few critical choices. Does this edify us? Does this give Christ a bad name? Is the opportunity to make Jesus known thwarted by this action? If the answer to the last two questions is ‘yes’, resist: their agendas conflict with biblical principles. Such adversaries may attempt to undermine your efforts to accomplish what God has called you to do.
Political adversity: strategic engagement (Matthew 10:16)
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that can impede God’s efforts through us. A good principle to employ here is: assess the risk and act accordingly. It was not because Putin was stopping Jewish evangelism as part of his agenda that our Eastern Ukrainian staff found themselves in the midst of a Russian takeover; however, it had very real ramifications for their missionary work.
Many of the seekers on our missionaries’ active caseload were in harm’s way. Should they have stopped sharing the gospel with them? They weighed the risk and decided to continue visits. This is the kind of decision one needs to make when circumstances bring adversity.
Stand or retreat?
Jesus always knew when to move forward and when to step back. Sometimes he met adversaries head on; other times he retreated from the scene. Each situation must be examined on its own merits. Is this the right time to take a stand? Will the honor of the Lord be compromised? Is it wiser to step back and fight another day? Do we have options? Are the risks worth taking?
Earlier this year in Paris, terrorist attacks by ISIS on Charlie Hebdo took place about two kilometers from our Jews for Jesus storefront. Even closer was the subsequent attack on the kosher supermarket. We put a poster in our window underneath the large ‘Juifs Pour Jesus’ sign with the words from John 14:27: ‘My peace I leave with you . . . let your heart not be troubled.’ We were also out ministering on the streets where a frightened French populace needed to hear a message of hope. French police encouraged us to take down the storefront signage, fearful that we might become a target for future terror. We gave it some thought but decided to leave the sign in place.
By contrast, on another occasion, we had an evangelistic outreach set for the south shore of Israel. A large team had been recruited, activities planned and accommodation secured. Then the war with Gaza began. Missile fire cancelled our campaign. We withdrew and waited for a more appropriate time to hold our event.
Appeal to Caesar
The apostle Paul was not shy about utilizing the Roman legal system to support and defend himself, and we likewise should be willing to appeal to the Caesars of our own situation. We must know our rights and make wise decisions about pursuing legal remedies for the challenges we face.
When those remedies are not available to us, we should think about the Acts 4 principle to choose God’s law over the law of the land. Christians are often faced with government restrictions that challenge their ability to stand firm for him. The Acts 4 principle also comes into play when more severe consequences are at risk. The Economist reported the story of a mid-ranking official in a big city in China who was recently told that her Christian faith, which was well-known in the office, was not compatible with her party membership and she would have to give it up. She politely told her superiors that she would not be able to. She was not fired, but sent on a remedial course at a party school. She is now back at her job, and says her colleagues often come to her asking for prayer.
Physical adversity: blessed are you (Matthew 5:11-12)
Sometimes adversity is expressed in physical attacks. It is important to remember the principle that while our own reputation is not important, the reputation of God is preeminent. We must take appropriate action to show our adversaries that through Christ we have the strength to endure, and to warn them of the consequences they will face. Ultimately, God’s answer to any adversarial situation is our Advocate, Jesus Christ. He is our defense. He also reminds us what to expect in a world that was not only hostile to him but ‘esteemed him not’. Why should those of us who follow him expect better treatment?
One of our younger missionaries was distributing gospel literature near a major university campus when his pamphlets were grabbed and a few men who believed they were acting in the service of God beat him up. He was taken to the hospital unconscious and fortunately fully recovered. Later on, he philosophically quipped: ‘Adversity goes with the job.’
When we face dangerous opposition and things get rough, do not be discouraged. In Jesus we can find all we need to endure any adversarial confrontation.
The sufferings of Christ
Consider the axiom The greater the sacrifice, the greater the gain. God can use tragic circumstances to his glory:
- In June, Nadine Collier had lost her mother, Ethel, during the massacre of nine Christians in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. ‘I forgive you’, Collier told the shooter, Dylann Roof, her voice breaking. ‘You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.’ Who can tell what effect such forgiveness might that have upon hundreds, or even thousands, who do not know the Lord?
- Last February, 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded for their faith in Libya. Yet their sacrifice led to the largest Bible outreach ever in Egypt, during which the Bible Society distributed 1.65 million Scripture tracts the following week.
I was recently at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic, located in the heart of what is known as the Jewish quarter. During World War II, Hitler chose to keep it ‘untouched’ in order to have a place to store confiscated artifacts belonging to the Jews of Prague. He wanted to use this structure as the ‘Museum of an Extinct Race’.
Today, the Spanish Synagogue has been repurposed for tours and for concerts. I heard a concert of classical orchestral pieces and as well as some more contemporary Czech melodies. Among them was HaTikvah (‘The Hope’), the Israeli national anthem whose melody was taken from a Bohemian folk song and whose lyrics were written in 1886 by Naphtali Herz Imber, originally from Bohemia. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust arose a hope and a future for the Jewish people, and Hitler’s dream of an extinct race was buried.
The most recent Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE) took place in August in Jerusalem, a hub of religious dissension and adversity, especially among those who would make the gospel of Jesus known. Being in that place, we were deeply aware that Jesus had warned his followers to expect adversity as the norm. We anticipate that it will grow more intense. We can be assured that adversaries will arise with plans to see Christians become an ‘extinct people’. However, they will not prevail. Those of us at the conference affirmed God’s unthwartable will, confident that the gates of hell cannot prevail against his chosen—the body of Christ.