Monday, January 17, 2011

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Growing up, I was taught to esteem Dr. King's work, mainly by my dad, who has always been (praise God) void of racial prejudice, and an advocate for justice. I couldn't help but link what we learned in church yesterday with one of my favorite of Dr. King's writings. Jeff Mangum taught from Philippians 1&2. Paul is writing from prison, boldly telling the brothers in Christ that his suffering is already being used to further the Gospel.

Jeff laid this out for us in an incredible challenge, but with great humility. He admitted to his own struggles with anxiety and depression, and confessed that when suffering comes, he likes to withdraw, to become a "lone ranger." And yet, he challenged us to consider that behavior for what it truly is- a vacation with self into what he called the "porta-potty of suffering." When hard times come, we so often like to retreat from others, pushing them away, claiming internally that there is no way that they could understand our pain. We think we are entitled to our silence, to the self-preservation that seems our only hope at the moment.

And yet, the result is always the same- pulling away, retreating into your suffering causes disunity and division in the body. Not only will you suffer, but you will cause others to suffer, and potentially lead them into sin by withdrawing, considering them unable or unworthy of knowing the truth, of sharing your suffering, or of rebuking you in love and truth.

How I have seen this very thing happen- how I have watched this retreat into self, this entitlement to pain cause relationships to completely die. It breaks my heart. But not only that- when we're in the porta-potty of suffering, whether we are silent there or moaning about our sufferings, God receives absolutely no glory, and the Gospel gets no further. In fact, people who do not know the Lord Jesus might look at Christians as we cower into ourselves, reject accountability, or bemoan our situation and think, "if that's all that you get when you know Jesus, then He's really not worth knowing."

I am not talking about abandoning transparency. What is "witnessing" if not telling a truthful account of what Jesus Christ has done in your life, through your difficulties and hardships? God's not asking you to "put on a happy face" for Him and other people. He's commanded you to cast your cares upon Him, and trust Him to supply every need- not just the physical and financial needs, the emotional ones too. He's saying, "Let others see your belief when the waters are raging. Let them see your hurt. Confess the sin that you have committed. Continue to speak the truth to one another. Continue to trust me." Sometimes that means being truthful about your hardship, being transparent with your struggle, but maintaining a firm belief in God's strength.

Retreating is such an indication of when belief is running on empty. People like to justify it as something very noble, "I needed time alone to think, to pray." But when that time turns into days, weeks, months, even years- what it demonstrates is that you do not trust God to work through your pain, you do not trust Him to work in the lives of others either, you trust yourself. And that does absolutely nothing.

Paul had another option for us believers. He said, "consider others more significant than yourselves." Your suffering is not greater than others, and it is certainly not greater than Jesus Christ. So Paul said that we should dwell on Him, think like Him, have an attitude like Him. Consider Jesus Christ, who never entered the porta-potty of suffering, never withdrew into His pain and wouldn't let anyone access Him there. Who suffered so that His Father could be glorified and grace could be ours.

So, in that vein of suffering, suffering that promotes God's glory, that says, "NO!" to the pride that tempts us to curl up and feel so sorry for ourselves, I want to share a part of Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." What a testimony to continuing to stand for the truth about Jesus Christ, in the face of suffering, even when people are telling you, "this is too much, back down." The letter is chock-pull of wisdom and truth, and I'd recommend you make the time to read the whole thing some day. But, I've chosen this particular excerpt because I believe we still fight this fight- the fight for freedom. True, authentic spiritual freedom that does not see color, that does not hoard sin, that does not fear death- physical or emotional, that rejoices in truth, that overcomes every obstacle through the grace and power of Jesus Christ.

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.

Christian, how are you suffering? Are you suffering unto death for the cause of Jesus Christ? Death to self? Or are you still coddling your pain in selfishness? That life is no life at all. But to Him be the glory. No suffering exists that is too great for Him. No wound too deep for Him to heal. No matter what the cost, all that will remain is the insurmountable truth that He is God.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ who... made Himself nothing... and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.


  1. Many thanks for this on this day celebrating a man who continues to be despised himself - Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a shame that his name has been scorned for his own personal sins. He was not Jesus but he did love Jesus and His church. Your dad and Grant are at the MLK Breakfast as I write this.

  2. Thank you for the challenge to let others see my belief in God while the waters are raging. I am slowly learning to let go of my selfishness and not go into hiding. Transparency reveals not only my pain and suffering, but the One in whom I trust to go through it with me.