After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.’ And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.
Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. When they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia. From there they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had completed. When they arrived, they called the church together and related all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles. And they stayed there with the disciples for some time.
Acts 14:21-28 (NRSV)
When I read today’s passage, I was powerfully drawn to the last sentence in verse 22, where Paul says, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” I found myself captured by this thought and needing to understand it better. I think each of us has been through numerous trials and tribulations, whether it is because of our sexuality or other issues in our life, such as my current job search.
The fact that Paul uses the word “must” really grabbed my attention. Paul doesn’t say that we “might” have to go through persecutions to enter the kingdom. He doesn’t even say “probably.” He says that it is a “must.” There is no way to enter into heaven, Paul says, unless we are willing to go through persecutions and be able to keep our faith while doing so.
What does “persecutions” mean? Paul and many apostles faced persecution, torture, and death for their belief. Most early Christians didn’t face that level of persecution, but all of them faced hardship in life — as do we. How we react to those hard times will determine whether we make it into the kingdom of God.
James tells us the same thing in James chapter 1 but takes it a step,further and tells us to rejoice in hard times:
...whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. (James 1:2-8 [NRSV])
James tells us that we must look at the hardships of our life and "consider it nothing but joy." I know that sounds odd to most of us, but as I said last week, when God closes one door, i.e. we face a hardship, He is opening a new door for us. There are better things to come. And as James says, we must endure and we will be "lacking in nothing."
With the loss of my job, the frustration of the job search, or the everyday problems of being a gay man in the Deep South, I could get angry with God, grow cynical, and walk away from my faith, and many people do, especially with the reaction they receive from many people who call themselves Christians but then condemn others for what they perceive as wrong. Instead, I do my best to respond by drawing closer to God, knowing that through God I will find the strength not just to endure, but to prevail in the midst of hardship. If we lose faith and question the intent of God, then God knows that and He will not reward our lack of faith. Therefore, my faith gives me great comfort in times of stress and difficulty for I know that my faith will bring me closer to God.
One person's hardship may not be ours, but we all have our own hardships. How we react will make all the difference. “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” Instead of becoming discouraged, don’t view hardships as a sign that life has gone awry. Embrace them as learning opportunities for the soul and rejoice.