In his classic book Holiness (you can read it here for free), J.C. Ryle, a 19th-century Anglican bishop who once thought Christianity “one of the most disagreeable occupations on earth, or in heaven,” tells the real life story about a perplexed, irreligious English traveler and a Native American convert to illustrate how those who know Christ as the Redeemer who paid for the forgiveness of their sins are compelled to tell others about him and what he’s done for them.
In the story the Englishman asks the Native American Christian why he “talks so much about Christ,” and the Native American man’s answer is a vivid, apt representation of what Christians believe Christ did, for those who would believe in him, by his death and resurrection. I believe his answer may also be a helpful illustration for those who have asked such questions as, Why won’t Christians stop talking about Jesus? Why don’t they keep their faith to themselves and why do they insist on telling others about things like sin, damnation, forgiveness, and…Jesus? Why are they so worked up or even obsessed about this man who died two thousand years ago? Read the Native American man’s answer, and then ask yourself: If you believed that God through Christ has done the same for you, wouldn’t you be wanting to tell the whole world about it?
“Man,” said a thoughtless, ungodly English traveller to a North American Indian convert, “Man, what is the reason that you make so much of Christ, and talk so much about Him? What has this Christ done for you, that you should make so much ado about Him?”
The converted Indian did not answer him in words. He gathered together some dry leaves and moss and made a ring with them on the ground. He picked up a live worm and put it in the middle of the ring. He struck a light and set the moss and leaves on fire. The flame soon rose and the heat scorched the worm. It writhed in agony, and after trying in vain to escape on every side, curled itself up in the middle, as if about to die in despair. At that moment the Indian reached forth his hand, took up the worm gently and placed it on his bosom. “Stranger,” he said to the Englishman, “Do you see that worm? I was that perishing creature. I was dying in my sins, hopeless, helpless, and on the brink of eternal fire. It was Jesus Christ who put forth the arm of His power. It was Jesus Christ who delivered me with the hand of His grace, and plucked me from everlasting burnings. It was Jesus Christ who placed me, a poor sinful worm, near the heart of His love. Stranger, that is the reason why I talk of Jesus Christ and make much of Him. I am not ashamed of it, because I love Him” (301).
It’s easy to feel happy and be nice when life is going well, but how do you react when things get difficult? How do you treat others, how do you view life, and what do you think of God when affliction comes knocking? Perhaps it’s not even dramatic suffering, such as losing a loved one, but even mundane, ordinary inconveniences and difficulties. To use the metaphor below, do you begin to shake in the wind and lose your leaves at the first drop of temperature? And if you say you believe in God and his promises, does this faith flee at the first sign of misfortune?
In his classic work, Holiness (Charles Nolan, 1877), the Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), wrote the following about the power of affliction to reveal our true nature:
“The winds of winter soon show us which of the trees are evergreen and which are not. The storms of affliction and care are useful in the same way. They discover whose faith is real, and whose is nothing but profession and form.”
St. Augustine, a giant of the Church unrivaled in his brilliance, also wrote on the effect of affliction in City of God (Penguin, 2003), which he wrote following the fall of Rome:
“The fire which makes gold shine makes chaff smoke; the same flail breaks up the straw, and clear the grain…in the same way, the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilation. Thus the wicked, under pressure of affliction, execrate God and blaspheme; the good, in the same affliction, offer up prayer and praises. This shows that what matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings. Stir a cesspit, and a foul stench arises; stir a perfume, and a delightful fragrance ascends” (14).
Related to this topic, I encourage you to see my post about the failure of modern society to account for suffering here.
As we pause to consider the start of the new year, and the opportunity to grow in different areas of our lives – such as health, intellect, relationships – let’s not neglect to give attention to the most important area of our life: our spiritual condition. This condition, the state of our soul, must be given life and nurtured because it reflects the quality of our relationship with our Maker, and determines our posture toward life and its inevitable trials.
We must always stand ready to examine our own souls before the searching but gentle Spirit of God; but as J.C. Ryle wrote in his classic Holiness (1877), certain seasons afford a welcome opportunity to set about this happy and most important business, the business of our souls:
“To every one who is in downright earnest about his soul, and hungers and thirsts after spiritual life, the question ought to come home with searching power. Do we make progress in our religion? Do we grow?
“The question is one that is always useful, but especially so at certain seasons. A Saturday night, a communion Sunday, the return of a birthday, the end of a year – all these are seasons that ought to set us thinking, and make us look within. Time is fast flying. Life is fast ebbing away” (99).