A good friend of mine spent part of his career as an elite infantryman. Despite attaining a place among the ranks of his regiment, he is self-effacing and devoid of arrogance. His military background gave him a wealth of attitudes and axioms which cross over into everyday life.
My favourite of his aphorisms is, ‘Train hard, fight easy’. Put in the hard yards now, and when crisis comes you are more comfortably within your range and capacities. I have been thinking through this proverb in relation to living as a Christian in current times.
The concept of preparation and training which sets its eye on a distant goal seldom finds its way outside of gyms or motivational business speeches. Many of us don’t look much beyond the challenges of each individual day. Surviving the stresses and strains of modern life one day at a time is thought to be sufficient achievement.
This mindset is easily found in approaches to Christian living, particularly in the West. We have become so present-centred that not only are we seldom thinking of eternity, but we are scarcely planning for tomorrow. Such a perspective will make any future hostility or persecution depressingly effective in terms of decimating the ranks of the church.
What can we do to mitigate this? What are the steps by which Christians can ‘train hard, fight easy’?
Die on some small hills
As human beings we can be easily swept up with grand gestures to the exclusion of smaller daily actions. We may proudly run a marathon once in our lives as proof of our capacity to endure, but fail to utilise the benefit of running, say, three miles every few days over the course of a decade.
Imagining ourselves making great sacrifices for the sake of others or the gospel in times of extremity may come readily to our minds, but reality is usually quite different. Big decisions are often made in a moment, but rooted in thousands of smaller choices which have prepared the ground in advance for more life-changing decisions.
This is helpful to us in personal and spiritual terms. There is no point in imagining ourselves standing before a hostile grand jury and confessing Christ if we won’t do so in front of our work colleagues. It is vanity to envisage ourselves pulling survivors from burning wreckage if we won’t stop to help someone change a tyre. It is pointless to imagine ourselves showing solidarity with our native church in persecution if we neglect to meet with them in times of prosperity.
The small, incremental movements we make towards upholding truth, doing right, and reaching out will fuel our effectiveness when things get really bleak or dangerous.
I need to train hard; I need to see that every day presents an opportunity to prepare the ground for me to fight more easily when I am called to render much in the future. I need to die on small hills on my way to the mountain of ministry or personal sacrifice that the Christian road map holds in prospect.
Storm the palace of personal comfort
It is hard to imagine any culture in history enjoying the level of comfort the Western world currently has. True, we can visit castles and stately homes and marvel at the opulence of bygone generations, but beyond those high walls and well-kept gardens the majority lived in abject poverty.
Today, however, our baseline in society is many notches above the poverty and extremity that most of our forebears endured. Comfortable living is something to be thankful for, but it can be weaponised against our willingness to suffer inconvenience, let alone pain.
The current grip of coronavirus is exposing something endemic in our thinking in the West: we are not prepared to accept that we can be significantly inconvenienced by forces outside of ourselves. Even temporary loss of comforts, conveniences, and social connectedness is deemed intolerable.
I once visited the site of a cottage on the North Coast of Ireland where a man who would eventually be a long-term missionary in the highlands of Peru had once lived. What struck me was its exposed location and basic amenities. For him to leave this homestead in the early 20th century would have been emotionally painful, but adapting to the primitive conditions of the Peruvian mission field would have been far smaller a change than it would be today.
Times will no doubt come when holding to the gospel will bring barriers to the comfort we know and love so well. Times may come when the present uneasiness which many Christians feel will develop into exclusion, where our choice might be between the Saviour and the style to which we have become so accustomed.
This will be a novel moment in the life of the church, because most of the persecuted church worldwide did not enjoy our level of comfort before enduring their pain. The loss of insulation against anything which is truly troublesome will undoubtedly cause real damage to the body of Christ, at least numerically.
‘Train hard, fight easy’ surely carried my friend across heathland with heavy equipment in the name of preparation, but it also taught him to endure hardship as a soldier, as a civilian, and as a Christian.
What decisions can I make today which will reap dividends when I am called on to take large steps or endure hard sacrifices for the gospel? If I am not willing to do such work now, I shouldn’t be surprised when I fail to step up to the mark then.
Andrew Roycroft is pastor of Millisle Baptist Church, Northern Ireland