My first “real” job was at Schmidt Sporting Goods in the Wausau Center Mall. It was the perfect job for a teenager into sports. I was fifteen, a new Christian and a bit awkward socially. There were many times during a shift at work when the crowds would dwindle and stocking was slow and the employees would gravitate together to chat. You can imagine the variety of conversations that would unfold between young adults. This was the first testing ground of my faith. At first I was shy. I didn’t want to reveal my identity as a Christian. I was ashamed. I learned to camouflage to my colleagues. At church, I was outspoken and on fire, always attending youth group, serving where I could, even going on missions trips, but outside of church I hid my light under a bushel basket. I will share more about my time at Schmidt’s later.
Oddly enough, I am now on mission in North Africa. I’d like to say that I have changed. That I share my faith like a wild fire burning through the bush in a windstorm. However, that is not always the case. I often resort to hiding the light. Why am I so ashamed? Chiefly, I think much of what others think of me and think little of what God has done for me.
I know I am not alone when it comes to timidity of faith. The Bible is chalked full of examples of people reluctant to bear the name of God. Moses tried every excuse in the book not to go back to Pharaoh and represent God. Jonah ran opposite Nineveh to the sea. Peter denied Jesus multiple times before the rooster crowed. If you were to ask each of these men to write Romans 1:16 it might have read, “For I am ashamed of the gospel for is it the weakness of man unto slavery to everyone who disbelieves.”
You and I both know that isn’t how that verse reads. I have rehearsed that verse ever since I started attending Sunday School. Instead the verse reads, “For I am unashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” According to this verse the gospel does two things: 1) it brings out shaming behavior in those who will not believe it and 2) it gives freedom from shame to those who do believe it. In other words, the gospel that causes shame also frees us from shame.
It is difficult to keep quiet about my faith in North Africa. When people see me or my beard their first question is, “Are you Muslim?” because most Muslim teachers have beards. I sport my beard on purpose. First, my wife digs it. Second, it’s a great conversation starter. Of course, I respond, “No. I follow the way of Jesus.” So I had this same interaction with a group of Islamic teachers and they responded, “Ah, we follow Jesus too and God’s other prophet, Mohammad. Do you follow Mohammad?” When I responded “No” the teacher with the biggest and whitest beard preached at me for 10 minutes trying to convince me of my error and foolishness. The way I was being belittled made me think about the religious guys during Jesus’ day. I left the interaction gut-checked and scarred, but like Paul’s words (see: Colossians 1:24), I was able to understand a smidgen the sufferings of Christ.
It would be great if this was a one-time interaction, in fact, it happens a lot. A few months ago, I arrived at our neighborhood corner store. There was an older woman arguing with the boy managing the store how there isn’t any coins to make change in this town. It is a true exaggeration. We sometimes make it our ministry to tape up crust old bills that are falling apart and return them to circulation. I tried sympathizing with the woman, but she turned at me and said, “You are white. You probably have lots of money and change.” Now, in this culture, it is not appropriate to talk much with woman publicly, so I didn’t make much of it. I just smiled awkwardly and said, “I just brought enough change to buy bread.” She then asked, “Are you Muslim?” When she learned that I only followed the way of Jesus she yelled, “Why are you here, you unbeliever.” I stepped back, blessed her and turned to walk back home. As I walked off she cried out, “Become a Muslim.” I thought she was just having a bad day, but the next day she had a similar interaction with a female colleague. We were bearing the shame for the name of Jesus and ouch, it hurt.
How did Paul or Jesus handle the shame heaped on them? Hebrews 12:2 says about Jesus: “For the joy set before Him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus did not let shame gain the upper hand, rather he set his heart towards joy in His future place with His Father. Jesus saw His temporary pain as eternal gain. Paul echoed this when he said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) It’s a win-win when you are in Christ.
In Acts 5:41 when the disciples were beaten and charged not to speak about the name of Jesus. It says, “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” They ‘despised the shame’ trading it for joy because they suffered with Jesus because no amount of earthly shame can erase the joy we will have when we’re with God. Jesus erases all shame. “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16)
Coming back to Romans 1:16, Paul said he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is “the power of God unto salvation.” What makes the gospel so offensive is that it takes me, man, out of the salvation equation and it puts Jesus Christ front and center. I can do nothing to earn salvation. Jesus did everything. That offends people because people want some credit or merit points to put on my imaginary good deeds sash.
My friends and I have recently committed to memory Acts 4:12 into Arabic, which in English says, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) When sharing this verse with my Muslim friends it causes a stir and bring upon me shame from those who do not believe, but for me, these words have freed me from shame.
Therefore, with Jesus and Paul, I say to you. Suffer, yes. Be misunderstood, you bet. Be shamed, absolutely. But do not be ashamed. You will be shamed, but you need not be ashamed. Because the message of God’s saving work in Christ is the only final triumphant message in the world. Temporary pain. Eternal gain.
Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” It wasn’t until after the Alca tribe slaughtered Jim Elliott, Nate Saint, and their three colleagues that they realized the men they killed had lived the words they had been taught to them about Jesus. They saw Jesus in the way they lived and died.
It was a slow shift at Schmidt Sporting Goods and I gathered near the cash register to chat with Nate and Brian who were working that night. The question came up, “Why don’t you like to work on Sundays or Wednesday night?” I told them that I went to church and met with my friends to learn about Jesus. In the minutes that followed they allowed me to share the gospel with them. Nate responded, “Justin, you really believe that nonsense? That God wrote a book? And that Jesus is really God?” He went on to shame me for my beliefs. To fast forward a few years, while in college, I got an email from Brian. He told me how that summer he had a life-altering boating accident in which he broke his neck. In his recovery God brought to mind our conversations years earlier and he began reading his Bible and attending an evangelical church. Soon after he gave his life to Christ. He thanked me for not being ashamed.
I praise God for His work in Brian, but usually I expect responses to the gospel like Nate. If the Bible says people will think of me as foolish it is what it is (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:20-31). In 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, Paul says that we are to expect afflictions and slander (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:23-26). Peter echoes Paul, in 1 Peter 3:13-18 when writing to group of believers under fire for their faith to expect suffering because Christ Himself suffered.
1 Peter 3:8-9 is a key verse in which Peter calls the you and I, the church, to stand under persecution, shame, ridicule, misunderstanding for the sake of the gospel. Would you make this verse a prayer for me? As I will make it a prayer for you and your church. “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” (cf. Luke 6:28)