The ad on Page 1 of The Atlantic for Jan.-Feb. 2013 promotes The Cosmopolitan resort and casino in Las Vegas. It features a slinky lady and a tag line that characterizes our contemporary calculations: “JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT of WRONG.”
How exactly do we calibrate that? Yes, the wrongs we do occasionally force us to our knees and make us realize our desperate need for Christ—but that is atypical. Normally, one wrong we do leads to the next, and we indulge until we become fat with fraud. But wrongs done to us may be different—and in some situations God may calibrate them to give us the education we need.
Nik Ripken’s The Insanity of God (B&H, 2013) notes that God seems insane to allow persecution of Christians around the world, but if one major purpose of life is to prepare us for heaven by making us realize our total dependence on Him, persecution makes sense. (The Puritans knew this: Brian Cosby’s Suffering & Sovereignty: John Flavel and the Puritans on Afflictive Providence—Reformation Heritage, 2012—includes this straightforward Flavel observation: “Troubles and afflictions are of the Lord’s farming and devising … they work together for your good.”)
Our human tendency is to be thankful when we lack troubles and afflictions, but we may then also lack the grace that flows to us like calibrated nourishment through an intravenous tube. Last month I phoned Ripken—that’s his alias, not his real name, because he mostly works in countries where missionaries are unwelcome—and asked him whether he believed the stories he reports about God appearing in dreams and visions and performing miracles.
He said yes, in the belief that God sends what people need. American Christians are blessed to have Bibles available and literacy to read them. Ripken believes that in Muslim countries where Bibles are rare, God more often works through dreams and visions. In other places, God brings people to Himself through signs and wonders.
Ripken also spoke of how we should seek good teaching wherever we can find it. For Christians in China, where seminaries are often illegal, “imprisonment for the faith is equivalent to seminary training”: It’s good to go where many top teachers are also incarcerated. (Christians in America should not want to go to jail: That would reduce our opportunity to learn from instructors who—at least in 2013—can still preach and teach freely.)
God, in short, gives us what we need but not more than we need: He operates what in manufacturing would be called just-in-time provision. That is consistent with many famous Bible verses such as “Give us this day our daily bread” (but not tomorrow’s bread) or “He sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies” (but not when enemies aren’t there). Jesus turned water into wine only when the regular wine had run out.
That has important implications. We wonder whether we could stand hard persecution—but God will give us what we need to endure, and will give us the right words in court. We wonder how we’ll stand up if one day a doctor looks at test results and gives us a death sentence, but God will give us then the grace we need.
Ripken in his final chapter quotes a distressed Chinese pastor who explains that he and his people wonder why “God loves you believers in America so much that He blesses you more than He does us.” From the Chinese Christian perspective, it is a miracle that “believers in America are free to worship … that you also own many Christian books and regularly read Christian magazines.” But from the American Christian perspective, what God is doing to strengthen Chinese believers is miraculous.
Does that mean that those Christians undergoing the most persecution are more blessed than Americans are? Not necessarily, but if persecution is what American Christians need to grow our faith, it will come. Each country has the miracles it needs.