ABC has a TV show called What Would You Do? in which they act out awful scenarios in public, from parents gay bashing their son to a parent attempting to drive drunk with their small child to robbery to a store owner refusing service to a Muslim man and on and on, so they can record the bystanders to see if they will intervene and stand up for the victim in the scenario and then interview those bystanders after they reveal that it was all an act. I don't watch it with any regularity but any time I have made it through an episode, I've been left with the feeling of "Oh, I absolutely would have done something!" and, if the bystanders did not intervene in any way, "How could they not say something?!" It's so easy to say that you would do something to help others when you're not in front of the situation. Don't psychologists literally call it the "bystander effect"? I feel so confident in how I would react, forgetting that things might be completely different in my thought process when I'm actually in the moment.
About a week ago, the world received a devastating video in which ISIS militants beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya. The attackers made it perfectly clear that they were doing this because of the faith of these men. We all know this isn't the first recorded ISIS murder in recent weeks, but from my knowledge, it is the first one that had religious motivation and one of few that actually showed the act of the murder - the other videos of beheadings only showed the decapitated head next to the body of the captive after the fact. (Forgive me if I have any facts incorrect here, I haven't been able to stomach actually watching any of the videos.)
I haven't watched the videos, but I have read many articles and stared at I don't even know how many pictures of these men who were taken to their deaths just because they decided to travel many miles to provide for their families. Their faces have haunted me this past week as I watched them pray while the ISIS leader spoke, knowing full well what was coming. Just yesterday, I learned that they all yelled out "Jesus is Lord!" as the knives hit their throats, defying their captors and executioners to the very last second they had.
Throughout this week, my mind has been bombarded with the question of what would you do? as I learned more and more of the story of these 21 martyrs. Would I really be willing to go to my death for my faith and my Lord? Would I really refuse to convert even if it meant giving up the chance to save my life and go back to my family? Would I really say yes and give up everything I see now as comfort if it meant I would die? Would I trust in God's love for me even as an enemy held a knife to my throat?
I want to say yes...I want to be confident that I am that committed to God...but the truth is, I'm a bit nervous that I'm not. I'm not sure that I would go that far and be willing to martyr myself. Because I'm still human. I'm still self-centered to some extent. And I'm still afraid of really hard things. Maybe I'm being too rough on myself, maybe I'm not the only one who would be unsure in that moment. All I know to do right now is to pray that God refines my heart so that I can become that confident, that I can become willing to risk it all to be with Jesus.
Just now, this quote from Lecrae came to mind: If I'm wrong about God, then I've wasted my life. If you're wrong about God, you've wasted your eternity. Those 21 men, the only hope that their families have now, is that they're with the Lord who loves them so dearly. One of my favorite verses, Revelation 12:11, begins "And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony..." but what is important is the end of that verse - "for they loved not their lives even unto death." Those men had families that love them, but they loved God more. They have taught me a lesson I didn't realize I still needed; I can only pray that I would love God like they did, so that I could make the same decision were I ever to be faced with it. My Savior deserves everything from me. My life, and even my death. Just like He gave His.
This week, I've also been thinking a lot about the men who stood behind these Egyptian prisoners. The ones in all black with the masks hiding their identities. The ones with the long knives holding their illusions of power. Men who have just as much right to the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ as I do.
Agh, it made my skin crawl to even type that sentence. They don't deserve God's love. How can Jesus say I'm supposed to forgive monsters? Make them PAY. Those are all things that naturally come to mind when I think about the men of ISIS who killed these 21 innocent Egyptians. As Zack Hunt said in his post "Why ISIS Causes Me To Struggle With The Gospel":
I struggle with my own sense of justice.
I struggle with the idea that as a Christian, I must leave space for forgiveness even as I rightfully demand accountability for my enemies' actions.
I struggle to accept the fact that believing in the radical transforming grace of God compels me to believe that grace abounded on that beach in Libya in ways I don't comprehend or want to accept.
I struggle with the boundless depths of God's love and forgiveness.
I struggle with the gospel.
I don't want Jesus to say that if they believed in his death and resurrection, they would be just as clean and forgiven and righteous as me, or my friends, or basically anyone I know who's never killed anybody. I don't want God to have grace for them, the same grace he had for the men who died, for the ones they loved now left behind, for me. I don't want to pray for them. I don't want to admit that they need or deserve prayer or grace, perhaps more than most. I can't even begin to accept that Jesus loves them or went to the cross for them or grieved for them and their actions like he grieved for those precious lives lost.
It doesn't seem just. Or fair. Or okay. It feels like it's negating the value of the martyrs' lives, the ones who gave everything for God. It feels like God is saying those animals, those killers, can do anything and get away with it because God will still love them no matter how many people they kill or how many lives they damage.
I may not have killed anyone or committed religious persecution, but I've done some damage to other children of God. I've grieved the heart of my Father. And there's still grace for me. That's what forgiveness and mercy are for. One of the things that's different about God is that He doesn't make exceptions. There is no ranking for sinners. We are ALL loved. We are ALL forgiven. And we are ALL welcomed into the Kingdom if we just believe. No ifs, ands, or buts. No corollaries. Again, as Zack Hunt said:
Do I really believe in radical, transforming grace and forgiveness for all? Or do I just believe in grace and forgiveness for me?
One of the reasons Jesus was so radical was because he hung out with the people deemed unworthy, the outcasts. He didn't shun anyone, not even the murderers (if he did, we wouldn't have Paul. THAT Paul. Yeah...) I've been an outcast. It's not fun. And I've certainly done plenty of things that make me unworthy of God's love, mercy, and forgiveness. So who the heck am I to tell Him to leave out someone else when He was kind enough to let me back in? How can I talk about how I know God can change anyone's life but inwardly tell him to not even bother with certain lives?
That's the thing about the Gospel. That radical, transforming grace that flipped everything I thought I knew about life and this world on its head, it's there available to anyone. And I do mean anyone.
Even when it doesn't seem fair.
Even when I don't like it.
Even when it makes no sense.
Thank God for that.