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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Voice of the Martyrs - A Grief Observed

I was shocked at the news: Tom White, executive director of Voice of the Martyrs (VoM), committed suicide when allegations of child abuse were brought against him. I bought many of their books and made a few donations over the years as a new Christian inspired by stories of Christian spiritual strength in the face of sometimes unimaginable persecution. I didn't know much about Tom White, but I know what he stood for and the work done under his direction. It was admirable. There may have been signs of internal trouble, but to me, VoM has always been an excellent representative of Christian work in the world, with a clear mission statement, unwavering perseverance, and a large following.  

But now they're involved in yet another shameful story cast upon the Christian Church, another leader who fell into sin and, worse, didn't have the courage to face whatever justice might have come to him. He may not have been as well-known or watched as those many fallen televangelists, but his influence was wide-spread and his loss will be felt. The secular media touched upon the story, but it didn't receive front page coverage. I can only pray it will not be used as yet another excuse to slander God's name and God's people.

How do we make sense of this? What bothers me most is that the man who represented escape from death and a ministry that freed Christians from its grasp, ran to death in order to solve his problems. A man who spent his life fighting death was overcome by it, somehow convinced that death (and whatever guarantee of Heaven he may have had) was a better option than life in prison. I know he made the wrong choice, and I have the feeling he might have thought so too, even as he made it. But no matter what his choice, we should feel pity for a man under such torment, a shame that drove him to risk death and judgment at his own hands.

I remember how, when I was younger, I used to feel spiritually envious of the martyrs I read about in those VoM books. I admired their faith, wanting to emulate them and attain the glory they had in dying nobly, leaving their witness to Jesus Christ and their vindication to God. They died like lambs to a slaughter. 

But the case of Tom White proves it's possible to spend all your life freeing those oppressed by God's enemies and never be freed yourself. You can teach others about our enemies abroad and still not conquer our enemy within: Sin, a spiritual enemy within our own bodies that, if not exposed and destroyed, can become our master. Sin tries to force us to recant every day and torments us in the hopes that we'll choose life apart from Christ, rather than the spiritual death in our flesh that takes place when we refuse to betray our faith. In this way, spiritual martyrdom is open to all of us. People who die to themselves and the world, who refuse to turn to society's enticements, who are willing to be ridiculed by friends and coworkers for their beliefs, who say "no" to sin, even if it hurts: they're all spiritual martyrs, going through as much of a death as their brothers across the sea, who lay down their lives in a more concrete and visible way.

In dying, Tom White forfeited his martyrdom, ending his witness. Honestly I can hardly judge him. A hundred times at least I've wanted to do the same: give up. I either wanted to kill myself or stop being Christian and go back to the world. Both would have been death, and not of the martyrdom variety. One week ago he was right where I was years ago. I don't know why I made the right choice. I could just as easily have made the wrong one. It was by God's mercy that I'm still here, alive and in Christ. I'm still a martyr. And perhaps it'll be by that same mercy that Mr. White, though he gave up, will (if it were possible) receive forgiveness for his own sins and that  final cruel act that closed the door to his family, friends, and life's work. It's also by God's mercy that Voice of the Martyrs will pick up where he left off, with perhaps more sobriety than before and a deeper understanding of the Church's enemy that lurks in every rank, the sin that besets us all. 

(Christianity Today featured this story and can be read for more information.)

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