“The police are going to find your bodies in a vacant lot!” the tough guys promised as they encircled us. Nobody likes to hear words like these, especially two young white guys living in an ethnic inner-city neighborhood.
In a few months, I would move to Africa for two years. A Christian missionary organization was sending me into a Muslim area of Nigeria where new missionaries weren’t welcome. But engineers, such as myself, were welcome regardless of their religion.
As part of my missionary training, I had the opportunity to live with an African American host family for three months. A mixture of African Americans and Hispanics populated that inner-city neighborhood. Part of our training was to meet people and talk to them about Jesus. If we couldn’t do that effectively in America, we probably couldn’t overseas either. Ninety-nine percent of the people living there were law-abiding and friendly. They welcomed us warmly and generously.
However, within that neighborhood lived a few troublemakers, mostly unemployed young men, who made life difficult for everyone. Drug dealing, thievery, and gang-related violence were common. Gunfire disrupted every night, frequently on our street. Filled with fervor for the Lord, my partner and I agreed to spend our afternoons in the neighborhoods seeking out the roughest guys around. “They need Jesus the most,” we reasoned. We started asking people we met where to find them.
Now think of this from the perspective of those young men. A couple of preppy-looking white guys were looking for them and asking questions. Naturally, they felt suspicious and thought we might be working for the police. As if the police wouldn’t know better than to send out anybody so naively obvious.
One afternoon a couple of these guys approached us. “Come back here. We want to show you something.” We went blithely along. Out of sight behind a house, a group of them waited for us. They started cursing and pushing us around saying that we were “narks.” In the end, I think our dumbness saved us. Even these tough guys realized that the police were too smart to use anyone like us. But they left us with the promise involving our bodies and the vacant lot as a clear warning to stay out of their neighborhood. And they truly meant it!
Did we go back? Of course, we did! This was a challenge to our faith. We never hesitated. After all, we would soon be missionaries. We quoted 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.”
Over several weeks, a few of these young men came to trust us. They became confident enough to sell drugs in front of us. One of them taught me how to hotwire a car. This came in handy later in Africa when my ignition switch failed. Another had a cousin who was an aspiring lightweight boxer. He let me exercise with him. In this case, I knew better than to ever get into the ring with him. Eventually, we led several of these men to Christ. One man changed by getting his GED and finding a job.
We had felt great risk in going back to those men and also tremendous exhilaration putting our lives on the line for our Lord. This act of spiritual bravado led my partner and me to consider ourselves heroes of the faith.
But eventually I learned that God had used this experience to prepare me for a greater lesson. A year later I lived in Africa and had been desperately sick for months with strep throat, malaria, and dysentery. At night, I cowered under bed covers while rats roamed my room. My fellow missionaries, under stress themselves, couldn’t get along. Whereas I had once been willing to be heroic for God, by then all I wanted to do was go home. Jesus wasn’t so important to me anymore.
Remembering my previous feeling of heroism, I asked myself, What happened to you? Peter’s story came to mind. John 18:10 records, “Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.” During Jesus’ arrest, Peter was ready to fight and die if necessary. Yet before that same night was over, he would three times deny even knowing Jesus. Peter was ready to be a hero. He wasn’t ready to stand firm in difficulty and confusion.
Reading through the Bible, especially the Old Testament, we see many acts of faith and courage. God wants us to live for Him every day, of course. But most of the men and women recorded in Scripture had a special moment of faith and courage as the defining act of their lives. So it is with us. When we get those rare opportunities, we should embrace them. This can but doesn’t necessarily entail bodily risk. Neither does God demand that we prove our faith by taking foolish or reckless chances. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Luke 4:12)
Being persistent in hardship, especially through illness or uncertainty, requires more faith and courage than a moment of bravery. Deliberately forgiving when we have been deeply wronged is a heroic act. Loving an enemy, turning the other cheek, and sacrificially serving can all require more courage than putting our lives at risk.