“Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian affairs; since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him. And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules. It is the hard working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will grant you understanding in everything.” (II Timothy 2:3-7)
When I first read this instruction of Paul to Timothy, “Take your share of suffering as a soldier of Christ Jesus”, I assumed he meant a willingness to face persecution, imprisonment and even martyrdom. Certainly those are included but I was surprised to find that the emphasis here is far more on the everyday sufferings that are a part of any endeavor that demands wholehearted devotion and sacrifice to be successful. Only the hard working farmer who is willing to suffer rising early, working in scorching heat and bitter cold, and growing weary in hard physical toil should hope for a first share of the crops. Only an athlete who is willing to suffer the rigors of constant training, giving 110% effort during the event, and constraining himself to playing within the rules should hope to win the laurel wreath .
Being a Christian, and particularly being a Christian leader, Paul says, is like these endeavors. It is not to be treated as a hobby nor is there any room for an easy going or spasmodic dedication. Rather it is a calling which demands our best, the suffering of our daily devotion and sacrifice, to be successful. To give anything else is to make light of the calling itself, make light of the One who called us, and court the failure of the endeavor.
Paul wanted Timothy, and us, to think of himself as a soldier called into active duty. Surely Timothy knew exactly what that meant. He would have known the rigors of training, the sacrifices of camp life, and the hazards of service expected of every soldier. These, for the Christian as soldier, would include the rigors of regular Bible study, worship, prayer, and receiving the sacraments in faith. It would include daily sacrificial service to others, faithful keeping of God’s laws, and open testimony to his name and cause. Above all, it would mean living every moment for love of God and our neighbor.
In the early days of the American Revolution the cause of liberty was almost lost because the ranks of the Continental Army were filled with those whose dedication and service was only sporadic and on their own terms. They were called “Summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.” The war was won only as their numbers were replaced by others whose dedication was wholehearted and consistent. These were those willing to suffer the training they needed, the hardships required, and the dangers to which they were subject, and do it to the very end. This is the sort of Christian Paul wants Timothy, and all of us, to be.
However many “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” may be found in the ranks of God or the pews of church, we must not be counted among them. For us it must be full devotion and sacrifice to the very end for the sake of the one who has called us (enlisted us):
“Am I a soldier of the cross, / A follower of the lamb? / And shall I fail to own his cause,/ Or blush to speak his name?
Must I be carried to the skies/ On flowery beds of ease,/ While others fought to win the prize/ And sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face?/Must I not stem the flood?/ Is this vile world a friend to grace,/ To help me on to God?
Sure I must fight if I would reign;/ Increase my courage , Lord;/ I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,/ Supported by thy Word.
Thy saints in all this glorious war/ Shall conquer though they die; /They see the triumph from afar. By faith they bring it nigh.
The last verse of this great hymn adds one important thought that must not go unsaid. It must never be thought that the sacrifice and suffering willingly taken on by the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer are ends in themselves. No, they are means to an end . They are for the sake of their outcome:
“The soldier is upheld by the thought of final victory. The athlete is upheld by the vision of the crown. The husbandman is upheld by the hope of the harvest. Each of them submits to the discipline and the toil for the glory which shall be. It is so with the Christian” ( Barclay, Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, p.188)
Both in this life and in the one to come, we know we shall be victors and, as good soldiers, be “more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We who serve with him on earth shall reign with him in heaven and even now, in this life, are led in hard battle from victory to victory: “But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph.”( II Corinthians 2:14)
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.