Not long ago one of our British playwrights had a characteristic Christian line in one of his plays: "It's not death, it's life that defeats the Christian church. She's always been equipped to deal with death."
The Christian faith is great in the crisis, but how about the commonplace? It's wonderful in the emergency and the , but how about the everyday? In history you can see that alongside many of the great objections to God's being there and God's being good are powerful objections to Christian character. NChristians have claimed that there's a link between Christianity and cowardice, a link between piety and passivity. That same taunt is often said today, if quietly.
Faith in some circles is described as privately engaging, socially irrelevant. Oh, now that other Christians are busy and almost too active in some parts of the country, they say, "Yes, but that's not really quiet, assured, faith. There's a panic and a paranoia behind the activism. Where's the quiet assurance that comes out across society?"
Too often, these criticisms have an element of truth about some styles of the faith in public today. But that hasn't always been so, and it certainly is not so in the great examples in Scripture. I'd like you to turn with me to the story of Paul in the middle of a shipwreck, where we see a very different type of faithrobust, enterprising, full of initiative. You can see that his actionbusy and sturdy throughouttotally flows out of his affirmation of faith. Above all in the lines: "Keep up your courage because I believe in God that things will turn out as I've been told."
Paul unconsciously reveals the secret of faith in action. To see it, you need to see some of the forces against which Paul was wrestling in this very practical situationa shipwreck. Above all, there are three:
Paul wrestles with the forces of history.
First, Paul's faith is in tension with great forces of history around him. Very simply, Paul starts the story as a prisoner, but in the end, he's giving orders to his captors. Paul starts the chapter as a passenger on board ship; by the end of the chapter he's giving commands to the sailors.
What's happened? He wasn't bossy and striving and ambitious. Simply the cause of his faith in crisis means that when everyone else is panicky and demoralized, he is catapulted center stage, and he ends up in the position of extraordinary authority. Why was Paul there at all? He didn't need to go to Rome. He wanted to go. God wanted him to go. But we know that what launched him off was his characteristic opportunism"I appeal to Caesar." Then you see the way he enters this particular chapter. He's in Fair Havens, having sailed cautiously around, and they're asking, "Shall we go on, or shall we stop here for the winter?" He enters the debate and says, "Stop here. It's dangerous." Clearly his advice was not based on any supernatural prediction. In fact, he was wrong. He says that everyone would be lost, and they weren't. It wasn't based on supernatural prediction, but it was wise counsel. He'd been shipwrecked three times; he enters in responsibly to the debate although he was clearly one of the lowest on the totem pole.
But the story goes on. He enters in again as everyone else is panicking, so demoralized they don't even eat. He says, "I told you so," but having established his authority, he brings them assurance that no one's life will be lost, and therefore they can take heart; therefore they can eat. But the most extraordinary part of Paul's entering in is later on.
He goes out on deck, sees the sailors about to cut off the lifeboats and escape for selves, and he speaks to the soldiers, "If these men do this, none of you can be saved." In other words, Paul, a prisoner/passenger, is giving orders to his captor, the centurion, to control the people in charge of the ship: the captain and the sailors. This is characteristic of the way a crisis had thrown everyone else into disarray and had brought out the best in Paul because of his faith in God.
Some people would say, "Well, of course, Paul was unusuala great hero of the faith." But look through Scripture and you see this is not so much Paul's heroism as something that's deeply rooted in Paul's humanness, in the biblical and Christian understanding.
If you look around the other cultures of the time, very few had a high place for individuals. Yes, on the king or priest or the great people in society, but not on the small individuals. The small individual was just lost against the vastness of the universe, merely living to play out his role. But not in the biblical view, where the transcendent God has created the world and has made people in his image, so he speaks and acts into history, and peoplehowever smallspeak and act into history. History is the great arena for the acts of God and the acts of individual human beings however small. One person with faith in God can cause ripples that never cease. There's this great sense of history and humanness in the Scriptures.
Worship is always historical. What God did at that time and in this place for which we now worship him. The story of the people of God is historical: Abraham, Deborah, David. Great men and women with a high sense of being under God. One person counted. And that's what Paul reflects here. Not . He's just acting out his faith in God and all he knows God has made him to be. Robustly he gets on with it.
In the West, we pay lip service to individualism, yet studies show very few people live it in practice unless they're the higher and mightier in our times. Most people are subtly caressed by the shared images of advertising or corralled by the pressures of peer groups or cowered by the great threats such as the nuclear weapons. In the face of these, many people do not feel very significant. But Paul, despite how weak and small he was in the situation, trusts in God, then acts and becomes important. Not because of his power and control and authority and might, but simply because obedience is the key to history under God.
Paul wrestles with God's sovereignty.
Second, Paul is wrestling not only with great historical forces around him, but Paul is wrestling even with the sovereignty of God. Have you ever noticed how extraordinary this incident is? In most places in Scripture, God's sovereignty and our human significance go hand in hand even if we're not always able to see the interweaving too clearly and closely. But here, God's sovereignty appears to go one way and human significance another waycompletely against each other. On the one hand, we have statements of absolute sovereignty. The angel appears to Paul and says, "It is ordained," and included in the fact that you will reach Rome safely is the fact that everyone on board ship will be saved. As Paul says later, "Not a hair on your heads will be lost." Absolute, blanket, unequivocal authority. Enough for the most dogmatic Calvinist. But unlike the Calvinist, Paul doesn't settle down in his bunk and go to sleep. He goes out on deck, and seeing the sailors escaping, he says to the soldiers, "Unless you stop them, we're all lost."
Think of what he's saying. The Word of God is that everyone will be saved. Absolutely, unconditionally. Paul says that depending on what a human being does in the next 30 seconds, not only will we all be saved or lost, but the Word of God will be true or false. Apparently it depends on human beingsbut not only human beings, pagan human beingstwo sets of them: the soldiers and the sailors. In other words, if you read it carefully, it's as if the Word of God dangles over the side of the ship alongside the lifeboats. The lifeboat is about to be cut off and a knife's cut can do it. And equally the Word of God could be falsified in a second by the soldier saying, "Who are you?" Or the sailors saying, "We don't care; we're off on our own."
For Paul, his significance is not just because of who he's made to be as a human being by God, but because of God's sovereignty, too. But God's sovereignty doesn't need an overpowered and passive man lacking in initiative. Sovereignty is precisely the springboard on which he bounces in faith to do that which he must do so they do what they must do so that what God says will be done is done. A tremendous, robust, enterprise because Paul wrestles with the sovereignty of God and uses it in this enormously dynamic way as the springboard for his own obedience in his own time.
Now sovereignty doesn't have very good press today. It's argued about as a theological doctrine, and by and large most people in this highly activist age leave it for Arminianism, a more comfortable doctrine for the activists and . But look back in history and you see the greatest people in the church have had a towering sense of the sovereignty of God, and through that a sense of their own significance. You see in the church that it's the great troubled periods of transition which have most needed that sense of the sovereignty of God towering over the uncertainty of their time. In the midst of the earthquakes and storms all around them, they were the last people to be ruffled.
Take, say, the fall of the Roman Empire. In what did Augustine believe? The sovereignty of God. Take the breakup of Christendom or the Renaissance or the Reformation, and what did Luther and Calvin believe in? The sovereignty of God. They were men of deep awareness of their significance, who knew in a towering sense the sovereignty of Godthe strength only that could give them. Paul demonstrates it in practice by the robustness of his action.
Paul wrestles with the threat of death.
There's a last thing that is deeply stirring in this passage: Paul wrestling not only with these other forces, but wrestling with mortal danger and the threat of death all around him. There's something extraordinary in this passage which someone in the Bible study in our home once pointed out to me. He said, "What did Paul think about death here?" I looked and there's nothing much at all, and that's surely the interesting thing. Everyone else was only thinking of deathso much so they couldn't even eat. Paul, looking death right in the eye, is not thinking of death at allhe's getting on with life. In other words, there's no "peace, be still." God didn't call him to do that here. There's no seizing the moment as he did on Mars Hill and preaching the gospel; there wasn't a place for that here. There's no gathering a Christian group together to pray and sing "Abide with Me" as the Titanic goes down. Paul just gets on with life although he's in the midst of death and everyone else is so preoccupied with it that they can not even do the basics of life like eat.
Why? I'm speculating as we're not told and Paul doesn't say, but my suggestion is this: Paul is able to get on with life even in the face of death for a simple reasondeath is not the issue. Death has been dealt with, and life is the issue until it runs out.
Other things we see elsewhere in Paul's writing give us a clue to this extraordinary assurance and action in the face of death. The major one is Paul's theme of the assurance of life over death in the victory of Christ.
But there are two other strong themes in Paul's writings, which are surely the heart of the secret of the way he acts here: First, you see in Paul the most realistic awareness of death in life. Freud speaks of the human community and its deadly silence about death. He says the human community is a conspiracy in the face of death. No one wants to face it, to speak of it, to really put it into our philosophy as something that's there in life. But not the Bible. In the Bible, death in a fallen world is natural in an unnatural world. It's rooted in sin. It results in a judgment after death far worse than any physical death like drowning, and it ranges on this side of death in all sorts of things like decay and entropy and destructivenessso that Paul knows death even in his own body. There's a deep realism throughout Paul's writings about the place of death in life.
Now what difference does that make? Simply this: When death breaks in, as it does in all our lives, it's not the creation of a new situation, it's the clarification for the Christian of what is always our situation, but which we're apt to forget or drown out. Death is not the interruption of the normal. Death is the illumination of the abnormality of what we call normal and often forget is highly abnormal. For the Christian, we live in the midst of death in life. It might be news from the doctor. It might be a mugging. It might be the nuclear cloud with its gigantic question mark over the existence of human beings on this planet. Death is everywhere in modern society in one form or another, and you can see the realism of the Christian position. We know the place of death in life, so whenever it crops up, it doesn't surprise us. Yes, it may shock us, and yes, we grieve. Yes, we may be outraged because death is abnormal in God's world. And yet in the abnormal world, it's normal, and we're not surprised because we understand the realism of the Christian view. So Paul forgets death and gets on with life.
There's a second part in his teaching, too, and that is in Paul the sense of the radical anticipation of death in life. What do I mean? Baptism.
We often think of Christ, our substitute. He died, for us, in our place. But in Paul's writings, Christ is not only our substitute but our representative. In him we die, and we live. In baptism and confirmation, as we declare our faith we publicly die to the old nature. We die to the world, and we die to all that clings and that holds on our lives. Of course, we test that when disaster comes, and we immediately are disappointed and we feel like clutching on to things we have no right to, and we realize having died to it publicly we've clutched on at deeper levels than we ever should have done. And death is the biggest challenge of all. But in Paul's understanding we die to death in life before it comes.
Kamikaze pilots in Japan had their funeral services before they flew. In a way that's the closest that any Christian religion ever comes to the symbol of baptism. Baptism is our funeral service. By faith in Christ, we die to all other claims as we rise to the newness of life in Christ, and having done that, death has no more hold on us. All this, you see, is in Paul's theology, and it's a practical theologyit allows him to live in the midst of death as the only one who is aware not of death but of life. He gets on with it, and he lives as the moment requires.
The playwright says it's not death, it's life that defeats the Christian. The church has always been equipped to deal with death. Too many Christians fit that description all too truly. Let's let God be God, and out of expectancy show an enterprise of faith in all that we are and all that we do.
Os Guiness is an author and lecturer. He has degrees from the University of London and the University of Oxford. He has authored several books including The Dust of Death, In Two Minds, The Gravedigger File, and The American Hour.