Do you know anyone who was killed for his or her faith? Have you ever met a martyr? I’ve been to Hayneville, Alabama, for the annual Jonathan Daniels and the Martyrs of Alabama pilgrimage. I’ve heard stories about martyrs with whom I can identify. I’ve met people who were standing next to people who were killed as they witnessed to their faith, but I’ve never known someone who was killed for a matter of conscience.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always found Jesus’ “save your life and lose it; lose your life and find it” teaching in Mark 8:34-38, which is the gospel text for the commemoration of the Martyrs of Japan. What does it mean to lose one’s life? What does it mean to take up one’s cross so completely that following Jesus becomes an act of self-surrender? I get the metaphor. I can handle yielding my will or giving up my own preferences for the sake of the gospel, but, when it comes to losing my life in order to save it in the literal sense, I struggle.
That’s not because I’m unwilling to die for Jesus. Actually, I think I might be able to do that. But the problem is in the question itself—in the absolute hypothetical nature of it. In Sunday school, I remember talking with friends about whether we’d be willing to die for our faith. Most of us said yes. A few of us (probably the smart ones) said probably not. None of us had a clue—at least I didn’t. How can one know that one would die for a cause until the knife is held to her throat? It just doesn’t work in the hypothetical.
So stay with the literal. Hear the story of the twenty-six Japanese Christians who were crucified on February 5, 1597, by the political powers of their day. Hear the tales of hundreds of other Japanese believers who were killed by those who confused the sins of Colonialism with the truth of the gospel. Imagine the suffering of the thousands who kept their faith but lived in fear of persecution. Think about someone you know—or someone you have heard about—who suffered and even died for their faith. What did they give up? Do you feel called the same way—not to die but to have faith so vibrant?
Embrace the witness of the Martyrs of Japan. Embrace the story of all who have struggled in the face of persecution. Don’t take on their suffering for suffering’s sake, but accept and emulate their faith no matter what troubles lie ahead.