A good friend of mine spent part of his career as an elite infantryman. As with many people with nothing to prove, his disposition in relation to attaining a place among the ranks of his regiment is self-effacing and devoid of arrogance. What his military background has instilled in him for life, however, is a wealth of attitudes and axioms which cross over into everyday life. My favourite of his aphorisms is ‘train hard, fight easy’, a four word mantra which manages to capture so much of how a healthy approach to present hardship ought to work. Put in the hard yards now, it says, so that when crisis comes you are more comfortably within your range and capacities.
I have been thinking through this proverb in relation to my life as a Christian, the life of the church, and the moment that our culture and subculture finds itself in at present. The concept of preparation, of true training which sets its eye on a distant goal, seldom finds its way outside of the gym or motivational business speeches. Many of us see the everyday as a mini crisis, and are much easier on ourselves than we could be, or possibly should be. In my own life, periods of intense pressure or suffering have often come as a surprise, a shock to the trend of how I live my life, so that enforced denial has not benefitted from the advance party of self-denial. What is true of the individual is also true of the Church in much of Western Europe. We have become so present-centred that not only are we seldom thinking of eternity, we are scarcely planning for tomorrow. Such a perspective will make any future hostility or persecution depressingly effective in terms of decimating the ranks of the Church.
In this post I want to think through some simple steps that we can take in order to train hard and fight easy as Christians:
- Die on some small hills
As human beings we can find ourselves readily swept up with grand gestures, to the exclusion of smaller daily actions. We would run for 20 miles once as a proof of our capacity to endure in the short term, but would fail to see the benefit of running 3 miles three times per week for a decade. Large sacrifices for the good of others, or for the sake of the gospel, can loom in our imagination as something we might be willing to do when forced into a position of extremity. The truth is rather different. Big decisions are often made in a moment, but they most likely have their roots in thousands of smaller choices which have opened us to act in a certain way.This is helpful to us in personal and spiritual terms. There is no point in imagining ourselves standing before a hostile grand jury and confessing Christ if we won’t do so in front of our work colleagues; it is vanity to envisage ourselves pulling survivors from burning wreckage if we won’t stop to help someone change a tyre; it is pointless to imagine ourselves showing solidarity with our native church in persecution if we won’t meet with them in times of prosperity. The small, incremental, movements we make towards doing the right, reaching out, spending our powers on seemingly minuscule things, will be the fuel for our effectiveness when things are really bleak or dangerous. I need to train hard, I need to see that every day presents an opportunity to prepare the ground for me to fight more easily when I am called to render much in the future. I need to die on small hills on my way to the mountain of ministry or personal sacrifice that the map promises.
- Storm the palace of personal comfort
It is hard to imagine a culture at any point in history which enjoyed such widespread comfort as our own. True, we can visit castles and stately homes and marvel at the opulence of a previous generation, but outside of those walls and formal gardens there once lived a majority of people surviving on meagre means. Our baseline in society is now many notches above the poverty and extremity that most of our forbears endured. This is, of course, something that we can give thanks to God for as a gift, but it can also be weaponised against our willingness to suffer inconvenience, let alone pain.The present steady march of coronavirus is exposing something endemic in our thinking in the West – we do not believe that we can really be inconvenienced in any significant way by forces outside of ourselves. It seems unthinkable to my generation that even the temporary loss of comfort or connection could be tolerable, leaving aside our feelings about potentially facing long term loss of conveniences.
On one occasion I visited the site of a cottage on the North Coast of Ireland where a man who would eventually be a long-term missionary in the highlands of Peru had once lived. What struck me was its exposed location, and its basic amenities. For him to leave this homestead in the early twentieth century would have been emotionally painful, but the shock of conditions that his Peruvian brothers and sisters were living in would have been considerably less than a 21st century worker going to similar climes.
A moment will come, perhaps in my lifetime, where holding to the gospel will bring barriers to the comfort in which we have been wrapped, and to which we have become addicted. The time might come when the present uneasiness which being a Christ follower brings, will develop into exclusion, where our choice might be between the Saviour and the style to which we have become accustomed. This will be a novel moment in the life of the church, in that most of the persecuted church worldwide have not enjoyed our comforts before enduring their pain. The fall from insulation from anything which is truly troublesome in terms of the gospel will be long, and will undoubtedly cause real damage to the body of Christ, at least numerically.
It would be advisable to train hard, fight easy in this area also. The practice of fasting has been largely disappeared in normal Christian living – for reasons of convenience and conviction. One of the lost benefits of this is an idea of voluntary weaning from the world’s comfort to dwell on heaven’s joys, God’s glory, personal sin, or pressing neediness. I am not advocating the adoption of an ascetic lifestyle as a means to a higher life, but turning down the thermostat in the den every now and then might just help us to remember what cold feels like, pushing our bodies and making them our slaves might remind us that there is much in life that we don’t need, making ourselves strip life back might just show us how great our dependency is on things other than God. If I can give some of these things up, or at least hold them with a slackened grip, then the prospect of losing them for the sake of Christ will not represent just as much of a leap into the dark.
‘Train hard, fight easy’ undoubtedly carried my friend across heathland with heavy equipment in the name of preparation, but it also taught him to endure hardship as a soldier, as a civilian, and as a Christian. What decisions can I make today which will reap dividends when I am called on to take large steps or endure hard sacrifices for the gospel? If I am not willing to do such work now, I need not be surprised when I fail to step up to the mark then.