Today for one of my history classes I’m turning in a paper I wrote about on a short document, no more than seven short chapters long. The story revolves around a year old Roman girl living in Carthage on the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa. One of her companions is another young mother (both had infant children) named Felicity. Perpetua writes most of the book as her own prison diary, but it was obviously picked up by an editor who finished the rest of her story, as she suffers martyrdom for the sake of Christ.
The story tells us all sorts about her background, that Perpetua is a brilliant young woman from a wealthy family, twenty-two years old, educated, living as a catechumen (meaning she joined the church formally less than three years ago, but maybe a Christian for far longer); she is in the prime of her life, has recently married an honorable man, and has just had her first child, a baby boy.
Ironically, at about this same date last year I was reading this story, and saw some similarities to a passage in Scripture I was reading in Matthew 10:27-39. But, that’s beside the point…
As it happens, she and four others get arrested for being Christians in the heat of one of the many Roman persecutions. Her father (who clearly isn’t a Christian) visits her in the dungeon. Her dad loves her deeply, in the worldly sense of the word; he doesn’t want her to die for something he perceives to ridiculous.
He visits her in prison and embraces his daughter pleading with her to recant. The policy of the courts about Christianity changed from time to time, but pretty much if you simply denounced Christ and praised the Roman emperor, you were free to go. And besides, her dad, probably would put in a good bribe; all he needs to do is convince Perpetua.
But, I love this here, what Perpetua writes in her own handwriting, her prison diary, she says, “Father, do you see this pitcher of water?” “Yes.” And she says, “Can it be called by any other name than what it is?” “No, of course not.” “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am, a Christian.”
His thoughts might be, “Why not fake a little devotion to the emperor for the sake of your family.” She would alleviate the suffering of her Father, prevent her child from being orphaned and motherless, and she would have plenty of other good opportunities throughout her long-expected life to serve the Lord. “Why go through with this blind faith? Perpetua, why don’t you just lie, one little one for the sake of kindness?”
But you see, now we just have discovered something about the nature of kindness. In the words of C.S. Lewis, kindness doesn’t care whether something is good or bad, but that it escapes suffering or avoids confrontation. A Christian needs a great deal of kindness to live in this world,but we should never equate kindness with love. They are not the same thing. Kindness has to be propelled by true love. But, let’s return to that question, “Why not lie for the greater good?”
Think about that, “Why not do it?” Now, you might have realized this already, but that question is actually completely irrational. And if you didn’t, I’ll explain why. That question is dependent on you and I imagining ourselves in a position where we can see the every consequence of Perpetua’s actions. Is that realistic, that you and I could really figure out all that? Isn’t it obvious once we realize how much selfishness and pride is embedded in that question, it doesn’t really seem like a good question at all. That pride isn’t not even in any of the words, but it’s there.
Because there is no humility in that question that you and I don’t know everything, and there is no willingness admit we don’t, the question becomes unreasonable. Notice that it’s what went unsaid.
So let me ask some other things, “How many people would be in that stadium where she would inevitable go to face death?” It holds 30,000. “How many people in that crowd might turn to believe based on the bravery of one witness?”
Or, how about her newborn child, “Do you think he would be more inspired to honor God by having his own mother with him throughout his life, or knowing that his mom stood against the stakes of death and pain?” And we could speculate some more; but, really, all I want to do with these questions is show that what naturally like the greater good, might not be great or good at
The greater good always occurs by doing things in the way God tells us and intends for us. This is where I would look at Matthew 10:27-30 (backwards by happenstance) and draw out some principles.
What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
a. God knows you intimately, things about you don’t even know (verse 30)
b. He designed and knows all facets of creation (verse 29)
c. He is powerful to bring about what he intends (verse 28)
d. He is willing to interact with humanity for our benefit (verse 27)
If Perpetua knows these things about God, and I reckon she knows them very well; this really isn’t blind faith at all…isn’t it instead quite reasonable and brave for her to go through with this sacrifice, her life for others, in the imitation of Christ. Good faith is not irrational, it’s suprarational, more reasonable than anything man can think of. And in this moment, as Perpetua thinks about the world around her and the God who gave it to her, emotion and feeling and passion and reason and selflessness by the help of the Holy Spirit all intertwine to give her the confidence to reject any attempt to persuade her, producing faith and overcoming pain. Perpetua knows her worth to God, and the worth of what she’s doing. So if she must die for the sake of Christ, her response is “So be it, my life is worth it because his life was worth mine.”
She is one of the ultimate examples of giving up even something as precious as family and her most intimate acquaintances for the sake of Christ (newborn son, Father, husband [who never shows up at all strangely in the text], etc.)
So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
(Matt. 10:27-39) NIV
Those four little words truly make a difference. When Perpetua said, “I am a Christian,” those words end her own life, but gave new life to many more who are in the crowds. Though she died, many more were born-again. What can cost you everything, rewards you with so much more. So with you and I today, when we let our own selves die, we provide opportunity for many more to live. When faced with the choice between life eternal and life here and now, she and others chose the temporary pain for the glory of Christ and the good of others.