Two Conversations Concerning The Relationship Between Obedience And Divine Favor

In a lonely and remote Alpine valley
two learned peasant bible scholars talk
while ploughing the soil with a couple
of oxen shared by themselves and their
much persecuted fellow brethren.  One
of them says to the other, “Brother, have
you ever read in the good book that those
who follow God and obey His laws are to
be blessed for their obedience?”  His friend
bowed his head in mute agreement.  The
first then continued, “Why then are we and
our brethren hunted like dogs all over the
countryside, tortured as heretics, treated like
the scum of the earth, living in caves and dens
and finding only in the remotest countryside
any relief from continual persecution.  Do you not
think that maybe we are doing wrong?”  At this
point the second thought for a bit and then spoke
with his fellow about the promises that God made
in the Bible that those who followed Him would
not be popular among the world at large because
the ways of God and the ways of man were so
generally opposed to each other and they spoke
of divine providence and eventual blessing and
of the unworthiness of the world concerning
those whom the world treated so harshly.

Meanwhile, not far away in Milan, two
learned Catholics were walking away from
a sermon by the noted Bishop Ambrose, and
one of them said to the other in his usual formal
tones, “Beloved friend, have you ever considered
in light of what the scripture says, that those who
follow God and believe in Him will be hated and
persecuted by the world, that we are perhaps
behaving amiss because we are the powers in the world,
with the offices of respect and honor in church
and state, assisting the emperors and bishops
and generally serving as the examples for the
common hoi polloi around us, subjects of envy
perhaps, but not particular hostility.”  At this his friend
turned to him open-mouthed and at length replied,
“No, I have never thought that we were wrong
at all.  Why do you think that following God
would not mean that we would possess all of the
resources of both church and state together?  Do you
think that God would want us to starve in some
valley, hunted like dogs, when we could enjoy the luxury
of the world as privileged believers?”  “Not exactly,
but should we not feel some hostility for ourselves
personally as a result of following God?  Do we believe
that God’s authority has completely spread throughout
this fallen world?”  At this there was silence, and after
an awkward pause, the first man learned to keep his
doubts to himself, for there was no answer to be found
in the privileged world in which he served God and
emperor as he best knew how.


Perhaps it would be worthwhile to set some context of this poem.  On the last day of Unleavened Bread [1], the retired pastor of our congregation spoke about the contrast between the persecution suffered by those whom we consider to be part of the true Church of God and the way that Hellenistic Christianity seemed to seamlessly blend into the structures of power in the Europe of the Middle Ages and beyond.  I was struck by an obvious contrast between the lives of those who lived in remote valleys seeking to avoid a political and religious system that actively persecuted them and those who lived in a great deal of privilege without even the threat of persecution for their cosmopolitan practices and their smooth ways and their political ambitions.  I wondered to myself whether those who lived privileged lives often wondered to themselves if they were doing something wrong given the Bible’s statements that following Him would be no soft bed of rose petals.

To be sure, we see such guilt for being a privileged believer present in certain elements of contemporary Hellenistic Christianity and those of us who are students of history can read of such situations occurring throughout the previous centuries as well.  Indeed, while those who sought to take God’s Word seriously and obey it have always suffered persecution because some aspect of God’s ways were directly contrary to the ways of the world around us, the absence of persecution for believers of Hellenistic Christianity, so quick to trim its sales to the prevailing philosophies and ethics of the world around them, led to a belief in a white martyrdom of monastic vows and private piety to replace the black martyrdom of death that resulted from holding on to any profession of Christianity when it was being persecuted by the authorities.  And we see that approach being sought even today among those privileged believers who feel as if there should be some material sacrifice made for following God, something that drives a lot of the inner angst of those who hold to a social Gospel [2].

And yet those who hold to the Social Gospel, even if they feel some tension between the way that believers are promised to be viewed in a corrupt world and the lack of such treatment in their own lives, seldom seem to get the full point of these passages or the reason that genuine believers have always suffered persecution.  One does not need to be obnoxious and intensely hostile to contemporary economic and political elites in order to find persecution, although speaking from some personal experience this is a great way to ensure oneself persecution anywhere one happens to be.  Often, even without political activism, simply holding to biblical beliefs concerning personal morality as well as justice are sufficient to earn one everlasting hostility from both the right and the left, even if one is rather uninvolved in the squabbles and ambitions for political power.  Simply holding to biblical morality will make one an outsider.  This has always been the case in human history, for all civilizations have been corrupt and/or unjust in some fashion, it certainly is the case now, and it will likely remain the case so long as imperfect human beings seek to govern other imperfect human beings.  We have no cause for optimism given the melancholy course of human history that we have finally solved the problems of human nature that led to problems between believers and the state in the past.

It is not too hard, moreover, for some of us to imagine a time when a powerful government that is hostile to biblical morality and that represents a politically powerful but morally corrupt religious establishment makes it unsafe for genuine believers in God’s ways to live anywhere outside of remote mountain valleys or other places where people simply do not want to go.  The accumulated burden of history does not allow contemporary pietists to feel at ease in any larger political situation, and the tendency of human worldviews to enforce those worldviews according to law does make the public proclamation of God’s ways potentially dangerous in almost all circumstances, as there are invariably some ways that a contemporary society is falling short of the divine standard in tragic and massive ways.  This is true whether we look at questions of personal or social morality.  Since the unrepentant have never appreciated being told how they depart from God’s ways when they want very much to believe that God is on their side, at some point, persecution and exile is the inevitable fate of the godly in an ungodly world.  We should not expect that this melancholy truth is no longer in operation, and so, while these two conversations took place in fourth or fifth century Northern Italy and Switzerland, we can expect that their kindred conversations are happening now and will happen in the future in some other place.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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