Martyrdom has been inseparable from Christianity from its very first days. The concept of carrying a cross and enduring suffering in the name of Christ is an integral reality for all who choose to become Disciples of Christ. With it comes a multitude of blessings and a personal connection with Christ that has its own unique sweetness.
Martyrdom is unique in all suffering in the pursuit of upholding the faith because it has no visible reward in this life for the believer; it is a permanent step and as such requires the ultimate faith. For this reason those who demonstrate such faith are held in the highest esteem by our church. Such a faith is a wonderful quality and while we should never desire such a death we must strive to have a faith and love in Christ that if tested would prove to be genuine and unshakable. It is considered the highest form of witness and has proved so powerful that it has converted and inspired more people than any preaching. The word itself is the Greek for “witness” and was used initially to describe those who spread the faith but later become exclusively to those who witness by giving up their life. Tertullian went so far as to say, “The blood of the martyrs are the seeds of the church”.
To develop the attitude of a martyr is not something that can be attained through courage and desire alone. Instead it is the natural by-product of one who has built a strong personal love for God and has already counted his or her life as nothing without God long before any sacrifice is asked for.
Reasons for Martyrdom
It must be stressed that the Christian only seeks to live with God, and God only seeks to live with the believer. Suffering is an inevitability in a world that has rejected such a way of life and as such is endured gladly for the coming reward. Therefore, any suffering that is actively pursued or self-inflicted is a corruption of Christianity and is considered a sin. There is no doctrine that promotes self-mutilation or thoughts of self-loathing and excessive guilt, nor is it approved to put your self in harms way purely for the sake of enduring suffering (i.e. not in defence of someone else). But instead any suffering thrown upon the believer in a world full of corruption when endured with faith and courage is remembered "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away." Revelations 21:4
The reasons for martyrdom are many but can be broadly divided into three categories.
- In the name of the faith: These are people placed a position where declaring the faith will directly lead to their execution or by worshiping other Gods is the only way to spare their lives.
- In the name of purity: Where the Christ filled person would rather die than commit any sin. Such deep conviction can be seen in the life of joseph who when tempted to sin fled saying “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” Genesis 39:9. It is a necessary contemplation in repentance, how we could commit such sins when those who understand there significance would rather die than commit such sins?
- In the defence of dogma. This was a regular occurrence during the spread of Arianism. To not let go of the truth without which we are lost to the point of death.
The martyr is commended for three reasons:
First: their true love and faith in God as they abandon any joy or benefits in this world. In the final hour when the true character of a person often is shown they did not falter proving the genuineness of their belief.
Second: their absolute courage often enduring excessive torture both physical and emotional often having to endure the suffering of their loved ones as well as their own.
Third: people watching were captivated with these martyrs as they died with such conviction that convinced many of the true living God. Earning the additional title of evangelists.
To delve deeper into the subject we must first understand the relationship of the believer with suffering.
Love and suffering
Our Lord Jesus Christ provides the basis for our understanding of the nature of love and how suffering and sacrifice is withstood in the defence of true love. His life and death was the ultimate expression of love for all mankind, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” John 3:16.
The penalty for our sins is a separation from God, a thought so unbearable to God that He preferred to pay this penalty Himself through humiliation, torture and crucifixion without grumbling or hesitation, “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” Philippians 2”8.
So in our lives we look to imitate Christ. Baptism starts this journey as we are submerged and drawn out of the water we have died and are born a new person. “Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” John 3:5-6.
This new person “born of the spirit” does not live for himself or herself but for God and others, this new person lives a sacrificial love that glorifies God. This is to be practically applied into our lives as we recite daily the words of St Paul “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” Galatians 3:20. Plus "That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death." Philippians 3:10
Our Lord not only demonstrated this suffering through example but alluded to it regularly in His teachings, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” John 16:33. It becomes a declaration of our commitment and love to God that we can forsake the things of this world for Our Lord, “Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” John 9:23. Christ stresses the need for sacrifice with the following analogy "Verily, verily I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone but if it die, it brings forth much fruit. He that loves his life shall lose it and he that hates his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal." John 12:24-25
Life of martyrdom
Those who accept the calling to “take up his cross, and follow Me” live there lives as martyrs for two important reasons: firstly they fulfill the meaning of the word as they are true “witnesses” and secondly they are in many ways already dead to the world putting aside selfish ambition, pride, greed and lust. Such a level of devotion is only a small stepping-stone away from actually becoming a martyr so regardless of the Lords will for these people to receive the crown of martyrdom or not they will receive a similar reward in heaven.
The late Father Bishoy Bushra highlighted practical examples of daily death to the world:
1.Repentance with all its requirements and a complete and frank confession of ones sins.
2. Fasting and prayer regularly and with discipline and attaining a degree of asceticism from the materialistic world. By this we mean things such as worldly desires and lusts, laziness, seeking glory from people, etc…
3. Holding onto the commandments of God and practising them in a daily discipleship.
4. Bearing illness and sickness with thanksgiving.
5. Bearing those who are evil to you (even to the extent of presenting them with love) and praying for them, asking God for their forgiveness, and making excuses for them.
6. In the life of matrimony loving your partner and denying oneself for them. Accept the other person’s weakness until God, at the appropriate time, through your prayers and patience, and the intercession of the church, the martyrs and saints gives them strength in the face of that weakness and they change.
7. Bearing in the bringing up of the future generations, with great patience and understanding. Giving them love and kindness, but also discipline and guidance. Handing down to them the church and the altar, and the priesthood.
8. Bearing the cost of friendship in faithfulness and purity in a world that no longer recognises these qualities.
9. Serving God and His church, His children, and those in need with all your strength, patience, long suffering, tears and prayers.
By this you share in the sufferings, which are after the Cross. For before salvation suffering and death was tied to sin. However after the salvation the Lord from the heights of the Cross paid of the debt which resulted from our sin. Suffering then became for us a gift granted to us from God. “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Philippians 1:29