If I might, I would like to begin with a set of bundled quotations. The first is from The Pilgrim’s Progress, the second from John Buchan’s trilogy of books, The 39 Steps, Mr. Standfast, and Greenmantle, and the third from a few places in Scripture. Please bear with me for just a moment.
First, John Bunyan:
“His name is Standfast; he is certainly a right good pilgrim.”[i]
“Wherefore, good Mr. Standfast, be as your name is, and when you have done all, stand.”[ii]
Second, John Buchan:
“But the big courage is the cold-blooded kind, the kind that never lets go even when you’re feeling empty inside, and your blood’s thin, and there’s no kind of fun or profit to be had, and the trouble’s not over in an hour or two but lasts for months and years.”
“You want a bigger heart to face danger which you go out to look for, and which doesn’t come to you in the ordinary way of business. Still, that’s pretty much the same thing—good nerves and good health, and a natural liking for rows.”
And third, while it would have been nice for my alliteration and indeed the structure of my talk if these following passages of Scripture were from John the apostle. That would have lined up nicely with the Johns Bunyan and Buchan, but alas, they are actually from all over:
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1).
“Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27).
“Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved” (Phil. 4:1).
“For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:8).
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2:15).
So then, it is apparently settled. Standing fast is a good thing. We are all in favor of standing fast. So long as we are using characters from Bunyan, we all want to be Mr. Standfast, and nobody wants to be Pliable. Nobody wants to be the one who flakes.
But there is a problem. Everything hinges on the context. “Standing fast” in sin is nothing but obstinacy and stubbornness. Standing fast when you have been in Heaven for 10,000 years is presumably something you will have gotten the hang of. The problem is learning how to stand fast in this world, when the pressures from the enemy not to do is are enormous, and when a number of your friends, advisors on your side, have begun to exhibit a nervousness that you might be mistaking your obstinacy for a stalwart manliness. You all know how to conjugate this, right? I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pig-headed.
As with everything else, we should always turn to Scripture for light. When confronted by the possibility of misreading our own motives, as well as the prospect of second-guessing ourselves, both when we should and shouldn’t, what should we do? We should read the story we are in, and we should always do so by evangelical faith from first to last.
In the famous story of David and Goliath, we have a story of many conflicts, but only one sharp decisive conflict. When Goliath starts to topple over, that marks the story we are all familiar with. But there were other conflicts prior to this. There are other important details in the story.
One of the conflicts, or rather a series of them, were the verbal clashes that Goliath had with the armies of Israel. We are told that Goliath came out to issue his challenge for 40 days running (1 Sam. 17:16). The Israelites, we are told, from Saul on down, were dismayed and “greatly afraid” (v. 11). In another verse, it says they were “sore afraid” (v. 24). When David arrived in the camp with his supplies, he is involved in conflict immediately. Before he goes out to challenge Goliath, he had to get through two conflicts with his own people. One was with his oldest brother Eliab, and the other was with Saul, a man a head taller than everyone else in Israel. Eliab had age on him, and familial rank. Saul had height on him, and he was the king. And Goliath was across the way, filling up the background with his taunts.
Eliab, it says, got angry with David for his verbal challenge of Goliath within the Israelite camp. But David wouldn’t quit asking his awkward questions, and word about it got to Saul. When David is brought to Saul, he volunteers to fight Goliath, but Saul contradicts him, argues with him. “You are not able.” Saul is eventually persuaded, but not until David recounts his previous exploits with lion and bear.
Of course, if you have no experience with conflict whatever, people will say you are naïve. You don’t know what you are talking about. If you do have experience with it, they will say that you are pugnacious and too combative. And of course, everything is complicated by the fact that there are naïve people in the world who ought not to be, and there are pugnacious people in the world who ought not to be. What are we supposed to do?
Our declared intention at New St. Andrews College is to graduate leaders who shape culture under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. For you students, whether this is your first year with us or your last, there are a few key things that you will have to learn how to ignore. I have come now to the body of my exhortation.
First, the culture that we want to shape under the Lordship of Christ is a culture that does not want to be shaped under Him. So expect resistance. You will not accomplish anything worthwhile out there in the culture while the secularist worldlings stand politely off to side, wearing white gloves and offering golf applause. So ignore the fact that the world is just flat against you. That is fine, for if you paid attention in class, you yourself are contra mundum. When conflict arises, this is not a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. Perhaps it is a sign that something is finally starting to go right. Ignore those voices that see conflict as an automatic sign that you are in the process of wrecking everything.
Second, ignore the flatterers who think you can do no wrong. If you really are being pig-headed, you do not want to be the last person in the room to know about it. You may have been inspired by this talk to adopt a Twitter handle taken from Bunyan, and you have selected Valiant-for-Truth. That’s what you call it, but nobody else in the world sees it in that light. Well, maybe your mom sees it that way, but nobody else.
Third, ignore the worriers who fret about your possible motives when their real concerns are that you might ruin the good thing they finally have going. A number of years ago, I wrote this small sketch about the son of Jesse and his marketing agent.
When David was preparing to meet the Philistine giant Goliath, we are fortunate that he did not have his marketing agent with him.
And David said, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
And his agent said, “David, I really do not think that this language is suitable for an already polarized situation. Being uncircumcised—that is merely their custom. And although his language is perhaps provocative, it becomes us as Christians to rise above this. We need to be building bridges, not walls.”
But David ignored his marketing agent, just as he had ignored his brothers, and went and selected five, smooth stones from the brook. Goliath advanced out into the place between the two armies, his armor bearer with him. David walked out toward him, his agent tagging along behind, plucking worriedly at his sleeve.
“David, remember your musical and literary gifts. How can you expect to finish all the psalms that God has given you if you put it all at risk in this way? I am concerned not only that you may die, but also that, if you live, you might have quenched that gift by this pugnacious behavior.”
And then Goliath taunted David once more, saying that he would feed him to the birds. “Now, David,” said the agent hurriedly, “remember to let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt.”
But David said that he had come in the name of the Lord of armies. “This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will use your carcass to feed the birds and all wild beasts.”
“O dear,” said the agent, “that is essentially the same thing that Goliath said. You are returning evil for evil. We are called to be peacemakers, David. Remember the oil in Aaron’s beard. Think of what you are throwing away!”
“A stone,” David said. “Watch this.”
If God kept us out of fights, we would have a lot more time to talk. The only problem is that we would have nothing to say.
Fourth, ignore those who would redirect the mojo. This whole thing is wonderful, they say. This is really a promising start. All we have to do . . . I have noticed—for approaching twenty years I have noticed—people who do not want to be shaped by what is occurring in our community, but who would rather like to ride it. I have called this the battle for the creative control of the reformation. It can come in many different ways and forms, but up to this point is has usually come from the artistes. Moscow is great for basic educational approaches, and liturgical insights, and some theological stuff, but if we really want to be reformational and world-affirming, we must get current with the latest from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Fifth, ignore the dulcet counsels of cowardice. Cowardice can play dress-ups and use any of the arguments just mentioned, but cowardice can also present itself to you nakedly—when the threats are to your livelihood, reputation, job, friendships, and so on. It is happy to go either way, whatever works.
Do not be like that officer in Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary who refused an order to advance because he was convinced that “any further display of valor on the part of his troops would bring them into contact with the enemy.”
C.S. Lewis noted that courage is not so much a separate virtue as it is the testing point of every virtue. Apart from courage, every virtue collapses as soon as hard pressure is brought to bear.
Suppose you were to be placed on the fifty yard line at a football stadium filled with tens of thousands of well-oiled fans, and you were there because you were selected for some contest or other, and the question you were asked is “what is two plus two?” Suppose you say four, and the crowd roars, as one man—NO! You are given another chance, you count on your fingers, and say four again, a little more tentatively. The crowd shouts its disapproval again. A third time happens, and shouts of lynch him! begin. Now do you have a problem? Yes, you most certainly do. But it is not a math problem.
What many in the church today define as theological problems, or exegetical problems, or social problems, the kind that have contours that they like to wrestle with, or emotional problems, are actually character problems. We want every blessing possible, so long as it falls out of the sky on us. We don’t want any blessing if the price requires more than pocket change amounts of courage.
We are a feckless generation. We have all the stability of a soaked paper napkin. Right at the center of all this has been la trahison de clercs, the betrayal of the intellectuals. But of course, if an intellectual community tried to turn around, tried to go the other direction, it might bring them into contact with the enemy. If anybody actually tried that it would be truly crazy. And to all of you gathered here, thanks for joining us.
And so this last point brings us to the point of the spear that is pointed at people just like us, which is religious liberty. Religious liberty was not something established by cowards, and it will not be preserved by cowards . . . or their marketing agents. To cite George Orwell, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
As we seek to establish a thriving Christian community, we will be told, many times we will be told, that we need to tone it down. We will be admonished by fellow Christians, and will be told that we are making it more difficult for everyone. But we are not going to stop, and we are not going to slow down. What will people not want to hear, and what will we persist in saying?
Jesus is Lord. The Lord Jesus rose from the dead. God’s Word is immutable and is authoritative over all of human life. God’s speaks through natural revelation as well, and we do not have the authority to revoke anything He has spoken there. God’s pattern for human sexuality is a man and woman together for life. Accept no substitutes. God is our Father. We are called to love God with all our hearts, our souls, our strength, and our brains. God blesses work, and adorns it with fruit. Human creativity is imitative. Theology comes out your fingertips. The world will in fact come to Christ, and the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Christians know how to go into battle singing.
Christians have not been beaten back over the last few centuries because we attempted too much. Our problem was that we had attempted too little, we set our sights too low, and we thought we should fight a thousand dwarfs in a row rather than one giant all at once. This is not what God calls us to.
And so the charge is to stand fast. The only reason any of us can ever stand fast is because we serve the immutable God who never changes. Because His covenant stands fast for us, we are given the privilege of standing fast in it. His mercy endures forever.
“My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him” (Ps. 89:28).[iii]
[i] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995).
[ii] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995).
[iii] These remarks were delivered at the 2016 Convocation at New St. Andrews.