Endurance in an important word in the Christian faith. We might well consider it the defining mark of the Christian. Jesus himself said, “. . . it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Mt 10.22; 24.13; cf. Mk 13.13). Many will appear to start in the Christian faith but who do not endure in that faith (Mt 7.13-27; Lk 8.4-15). And those who do not endure will not be saved in the end. They will have made a good show of faith at some point but will not love Jesus at their last breath. And they will suffer God’s eternal wrath in a gruesome hell despite the occasional, or even lengthy, appearance of saving faith.
Endurance is indeed an an important word in the Christian faith. It bears the weight of eternity as heaven and hell hang in the balance. In reality we can only “see someone get saved” when we see them finally rest in Christ’s peace.
Endurance is not particularly a Christian word, though. The world has its own sense of it. Athletes endure training and grueling competitions to either win or at least survive. An estranged wife endures a bitter divorce after her husband admits to serial infidelity. Cancer patients endure chemotherapy to enjoy a season of remission. Soldiers endure enemy fire and harsh weather to complete their missions. Scientist endure decades of failure to finally produce a cure.
It is not, however, the worldly sense of endurance that Jesus said saves in the end. Just because someone endures a difficult circumstance and lives to tell about it, even with a smile, doesn’t mean they are going to heaven. As inspiring their story might be to others their endurance is not necessarily Christian. While we should rejoice for and encourage those who endure painful trials, we must not assume or assure that their endurance de facto earns them a place in God’s kingdom.
Jesus had a specific idea of endurance in mind. It’s not any form of endurance that results in salvation. Christian endurance does. If our eternal salvation depends on it then we should understand what it is. What then is the anatomy of Christian endurance?
First, what it is not. Christian endurance is not:
1. The mere survival of a difficult situation. Christian endurance does not equal survival. Survival may be heroic and worthy of imitation but it is not necessarily godly. Worldly endurance produces a measure of wisdom and maturity (an expression of God’s common grace), but it does not necessarily warrant eternal salvation.
2. “Letting go and letting God.” Endurance is not a Pollyannic posture toward affliction. Someone may not appear to be all that bothered by a painful situation. They might well be quite cheery during it. But that does not necessarily mean they are enduring Christianly.
3. Baptized self-effort. Christian endurance is not the display of a person’s inner fortitude. We easily commend the person who “beat’ cancer or overcame tragedy in terms that make God a spectator. We might unintentionally depict God as one who is impressed with our strength and therefore obliged to reward it.
4. Episodic. Christian endurance is not persevering through a difficult occasion or two that seals a person’s place in heaven. Christian endurance is the lifelong examination and test that ends at our last breath (or last rational thought) and not a moment sooner. Christian endurance weaves in-and-out of all the ups-and-downs of life. The Christian will withstand faith-threatening tragedies and the mundane temptations of a surly neighbor. It’s all endurance for all of life.
What then is Christian endurance? What exactly is the sort of endurance for which Jesus promises eternal life? In no particular or remotely-exhaustive order, Christian (or, eternally-saving) endurance is:
1. Fruit-bearing (Lk 8.15; Jn 15.5-6; Col 1.6). Christian endurance demonstrates itself as Christian when the one enduring produces distinctly Christian fruit, i.e. Spirit wrought evidences of Christ’s own character (Gal 5.22).
2. Cause for rejoicing because it is necessary for eternal hope (Rom 5.3-5; Jas 1.2-4). Christian endurance results in greater longing for God to complete what we started in/through/with Jesus. Worldly endurance may produce a greater zeal and appreciation for this life; Christian endurance produces zeal for the next life.
3. For the encouragement and comfort of other Christians (2 Cor 1.3-7). Christian endurance is always a gift to the church as we are able to help other stragglers keep pace in the Christian journey. Christians endure “out loud” because Jesus suffered publicly. Christians will resist the temptation of self-glory to become a conduit of persevering grace for fellow-endurers.
4. Befitting older, mature Christians (Titus 2.2). The deeper we grow in the gospel the less wobbly we become by life. Maturing Christians increasingly interpret their pain and despair in light of gospel truth, and they grow more proficient at applying that truth.
5. One of the primary means of Christian assurance (2 Pt 1.5-12). Christians are not sustained by emotional spikes, superficial worship, platitudinous encouragement or K-Love fuzzies. They are sustained as they sow hardscrabble lives with godliness-reaping perseverance. Jesus didn’t take the easy way out, so his followers (those he saves in the end) refuse to do so.
6. Painful (2 Cor 4.16-5.5; Heb 12.4-11). Christians have a sympathetic, weakness-helping Savior for a reason (Heb 2.17; 4.15). He knows the homeward journey is fraught with “many dangers, toils and snares.” Like the Good Samaritan he cares deeply for the children God has given him. He keeps on binding their wounds.
7. Designed to prove to the universe the value and power of Christ in those he saves (1 Pt 1.3-9). No matter how deep the pain and debilitating the despair, Jesus will still be sweeter to the Christian. And one day all the universe is going to see why.
What makes eternally-saving endurance Christian? It results in greater love for, hope in and intimacy with Christ. Satan tries to hijack our pain to discredit and disgrace Jesus. Satan intends to disillusion us about God’s love and saving purposes. But in the end the Christian will have, often in spite of all reasons to do otherwise, treasured Jesus all the more. Through tears and scars, the Christian will restrain his fleshly sense of entitlement to still hope in the gospel even (or especially) when that gospel has demanded “my soul, my life, my all.”
While the world, flesh and devil will derail many who seemingly started well (Lk 8.12-14), Jesus will ensure those he saves overcome Satan’s schemes (Eph 6.10-17). Like Satan himself, the world will try to convince us that immense pain and suffering betray God’s love for those he afflicts. It didn’t work on Jesus (Mt 4.5-11) and won’t work on those he saves.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8.35-39).
Even if the Christian hangs on to gospel hope by a mere thread, it is Christ’s thread (Jude 24-25). And Jesus never lets go.