The Test of the Faith of the Martyrs

Meditation on The Three Stages of The Test of the Faith of the Martyrs

(for most Christians Who Grow in Christian Maturity through “Martyrdom on the Installment Plan” instead of the Direct Test of the Martyrs Threatening Death for their Faith)

All of us Christians by our baptism are called to holiness (which literally means being “set apart [for sacred use]”).  Jesus commands us to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48), and Vatican II’s chapter on The Universal Call to Holiness confirms that “all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are cared for by it, are called to holiness … all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love … Therefore all the faithful are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of their own state of life” (LG 39,40,42).  Jesus would not command us to do anything we could not do with His help, and He provides many channels of grace and strength through which we can indeed continually grow in holiness, especially the Bible and the Sacraments.

Our holiness comes through our imitating the self-giving love of the Holy Trinity.  The nearest human equivalent to the completely self-giving love between the Persons of the Trinity (by which the Son is generated and the Holy Spirit proceeds) is martyrdom, that is, giving up our human life for God or for others made in God’s Image.  This is why Jesus says, “greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for His friends, ” and why He goes on to model that kind of love in His death on the Cross for all – calling Christians to also “take up their cross” if they truly want to be His followers (Mat.16:24), and why He even says, “If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine” (Mat.10:38).  That is to say:  Jesus, our God in human flesh, died on the cross for the sake of all humanity, to give us an example of what the self-giving Love of the Infinite Trinitarian persons (by which God the Eternal Father gives Himself completely in Love, holding nothing back, and the Eternal Son is generated who, as Perfect Image of the Father, gives Himself completely in Love back to the Father, holding nothing back, the Holy Spirit being the Love Proceeding in both directions)  looks like in the context of finite humanity.  This is an example we are meant to follow, “taking up our cross daily,” in smaller or larger ways, up to and including literal martyrdom in exceptional circumstances, but on the daily basis it means in small ways giving up our  own preference or benefit for the sake of others.

While a great many of the early Christians suffered such literal martyrdom, and while the martyrdom of Christians still happens with some regularity in various places in the world, most of us in the historically Christian West will never face the direct test of martyrdom to see whether we are willing to die rather than deny God and His Truth.  However, we are all still called to develop this level of mature faith and trust in Jesus and so we all undergo what my former professor Dr. Scott Hahn called “martyrdom on the installment plan.”  At least this involves the small daily opportunities we have to give up some aspect of our own benefit for the sake of others, and any opportunities we have to witness to or stand up for God’s Truth.  When we are ready to grow further, God our Father who wishes us to mature in His Love may train us by seeing to it that we have more vigorous and challenging opportunities to grow in love and faith and trust in Him.  These tests are likely shy of the actual Test of the Martyrs, where one is called upon to actually die for the sake of some aspect of God’s Truth and not deny it, but are rather what I call The Test of the Faith of the Martyrs, by which through lesser challenges than the extreme test of martyrdom we Christians are trained to develop the same kind of faith the martyrs displayed.

Below are three stages of the Test of the Faith of Martyrs, that is, three degrees of Christian maturity which the canonized martyrs displayed to the death but which all of us Christians can also come to display in how we live our lives, especially in adversity, and especially in adversity that comes upon us because of our Christian commitment to follow God’s Commandments and any other directions He gives us:

 Stage 1 of the Test of the Faith of the Martyrs:

The Christian will obey God’s directions even though following those directions is rife with possible negative consequences (whether they be God’s “standing directions” of living by and thus witnessing to, and if necessary standing up for His publicly revealed Truth, or whether they be privately revealed directions or callings).

 Stage 2 of the Test of the Faith of the Martyrs:

 When God fails to protect the Christian from some of or even from the full possible negative consequences of obeying Him, the Christian will accept the negative consequences (up to and including literal martyrdom) in love and obedience.  Christians often rightly speak of God’s “wonderful plan for our lives” and of His great and wonderful provision.  The Bible and Christian history give many examples of God’s amazing provision for the needs of His people, even of miraculous protection from harm.  Yet the martyrs are cases where God did not provide what the martyrs actually needed to sustain even life and health, for His own purposes.  Purposes which were still ultimately for their own good in God’s “wider” vision than ours, purposes which the martyrs trusted and accepted.  “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  With faith we can always trust that God will either shield us from suffering or give us unfailing strength to bear it – if necessary, even the strength to bear literal martyrdom with grace and love like Jesus whose Body we are (and don’t worry if you don’t feel you are “up to” that – God gives “dying Grace” only to the actually dying!).  While literal martyrdom is now rare (depending upon where a Christian lives), mature Christians accept that sometimes God will not provide what we really need for comfort nor occasionally even for health or safety, but when this happens we can still trust God has good purposes for what He allows to happen to us.  So do not be discouraged when God fails to meet some of your needs; take comfort that God thinks highly enough of you and He trusts you enough to put you through such tests of your love, faith, trust and obedience which train you in holiness so that you can become an even more effective instrument in His hands for spreading His Love in the world.  It may be that in some trials you are being pruned so as to become even more fruitful (John 15:2), or even “crushed like wheat,” to use the expression of the great early martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch; but it is only so that you may be made into Eucharistic Bread bearing the presence of Jesus for the salvation of the world, the world which Jesus, who lives in you, loves with an infinite and everlasting love.

 Stage 3 of the Test of the Faith of the Martyrs:

The Christian not only accepts the consequences of following God, for good or ill, but chooses to rejoice in the privilege of suffering for love of Christ, chooses to rejoice in the privilege of being counted worthy to be identified with Jesus in His suffering for the world, chooses to “consider it all joy” (Jam.1:2) when suffering as a member of the Body of Christ for the redemption of the world, “making up in my body what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24).  “Perfect Love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18), and when we can come to rejoice in God’s constant loving Presence even in suffering, then we truly have nothing left to fear.  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s Will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:16-18).

Since Jesus our Incarnate God in His true humanity like ours even sweat blood under the intense anxiety of His impending crucifixion, we too can expect that as good Christians we will sometimes suffer great anguish.  Yet, in the wonderful Mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ Jesus Himself, any suffering Christians undergo is never wasted nor meaningless, but actually participates in the suffering of Jesus on the Cross for the redemption of the whole world.  This is a great dignity we have, that as members of the Body of Jesus our suffering is so valuable that by it we help redeem the world Jesus loves.  Thus it is indeed possible to rejoice even in our suffering of trials and hardships, knowing that God does mighty works through them.  This stage of Christian maturity is why so many of the canonized Saints, whether martyrs or not, in the practice of “taking up their cross daily” even came to have a “holy indifference” to what happened to them, “content whatever the circumstances” (Php. 4:11-12), not particularly preferring blessings to hardships, but accepting each as from God’s hand and serving His purposes.  The martyr Saint Thomas More even died laughing! [1]

Remember: All Christians are called to be saints, literally “holy ones” (whether or not one becomes a formally canonized “capital-S” Saint after death, which only happens to a few).  The only tragedy in life is not to be a saint, because that would be to miss out on the fulfilment of what God intended for each one of us when He created us.  This is why the New Testament calls all Christians “saints” (Paul is not addressing his letters to formally canonized dead people when he writes to “the saints in Ephesus” and other cities!).  This is why Vatican II confirms this high calling to sainthood or holiness is for all of us, and why the Church officially canonizes some of us as having definitely achieved this goal.  Not to discourage us, “how can I ever be as holy as Saint so-and-so.”  Rather, the Church officially canonizes “capital-S” Saints, our older brothers and sisters in God’s Family the Church, as family role models (icons are family pictures) to remind us that  they started with exactly what we start with – a fallen human nature prone to sin – yet they achieved a high level (never absolutely perfect) of lived holiness in this life through the very same Grace of God which we also have access to through the very same Bible and Sacraments of the Holy Church, the Body of Jesus Christ on Earth of which we, as they, are members together.

© 2012, 2013 Peter William John Baptiste SFO



[1]  Saint Thomas More died joking with the Headman about to decapitate him, “not too much off the top,” as if the Headman was merely about to give him a haircut.