I was reading through Romans 8 with my wife the other evening and was struck by this oft-quoted passage:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 31-39)
I frequently see appeals to Romans 8:31 as a sort of pep talk, “If God is on our side, then we can do *insert activity here*!”, kind of like Paul is a cheerleader. It certainly is true that for those who have God “on our side”, anything is possible and we have no fear of anyone or anything. What Paul is addressing here is more general than merely a slogan to encourage us in our own endeavors. Paul is saying that in spite of persecution and suffering we have nothing to fear because of the promise of eternal life to come. What can the world do to us? Persecute us? Imprison us? Torture us? Kill us? Perhaps. In fact probably if we are living the way we should. So what? That is not to say that we are going to enjoy persecution but it is a recognition that for the early church and for much of church history persecution was a present reality. Unlike theoretical persecution or the ridiculous perceived persecution of Western Christians, there are many places in the world today and throughout the centuries where persecution was and is very real. The world is riddled with sin and with sinners who hate God and hate His people because of their hatred for Him. That hatred is going to lead to persecution, plain and simple.
So what does this have to do with non-resistance? It is a simple matter of trust . If you are a Christian, who or what can separate you from God? Put simply: nothing. In the face of persecution or general violence, what do we truly have to fear? Again, the answer is nothing. Jesus said: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! (Luke 12: 4-5) . So in the face of violence and persecution, what should our reaction be? Should we fear the evildoer and strike him down before he can strike us down? Or should we listen to the Shepherd of our souls who tells us to not resist the evil-doer and that peacemakers are blessed? The sword wielded by the evil doer is not a threat to us. Nor is danger or distress or impoverishment. Why would we respond to the sword with a sword of our own if the sword of the evil doer cannot separate us from Christ? In the end being joined with Christ is all that counts.
If someone pulls a knife on you, the Chicago way might be to pull a gun on them but the Kingdom way is to trust God. Handling those sorts of situations as the Bible prescribes and as Christ Himself demonstrated is a no-lose situation. If the hand of the attacker falters, then you have provided a wonderful witness. If his hand is not stayed and he kills you, you return home to Christ. The Christian conquers in death. The world says protect your life and your stuff because it is all you have. The Bible says your life is not your own, so how can you lose that which you never owned in the first place? Your house, your money, your stuff, your very life ought to be counted as nothing. Why would you kill someone else to protect what is not yours and which has no real value?
Non-resistance is at its core an issue of trusting God to keep His promises. That sort of radical obedience and surrender is at the heart of so much of what Paul was writing about. It can be tempting to think of Paul as primarily a teacher of theology but Paul was not merely exhorting Christians to hold fast to the Gospel and to rebuke false teachers, he was also encouraging Christians to trust God in the face of persecution and to provide a radical witness to the world in the midst of our suffering. Even though we don’t face the same level and type of persecution today that Paul and the earliest disciples faced, the principles of self-sacrificial and self-denying living for the Kingdom are still precious.