'Let Thy Congregation Escape Tribulation'

I’ve just returned home from our church’s annual Thanksgiving “corn service,” where everyone in the congregation says something they’re thankful for while dropping a kernel of corn into a basket. It’s one of my favorite services of the year as we listen to little children announcing they’re “thankful for Mama” and octogenarians testifying to the enduring grace of God in their lives. I love the familiar voices of our church family — we’ve been there long enough to recognize them without turning around —and I know many of the joys and struggles they’ve experienced in recent years as we’ve spent time in prayer together. I rarely get through the service with dry eyes. We also sing songs of thanksgiving, including “We Gather Together,” which always seems to stop me in my tracks when we get to the line that says, “Let thy congregation escape tribulation.” That short phrase just explodes with meaning for me and deep theological truths that ought to give hope to Christians going through trials and tribulations.

The hymn dates back to the late sixteenth century and Christians in the Netherlands celebrating their freedom from Spanish oppression. C. Michael Hawn explains at Discipleship Ministries:

The Dutch, long a stronghold for the Reformed theology of John Calvin, were in a struggle against Spain for their political independence and against the Catholic Church for religious freedom. A twelve-year truce was established in 1609, giving young Prince Frederick Henry a chance to mature into an able politician and soldier.

During this time, the Dutch East India Company extended its trade beyond that of the English. The high period of Dutch art flourished with Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. Under the guidance of the Prince Frederick Henry’s leadership, Spain’s efforts to regain supremacy on land and sea were finally overcome in 1648. There was indeed much for which to be thankful.

And so it is for Americans, who are blessed to live in a time and a place where freedom abounds. It’s exponentially so for Christians, not only because we can worship in relative freedom (for now) but because we have to hope that if — and when — tribulations come, we will not be crushed by them.

The hymn itself has political overtones, but since it’s not the inspired word of God, I don’t mind imbuing the words with the meaning they hold for me. The line “May thy congregation escape tribulation” brings to mind the words the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.

While sometimes — maybe even often — our escape from tribulation comes on this side of heaven, it may very well elude us until we pass from this mortal life and are “raised imperishable” once and for all. Escape from our present tribulation is never promised by God, rather, our hope is in an eternity in perfect communion with Him — where he will wipe every tear from our eyes and “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away,” as John tells us in Revelation. While we walk the earth, God promises only that he will grant us the strength to endure suffering.

I can’t say why American Christians have been spared the persecution we are promised in scripture — “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” Paul writes to Timothy. Our story is rather unique in the history of the Christian church and we likely won’t know God’s purpose for our lives of safety and prosperity until we get to heaven and ask God himself. No doubt American Christianity has been a force for good in the world, and a place from which the gospel has been taken to the uttermost parts of the earth. But the “flowery beds of ease” we’ve been carried on have been the church’s downfall to a large extent. We’ve squandered the grace and protection God bestowed on our nation, and rather than show our gratitude by doubling down our commitment to the Gospel, we’ve become complacent and spiritually lazy as we sit in pews demanding to be entertained or to have our ears tickled by feel-good self-help pablum.

For the last several years I’ve been filled with a deep sense of foreboding, bordering on dread, as I contemplate what the future holds for Christianity in America. It won’t always be this way — I feel that in the deepest part of my soul. The trajectory should be plain to anyone who’s been paying attention. Our faith and our freedoms are under constant attack from the enemies of God, who would like nothing more than to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth. Unless God intervenes, we will face increased marginalization in the culture. Already our views are not welcome in polite society and soon, expressions of Christianity will be viewed by most Americans as they now view racism — retrograde, bigoted, and not to be tolerated. Our “hate speech” will no longer be allowed and then we shall have a difficult choice to make — whether to obey God or men.

Which brings me back to the hymn — and to Thanksgiving. The plea for God to spare his people from tribulation fills me with hope — and with gratitude that He has seen fit to allow me to live in this great nation, where I can, for now, worship Him in peace, talk about my faith in the open without fear of arrest, and teach God’s truth to my children and grandchildren. It’s also a cautionary tale — a reminder that tribulation is the normal course of Christianity. But also a reminder that we serve a God who is bigger than any tribulations that may come. As the second stanza of “We Gather Together” says so eloquently:

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!

The God who has ordained the very places we would live and who knows the number of hairs on our head will prevail in the end, which is why we are not crushed by suffering and persecution.

As Paul wrote later in his letter to the Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

May these words fill us with gratitude and hope on this Thanksgiving Day.

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