“The Lord said to His disciples, ‘Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven’” (Matt. 10:32).
Until recently, I have understood this passage to to refer only to those who acknowledge (by word or action) their faith in Christ in the context of persecution. The persecution could be severe or mild. It included a range of possibilities from confessing Christ in the face of death or torture, to going to church on Sunday, instead of soccer practice, even though it might cost you your place on the team. It included speaking up for your faith or doing actions (like crossing yourself or praying before meals) even if you incurred teasing from teachers, co-workers or friends. Basically, I have assumed that this injunction not to deny Christ only referred to contexts in which the persecution came from others. A logical assumption. After all, the text does say “before men.”
However, Jesus summarizes this passage which focuses on acknowledging Christ before men and not loving family more than Christ with the following words:
“‘And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it’” (Matt. 10:38,39).
Most Christian Canadians live very insulated lives--at least since their school days.* Basically you can confess Christ all you want and people will leave you alone--until you become obnoxious, but then that’s not persecution for Christ’s sake.
I think this matter of acknowledging Christ “before men,” refers to much more than many of us have thought. I think the extreme example of facing death or hating parents and children for Christ’s sake provides a target, a goal, an image for Christian becoming. That is, denying or acknowledging Christ does not begin when colleagues threaten to make fun of you or the Roman soldier ties you to the gibbet to be scourged. No. Denying or acknowledging Christ begins with every opportunity we have (and we have them all day long) to take up our cross and follow Christ, to suffer--whatever it is we suffer--as Christ suffered.
Just as earlier in Matthew Jesus says that adultery and murder begin in the heart, so too taking up our cross and thus acknowledging Christ before men begins in our heart. I have never had the opportunity to murder someone--not without consequences to myself that I selfishly considered more important than the life of the person I hated at that moment. But in my heart, I have murdered. I have stolen. I have lied. I have denied Christ before men by not suffering as Christ suffers. Like the Children of Israel in the desert, I have complained (sometimes unceasingly) to God about my circumstances. Those around me have seen me deny that God loves me by my doubt of His care. They have heard me deny God’s life in myself in a thousand sarcastic, biting, and self-pitying comments. No, you don’t need a gun to your head to deny Christ before men.
Take heart, though. Don’t despair. In the same Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells Peter, when he asks how many times he should forgive someone, that he should forgive seven times seventy times--a symbol that means until it is complete, until there is no more to forgive. God forgives us seven times seventy times. God forgives until it is complete, until there is no more to forgive.
So to sum up: On the one hand, the possibility of denying Christ may be something we face several times, maybe constantly, every day--whenever we have a cross to carry. On the other hand, God’s forgiveness is limitless. The only real failure is to stop turning to God. The “multitude of our transgressions” are set against the “abyss of [God’s] compassions.” Our many transgressions are numbered, God’s compassions cannot be.
*The Charter of Rights and Freedoms hasn’t trickled down to the playground yet.