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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Extra Grace Required

Some of the most celebrated names in spiritual history are martyrs – men and women who surrendered their lives instead of surrendering their faith.


Church tradition suggests that 11 of the original 12 apostles met violent ends.  Courageous martyrs also figure prominently in the stories of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.


In the Middle Ages we encounter Joan of Arc, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Savonarola, all of whom went to the stake.  It’s estimated that during the past 100 years more followers of Jesus have died for their faith than the previous nineteen centuries combined. 


Above all there is Jesus himself, whose martyrdom looms at the center of his ongoing message and ministry.


The great majority of us, at least here in the West, will never be called to make a life-or-death choice concerning our loyalty to Christ.  But all of us, at one time or another, are likely to be tempted to become an altogether different kind of martyr.


These are men and women who are very much alive – but who have concluded, for one reason or another, that they are victims in the game of life.


A martyr is someone for whom self-pity has become normality.  Almost all of us feel despair from time to time.  But the martyr is the person who has waved the white flag before both real and imagined unfairness, and often refuses even to try to get back up. 


The martyr may say, “Everybody uses me.  Rarely do I hear thanks for what I do.  Why do all these bad things happen to me, anyway?  Nobody really knows how awful it is to be me.” 


As psychologist Les Parrott documents in his book High Maintenance Relationships, martyrs tend to thrive on such convictions, and may even enjoy the spotlight.  At times you can feel like a fly being lured into the spider’s web, especially if you tell a martyr that you have a problem.  She might answer, “You call that a problem?  Let me tell you what I’m facing!” 


Martyrs frequently express the hope that someone will come to their rescue.  Paradoxically, however, they struggle to receive such gifts of grace. 


That would mean losing control, becoming dependent, or, worse yet, giving up the right to tell someone else their heart-wrenching story. 


Sometimes martyrs blame themselves.  They feel convinced they are cursed somehow, and mess up everything and everyone they touch. 


Rabbi Harold Kushner remembers calling on two different families where the matriarch had died of natural causes.  At the first home, the son of the deceased woman told Kushner, “If only I had sent my mother to Florida and gotten her out of this cold, she would be alive today.  It’s my fault she died.”  At the second home, the son told the rabbi, “If only I hadn’t insisted on sending my mother to Florida, she would be alive today.  It’s my fault she died.”


Several times this week it’s occurred to me, as a resident of Indiana, that I would pretty much give anything to be in Florida right now instead of facing these life-threatening wind-chills every hour.  Not that I’m a martyr or anything. 


Martyrs can be just as ready to blame others, however.  If only they had had better schools, or better faith communities, or better work partners, life wouldn’t be such a mess. 


Oprah Winfrey once played host to a group of self-identified victims who complained that they were incapable of finishing anything they attempted in life.  The reason, they concluded, is that they had been born via C-section, instead of being allowed to finish their natural arrival into the world.  Some of them were preparing to sue their parents and their doctors for wrongful birth. 


Living with a continual focus on pain, ultimately, is a choice.  The problem is that there is a sufficient amount of pain in the world to keep martyrs in business for the rest of their days. 


Martyrs are EGRs.  That stands for “extra grace required” individuals.


Here’s a secret: All of us are EGRs. 


We all stand, all the time, in need of massive doses of God’s grace, as well as grace from other people. 


Which means that not a single person we see today deserves to be condemned, mocked, or written off as a hopeless case – beginning with the person you see in the mirror every morning.


So, make the choice:  Refuse to be a martyr.


After all, Someone has already gladly accepted that role on your behalf.



Would you like to explore previous reflections, and learn more about this ministry?  Check out

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