There’s nothing like reading Foxe’s Book of Martyrs as a teenager.
Want an easy life? Foxe’s will cure you of that expectation. Beginning with Stephen, and continuing for some 2,500 pages, you will learn that following Jesus will include suffering or worse.
The descriptions are stark. The pictures are worse. Historian Douglass Campbell writes, “Those who could read for themselves learned the full details of all the atrocities performed on the Protestant reformers; the illiterate could see the rude illustrations of the various instruments of torture, the rack, the gridiron, the boiling oil, and then the holy ones breathing out their souls amid the flames.”
You may think it’s strange for a teenager to read a book like this. Charles Spurgeon, the great British preacher, was weaned on this book, studying its pictures. He would later recommend Foxe’s book as “the perfect Christmas gift for a child.”
Why is Foxe’s so helpful? It resets expectations. “When the Church does not feel pain with those that are part of them, the Church’s nerves … become dead,” says Sabina Wurmbrand, co-founder of The Voice of the Martyrs. Christians continue to experience persecution and martyrdom today.
Foxe’s puts us in touch with a part of following Jesus we’re quick to forget.
I don’t really expect to suffer in any significant way.
I’m struck as I read Scripture by how often the theme of suffering comes up. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have,” wrote Paul (Philippians 1:29-30). Paul tells Timothy to suffer like a soldier who’s given up civilian comforts (2 Timothy 2:3-4).
That hasn’t been my experience.
I’ve been part of a cohort in which serving Jesus comes with a pension and health plan. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a good thing. But it does change expectations. We’ve had it good for so long that comfort has been normalized, and suffering has become unexpected.
Enjoy the peace we’ve been blessed to receive. Pray for it (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Don’t go looking for persecution and suffering. But don’t be surprised by it either. It’s part of our calling as followers of Christ, and it’s been part of the Christian experience from Stephen to today.
Our Moment in History
It’s said that we live in unprecedented times. The opposite may be true. Almost everything that happens today has happened before. The details change, but the basic plot structure remains intact.
The more we read stories from the past — including stories of martyrdom — the better we’ll be prepared to meet the challenges of today.
Start with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Perhaps don’t buy it for the children on your Christmas list no matter what Spurgeon advised. But read it yourself, along with other stories of Christian faithfulness in challenging times. If anything’s unprecedented, it may be how good we’ve had it for so long. Read the book to reset your expectations, be reminded of how good we’ve had it, to gain appreciation for the courage of those who’ve gone before, to be reminded of those who suffer today, and to fortify your soul for suffering. Let’s bring back Foxe’s again.