Grace of a Martyr

MARCH / APRIL 2016: BY LILA DONOVAN

perpetua

 What does it mean to be a Christian besides getting saved? Jesus warned people to “count the cost” (Luke 14:33) of following him. What did he really mean? Many of us live in first world countries, with first world problems. When we speak of martyrs, it is usually done in a disparaging way, describing someone pretending to play a victim to receive sympathy.

It’s difficult for many of us to understand what a true martyr is. Exploring the life of Vibia Perpetua (c. 182-March 7, 203 in Carthage) helped me understand a little more of what it means to live out your faith. What if you had the world in the palm of your hand? Would you still give up everything for God?

Perpetua was a Christian living in the third century. She was a highly educated noblewoman, a wife and mother to a baby she was nursing. The world was her oyster (for the most part). The Emperor Septimius Severus forbid conversions to Judaism and Christianity almost a year before Perpetua was martyred. Perpetua’s entire family was Christian except for her father.

When her father, a pagan, visited her in prison, he tried to get her to renounce Christianity so she could come home. She asked, “Father do you see this vase here? Could it be called by any other name than what it is?”

“No,” he replied.

“Well, neither can I be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.”

He visited her again and begged her to renounce her faith: “Have pity on my gray head. Have pity on me, your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favored you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers; think of your mother and your aunt; think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride!”

This time Perpetua responded, “It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.” She wasn’t alone in her imprisonment and martyrdom. She was imprisoned and martyred with her slave Felicitas (aka Felicity), among other Christians. Felicitas actually gave birth while she was imprisoned.

They were taken to a stadium arena where wild animals were sent after them. The bloodthirsty and impatient crowd demanded their deaths, so they were lined up and killed by the sword. The gladiator found himself unable to kill her so Perpetua guided the sword to her throat.

It’s difficult to comprehend a society as bloodthirsty as the Roman empire, but for much of our history, humanitarian efforts were slow to progress.

In prison, Perpetua kept a diary where she described what the experience was like for her, her talks with her father, her dreams that she believed were visions from heaven, etc. Perpetua gave her diary to another Christian who continued her story. Her diary was read in Carthage churches afterwards and impacted Christendom for centuries after. St. Augustine was so impacted by her sacrifice that he wrote sermons about her.

Amy Rachel Peterson wrote a historical novel, Perpetua: A Bride, a Martyr, a Passion and you can read Perpetua’s Diary online on the author’s website. It has been translated throughout the ages for readability by different editors so there are different translations, but the essence of the text is accurate since many scholars believe that Perpetua wrote the diary herself.

Her diary is important because it’s one of those rare times from the Ancient World where we actually see a woman standing up for her faith and following Christ. Many people think of Christianity as an unfriendly religion dominated by patriarchy with no room for women.

In reality, many strong women have followed Christ and influenced Christianity. In my opinion, Perpetua is just as fascinating as any other woman in history such as Joan of Arc, Ruth, or Corrie ten Boom. The Bible has some tough words on what it means to follow God and what happens when people deny him. Judas sold out Christ and Peter denied him three times. The Bible doesn’t say if Judas sought forgiveness from Jesus, yet it’s safe to assume that he felt ashamed and didn’t seek it, since Judas hung himself afterward. Peter was restored for his denials; he must have felt remorse and wanted redemption, which is probably why Jesus restored him when he was resurrected.

In Luke 17:33 we’re warned that if we try to keep our life we will lose it, but if we lose our life we will keep it. Another harsh reality is that if we deny Jesus on Earth, Jesus will deny us before God on Judgment day (Matthew 10:33). It sounds harsh to us but God made a huge sacrifice in giving up Christ for our sins. God has such love for humanity that we hurt him when we deny him. Any sacrifice we make in life is small in comparison to what Christ has done for us. It seems preferable to endure the ridicule of men or short-lived physical torture than to have to stand before God and be embarrassed that we denied him, especially because our eternal soul is at stake.

What I fear more than hell is having to be apart from God for all eternity. It would mean never again experiencing His love, compassion, grace, and wisdom.

I don’t think the human psyche is meant to exist separately from God. Just like birds need wings and whales need the ocean, so too does the human psyche need God. St. Augustine wrote in Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” ♥

marchapril2016

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lila Donovan is a Christian and a university student. She loves to read, draw, write, and has a blog.

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