Sabbath School Reflections: From the Mountains to the Fire

Reflections on chapters 4-6 of The Great Controversy

Josephine Elia Loi
Sabbath School Reflections: From the Mountains to the Fire
Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash
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One famed translated quote by Fyodor Dostoyevsky says, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for” (The Brothers Karamazov). Many go through life in search of meaning without finding anything worthy to give the entirety of their selves to.

Martyrs like the Waldenses, John Wycliffe, John Huss, and Jerome, did not have to wander far and wide to find the answer to that search. God—His kingdom and His righteousness—was the reason for which they lived and died. Occupying specific phases in Christian history, the arc of their lives did not go from rags to riches nor from adversity to comfort. In fact, it was the opposite of upward mobility, seemingly descending lower and lower to dungeons, prison cells, and burning stakes.

In their examples, we see models of Christian lives worthy of contemplation. They shock us out of our comfort, challenging the conventionality in which we walk our journeys of faith.

Coming Out of Hiding

The Waldenses’ narrative begins in a somewhat idyllic setting. Hidden amidst the mountains, nature served as towers of refuge for this church in the wilderness. They were persecuted and exiled, hiding to resist the papacy’s encroachment upon their faith, but they were safely cocooned by God’s protection.

At first glance, they seem to have lived their lives in a way that many Christians crave today, safe from the disruptions of the world, in close connection with nature, undisturbed by others with different faiths, and removed from worldly temptations in their daily lives. They were free to practice their faith, teach their children as their faith dictated, and luxuriate in deep study of Scripture and the wonders of creation. It almost sounds like the happy ending to a story.

Yet the plot of history continues with a disruption to this setting. While the time of hiding lasted for a season, the Waldenses eventually left the safety of their mountain homes. They entered society, willingly, and consequently exposed themselves to temptations. “They witnessed vice, they encountered Satan’s wily agents, who urged upon them the most subtle heresies and the most dangerous deceptions” (Great Controversy, p. 69).

This progression may seem antithetical to those striving for the idyllic life. Why would anyone choose to go “downward” to the world? The answer is poignantly distilled in this statement:

Because the “spirit of Christ is a missionary spirit.”

“They felt that God required more of them than merely to preserve the truth in its purity in their own churches; that a solemn responsibility rested upon them to let their light shine forth to those who were in darkness” (p. 70).

The Spirit of Christ compelled them to go beyond the pristine condition of their lives in the mountains. Apparently, it was not enough to be untouched by darkness. To go meant to be in proximity to sin, to deal with the messiness of life and humanity, and to shine amid that darkness.

The same spirit of Christ still compels us today. We go, with preparation, with mountain-top communion with God, but without the safety of isolation. When we do, there are dangers and temptations all around, as well as failures and falls to anticipate in our paths. But God’s grace promises to be sufficient in covering our faults, and we are to trust in that grace as we move on to do His bidding.

The Christian and Society

How are we to be in the world? What does it mean to be in the world but not of it? Discovering the essence of this tension is a science for us to learn as long as this earth shall last. It requires an empirical knowledge that mere theories cannot provide.

To some, purity is of the highest order. Withdrawal from the world, where a Christian can practice their faith in isolation, and may live far from others who may disturb their peace is their ideal.

Withdrawal may be appropriate for a season, like Jesus’ weeks in the wilderness. Jesus’ prayer times were instances of His lone, undisrupted communion with God. John Huss also withdrew “for a time to his native village” when the city of Prague was under interdict and Rome suspended all religious services because of his teachings. Yet this was never permanent.

Until we are hidden in the safety of heaven, isolation is not a permanent protection against sin and the world. There is a difference between withdrawal for preparation and withdrawal because of fear—fear of the world, fear of sin, fear of being contaminated. The former is a discipline of faith, the latter may signal distrust in God’s providence.

On the other extreme is assimilation to the world—an embrace of the world’s changing culture and beliefs into the language and practice of faith such that there is no more tension between the world and the Christian. While an understanding of culture can aid much in our relationships with others to whom we want to introduce Christ, the Bible gives clear counsel against integration into the world. Still, the experience of assimilation often creeps in slowly, undetectable to even someone still seeking to live as a faithful Christian.

In between withdrawal and assimilation lies a space where we find ourselves living the tension. Here, we seek to find the tentative balance of faithful engagement with the world, something the early Reformers achieved.

The Waldenses were laypeople who worked in quiet influence on steering people’s minds towards the grace of God and His salvation. Huss was a clergyman and scholar, Jerome a theologian and philosopher.

John Wycliffe engaged the world with a wide-ranging scope. “While he could wield the weapons drawn from the Word of God, he had acquired the intellectual discipline of the schools, and he understood the tactics of the schoolmen.” His training prepared him for the “great struggle for civil and religious liberty” (p. 80).  He fought against the abuse of the friars who consumed resources that were supposed to go to the poor and sick, against the encroachment of Rome in the English government, against trading forgiveness of sin for money, and against abuses sanctioned by the church. Keen in detecting injustices by powerful men, he fought not only theological errors, but ethical errors. And he gave the world the first translation of the English Bible.

Varied were the ways that the Reformers lived and followed Christ. Their faithful engagement with the world was neither easy nor tidy. And it was also costly.

Counting the Cost

When the Waldenses’ influence spread in society, the papal powers ran “crusades against God’s people in their mountain homes,” (p. 76) an effort bluntly described as “butchery” (p. 78). Wycliffe’s fights generated much opposition against him and his followers. Huss and Jerome were imprisoned and prosecuted again and again.

Faithful engagement with the world is not without cost. It leaves scars. Some scars are physical, the extreme being martyrdom. Some scars are emotional, mental, even spiritual. Think of Jerome who “weakened by illness, by the rigors of his prison house, and the torture of anxiety and suspense, separated from his friends, and disheartened by the death of Huss, Jerome’s fortitude gave way, and he consented to submit to the council.” The scar of his recantation was then deeper when “remorse and doubts tortured his soul.” (p. 111).

God’s disciples may be spiritually wounded by the things they experience for the gospel, because we are, after all, in the middle of a cosmic conflict. Still, the grace of God is present even for these times, even for the moments of doubt, fear, and questioning. He calls us to trust in His grace.

He may spare some a gruesome death. In the case of Wycliffe, God “set a guard about him” (p. 92) that God’s Word may spread far and wide. For Huss and Jerome, He put a song in their mouths as they faced fiery deaths. To each, God apportioned His strength. To all, His love.

And it was Christ’s love that motivated these faithful martyrs. Like the Waldenses, Jesus Christ left the safety and purity of heaven to dwell with us in the flesh. He lived among us, ate our food, got acquainted with our sickness and sinfulness. Like Wycliffe, He showed us faithful engagement with the world—He was the “strictest observer of His Father’s law [who] moved in perfect freedom” (In Heavenly Places, p. 54). Like Huss and Jerome, He died on a stake, the praise of God on His lips until the very end. And for this, He will bear the scars for eternity.

The path of Christ is not of comfort or ease. It’s not without cost. But there is a promise of hope that the faithful throughout the ages await. One day, He will redeem us all back to His mountain, from our fiery trials to Mount Zion.

Josephine Elia Loi

Josephine Elia Loi, Ph.D., is a chemical engineer residing in the Houston area with her husband and two boys. A native of Indonesia, she enjoys reading, blogging at josephineelia.com, and creating Instagram content @someadventistwomen.