Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about martyrs. All my life, the idea of martyrdom, though it seemed far from my own reality, has been one of my more plaguing fears. As I’ve pondered the idea of giving one’s whole life to love, it struck me that when a person is accustomed to loving well, sacrifices go with the territory. But however challenging those sacrifices are, the person is used to making them–even comfortable with making them, in one sense. The sacrifices may be painful, but the person doesn’t balk at them. They are the next right thing to do.
And it struck me that when a person makes a sacrifice for God’s sake, He gives the necessary grace. Very concretely. I tend to assume that grace is something that hovers in a different dimension over my head so that it doesn’t noticeably impact me. But experience tells otherwise. When I’m trying to deny myself on my own steam, it is excruciating and nearly impossible. But when the Holy Spirit nudges me to do something and I ask for His help and then go do it, intentionally trying to love, it is empowering and even easy. It just flows in such stark contrast to my own futile efforts that if I hadn’t just asked the Holy Spirit for help, I would have no clue where it came from. It doesn’t even feel like I did it, exactly. I might as well have been looking on. And even if it’s still painful, the pain doesn’t really affect me. I might feel it, but not in a way that matters to me. The experience of the Holy Spirit’s strength working through me, subtle as it is, outshines all human interference. If I ask Him for help and then actually act on it.
The following is not doctrine, but just speculation. All my life, when I thought of martyrs, I thought of pain and fear. But in no account that I’ve ever heard has the martyr given any indication that he or she felt fear. Comparing it to my own much smaller experiences of sacrifice, I have to wonder how much they really even noticed the pain. They were making the ultimate act of love for God, and God’s grace in such moments can so take over a person’s experience that they could easily have already been separated from their bodies to a great degree. God gives strength for the moment, which I find it so easy to assume to mean that He simply prevents me from giving up in the midst of agony. But even in little sacrifices He’s already shown Himself to be much kinder than that. I think in the moments of torture leading up to death, it’s very likely that God put a gap between the martyr’s body and soul and separated them with His own peace and a sense of His presence. They’d have known what was happening, but I think He must have spared them from much of the bodily experience. And that would explain the peace, joy, and singing that is characteristic of so many martyrs’ deaths. It would be humanly, physically impossible not to be writhing in pain, the face contorted in agony, while undergoing the tortures the martyrs did. Unless God intervened.
Jesus, of course, had to feel all the suffering because of the nature of His sacrifice. He had to actually carry all our sins in order to redeem them. But I think the martyrs’ act of love myst have invited God to give such grace that their willingness and bravery was enough. He could spare them the rest, or much of it. Maybe Jesus even took their agony into His.
I am deeply inspired by their bravery for Jesus’ sake. It is also inspiring to live well, to live like I’m being martyred–not in a gruesome way, but to give of myself that selflessly, knowing that the Holy Spirit will drench me with His grace not just to match, but to overcome how much I am giving. And I am sure that the martyrs could give that much at the end because their lives had already been about giving of themselves out of love. Death fit in; I doubt it was that big a deal in their contexts, except as an honor and a road home. Seen this way, even martyrdom doesn’t have to be scary. If we really expect God to be more generous with His grace and love than we are with ourselves, then we have less to fear than we would if we were just winging life on our own.
Joan of Arc said, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.” If we are born for something, if God has a mission for us, He will give us the courage–if we ask for it and act on it.
I pondered all this as I painted Joan of Arc. In this scene, she is being burnt at the stake. But she is surrounded more closely by the warmth of peace and grace than she is by the darkness of the flames. And in that peace, she is confident.