“…you will perhaps find it a heavier trial than you are aware of…”
That heavy trial, to which Newton is referring to, is the trial of having your preaching of the gospel met with opposition. I’ve found the words of Mike Tyson to be true of pastoral ministry. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In Bible college and/or seminary we dream about what it will be like to give our lives to the ministry. We hear stories from the battlefield but assume those won’t happen to us. Or even if we prepare ourselves for their happening, nothing can really prepare you for that first blow across the jaw.
I have a suspicion that Newton isn’t talking about opposition from the world as much as he is talking about opposition from those who are professing believers. You’d have to misread several sections in your Bible to not expect opposition from “the world”. But what catches us by surprise is when persecution comes from “within” instead of from those on the outside. (Of course, that shouldn’t surprise us either because the Pharisees were the “insiders” of the day, and they gave Jesus the most problems).
When we get walloped by professing believers it can leave us staggering. There isn’t a neat category for this type of opposition. It’s confusing. All of your plans go out the window. And this leaves us open to a great mess of temptations. Newton saw this well. He saw two principal ways in which this opposition would leave us vulnerable to the enemies attacks. First, by having an embittered spirit. Secondly, by self-approval.
The Embittered Spirit
Here is what Newton had to say about the embittered spirit:
…first, by embittering your spirit against opposers, so as to speak in anger, to attack them in defiance, or retaliate upon them in their own way; which, besides bringing guilt upon your conscience, would, of course, increase your difficulties, and impede your usefulness.
When someone punches you in the face it’s a bit difficult not to make them your focus. And this focus isn’t typically focusing on how to do them well. It’s usually focusing on how to get them to stop causing you pain and/or how to return the favor. This is what Newton is saying is a snare of the enemy. This embittered spirit will do nothing towards solving our issues and left unchecked it will end up sullying our own conscience.
So what are we to do? Newton gives us helpful counsel:
The subject-matter of the Gospel is offense enough to the carnal heart; we must, therefore, expect opposition: but we should not provoke or despise it, or do anything to aggravate it. A patient continuance in well-doing, a consistency in character, and an attention to return kind treatment for hard treatment, will, in a course of time, greatly soften the spirit of opposition; and instances are to be found of ministers, who are treated with some respect even by those people who are most averse to their doctrine.
We should labor to make sure that the only offense is the gospel itself. And we should minister in a Christ-like manner no matter how many times we get walloped in the nose. (Easier said than done). There is another temptation which comes on the heels of such faithfulness, that of self-approbation.
You get the idea that Newton was very much in tune with his own heart and the presence of indwelling sin. Once we stand up under this persecution and don’t return blow for blow there is a subtle temptation which might consume us yet. Newton explains it thus:
Again; opposition will hurt you, if it should give you an idea of your own importance, and lead you to dwell with a secret self-approbation upon your own faithfulness and courage in such circumstances. If you are able to stand your ground, uninfluenced either by the favor or the fear of men, you have reason to give glory to God; but remember, that you cannot thus stand an hour, unless he upholds you. It shows a wrong turn of mind, when we are very ready to speak of our trials and difficulties of this kind, and of our address and resolution in encountering them. A natural stiffness of spirit, with a desire to have self taken notice of, may make a man willing to endure those kind of hardships, though he has but little grace in exercise. But true Christian fortitude, from a consciousness that we speak the truths of God, and are supported by his power, is a very different thing.
There is a way in which we can find self-satisfaction in being a victim of persecution. I noticed this in my own heart awhile back whenever I was slandered on a website. There should have been a great deal of grief in my heart—not for myself, necessarily, but for those who were opposing the gospel. Yet, what I noticed in my own heart was a bit of glorying in being marked among the persecuted. My focus wasn’t on Christ and His Kingdom. My focus turned towards what I was doing for the kingdom. Shameful.
If we aren’t careful we’ll take these blows, respond graciously, but fall into a victim-mentality. This we cannot do either, because it too is devoid of Christ. When we receive these blows we must be aware of these particular temptations. We must press into Christ for healing in these moments. The depth of our roots in Christ will be exposed by how we respond when we get punched in the face. Let us repent of our fleshly responses and be Jesus followers in our response.
You really should read that entire Newton letter.