The joy of the martyrs

The crucifixion scene from Silence, courtesy of

I’ve been thinking this about the movie Silence, a film about two Jesuit priests who set out to find their mentor, who has gone missing preaching the gospel during the Christian persecutions in Japan during the 17th century. While I’m not a fan of the film (there’s some misrepresentation of Catholic thought and general theological weirdness), there is one scene that absolutely captivates me.

In this scene, a group of Japanese men, who have been discovered to be Christians, are sentenced to death. To carry out the task, the men are tied to crosses on the edge of the sea, where they will die slow, painful deaths as the waves crash against their skin and the seawater slowly fills their lungs until they drown. It is agonizing to watch, and purposely so. It is designed to make them suffer, and to deter anyone else who would wish to follow them in love of Christ. Everything about it is meant to break their spirits, harden their heart, and make anyone who sees them give up their faith in God.

And yet, what do these men do as they face their tortuous end, as the waters they once played in become the instrument of their death?

They sing.

In the midst of horrible pain, of searing wounds and parched mouths, in between their gasps for air in these final solitary moments of their lives, they sing. They sing hymns of praise to their God, the very God for Whom they have now been sent to die. The plan has not worked. Their souls are revived. And even at the hour of death, their faith will not be shaken.


Ironically, this scene has come up in a season where I’m not being asked to pick up a cross. This is a season of immense joy, of possibility and excitement and young, budding affection. This is a season of wonder and discovery and anticipation and full, so full of God’s graces. Yes, this is not a season of great trial for me. Yet the reason it has come up is because, in the midst of this season of joy, I find myself facing burning questions and lingering doubts.

“Lord, what does it mean to deny yourself and pick up your cross (Mark 8:34)? Does it mean I will inevitably have to give up these good things You have given me? Does denying myself mean that I have to sacrifice what is currently bringing me so much joy? Can I trust this enough to enjoy it while it is here, or do I need to prepare myself at all times to give it away?”

The Lord doesn’t answer my questions. He doesn’t tell me the end of this story that is only just beginning. Instead, He sends me this scene of the Japanese martyrs and asks me to ponder what causes these people to choose their fate, and how, in the midst of unspeakable horror, they have found the strength to sing.

The answer is actually very simple. It is because they know the love of God.

Friends, it can be really easy to distrust these seasons of blessing. It can be very tempting to fear the joys we are given now in an effort to anticipate the trials that are to come. But it is precisely these moments of joy, when we sense the delight and love and blessing of God, that will give us the strength we need to take on those later things. The martyrs of history knew that the God they were being asked to die for was good. They knew He cared for them. They knew He loved them. They knew with every fiber of their being that He was worth dying for, and that they had something better waiting for them than what the world could possibly take away. And this was because somehow, in some way, they had met Him and experienced it for themselves.

Let us not waste a single moment preparing for what is to come by rejecting the joy that is already here. Enjoy this season for all it’s worth, and let your gratitude to God be the storehouse for your joy. For it is from here that you, like the martyrs, will find the strength to sing.