On Being Deserted
Have you ever been abandoned by friends? Have you ever had brothers or sisters in Christ desert you? Have you ever had close associates turn on you? Have you ever been dumped by those you trusted and depended on? If so, you are not alone. It happens to all of us.
Having just seen the final Hobbit film, we know that this happens in all the great stories as well. There are faithful heroes and fellow warriors, but there are also deserters and those who will abandon us when we need them the most. A scene from The Return of the King expresses this truth:
Theoden: Grimbold, how many?
Grimbold: I bring 500 from the Westfold, my lord.
Gamling: We have 300 more from Fenmarch, Theoden King.
Theoden: Where are the riders of Snowbourn?
Gamling: None have come, my lord.
Not everyone we depend upon will be there in our hour of need. And sadly, even fellow Christians can betray us, let us down, and end up as our enemy. Being deserted is regrettably part of the cost we must pay as we remain dedicated disciples of Christ. We know this to be true, because it has happened to the best of them.
Simply read the biographies or autobiographies of the great men and women of God throughout church history, and you will see that this is all rather commonplace. Indeed, it even happened to the early disciples. Consider just one: the Apostle Paul.
If we look at just one of his letters, we find that at least three times he reports on being deserted and abandoned by some of his close colleagues. In 2 Timothy we find these sad words:
2 Timothy 1:15 You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.
2 Timothy 4:9-11 Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.
2 Timothy 4:16-17 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.
Several things can be said about these passages. First, we do not have many details about when, where and why all this took place. Some of the people he mentions we know nothing about for example. And it is possible that all three passages may refer to the same general event.
Whatever the exact details, this would have been quite painful and difficult for Paul. He was a human being after all, and to be treated like this by his colleagues would have cut deep. As Gordon Fee says about the ch. 1 text, “In this paragraph we sense the pain of Paul’s present situation and his loneliness…”
Or as Tom Wright says, “Asia, we should remind ourselves, was the western part of Modern Turkey, with Ephesus among its chief cities. At one level, Paul must have felt a colossal failure. He had spent a lot of time in the province of Asia, particularly in Ephesus. He had preached the gospel to them, taught them, lived alongside them, wept and laughed and prayed with them. They had been dear to him and he to them. And now he says they’ve turned away from him.”
A related lesson to be gleaned from these passages is that oftentimes we must go alone in our walk with Christ. Whether ‘everyone’ in Asia is to be understood as hyperbole or not, it is clear that Paul feels altogether abandoned, alone, and forsaken.
Those who stand with their Lord will often have to go through this. When the going gets tough, the tough should get going, but often people simply cut and run instead. When Paul was going through difficult times – likely in his public trials and court hearings – and needed devoted comrades the most, they seem to have abandoned him.
But Paul also notes those who remained loyal and faithful. That we must keep in mind as well. As he says in 1:16-17, “May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me.”
While his other co-workers were abandoning him in droves, Onesiphous was actively seeking Paul out to be with him and help him. Thank God for such loyal and devoted brothers in Christ. They are so very much needed and appreciated.
And Paul had the right attitude toward the deserters: he prayed for them and forgave them. As he says in 4:16: ‘May it not be held against them”. Indeed, such betrayal and abandonment is part of the experience of other disciples, even Christ himself.
As Ben Witherington remarks, this phrase about wishing it not being held against them certainly may be compared with what we find in Luke 23:3 and Acts 7:60: “Paul’s words and attitude here resemble those of Jesus and the first Christian martyr Stephen.”
And as Philip Towner notes, the same verb used in 4:10 for abandonment is what we find in Psalm 22:2 where we read, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus of course uses this very passage and applies it to himself in Mark 15:34. Says Towner:
“With this allusion Paul (however obliquely) taps into the psalmist’s puzzled question and to the theme of the messianic sufferings. His intention is to link up the sombre statements of abandonment in the letter, identifying this experience as being symbolic of the cruciform path walked by the Messiah, including the tradition of his passion-abandonment.”
Finally, Paul knows that the Lord is nonetheless faithful. As he goes on to say: “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength”. That will always be the case. Even if everyone else forsakes us and abandons us, the Lord will never leave us. He will be with us through thick and thin.
So these verses actually give us real comfort and encouragement. Yes, desertion and betrayal will come our way, especially when we are in the heat of the battle. And we must pray for those who do this to us. But we must also remind ourselves that Jesus will forever stay by our side. He has never deserted us, so we must never desert him.
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