What we lack in the Western church today — Australia and New Zealand included — is a practical theology of personal and corporate suffering for the cause of Christ. Putting it simply, we Western Christians are often averse to the thought of suffering for our faith!
Many Western believers have only a hazy idea of the extent of daily hardships, difficulties, persecutions and sufferings that our brothers and sisters in Christ are undergoing for the cause of the gospel of Christ around the world today.
Fellow believers in the Middle East have endured great persecution following the ‘Arab Spring’. The wars and extremist Islamic persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have displaced thousands of Christians. The church in North Korea continues to undergo immense suffering at the hands of its government.
To our shame, many Western Christians prefer not to delve too deep into the sufferings of the Body of Christ overseas. Our distaste for the subject has so taken hold that we recoil from considering it, even by proxy!
In his powerful booklet An authentic servant (OMF) Ajith Fernando wrote: ‘Even a superficial look at the New Testament would show us that the cross of suffering is an essential part of Christian ministry. We can safely say that if we try to get around that, we will forfeit eternal fruitfulness.
‘I think this is an emphasis that has been neglected in contemporary thinking about Christian service. We live in a society that places much emphasis on comfort, convenience, entertainment and good feelings. And because the emphasis on suffering is so much at odds with this emphasis, we seem to have avoided it’.
For Paul, it was different: ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…’ (Colossians 1:24). Was Paul a masochist? No, not by a long shot! He never went looking for persecution; it found and followed him everywhere.
But Paul was spiritually and emotionally prepared, for he knew that taking the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world under the crushing yoke of Roman philosophy and culture, and political and military dominion, would result in personal suffering for the cause of Christ.
In his thinking, to suffer, not as a political or environmental activist, but as a disciple of Jesus Christ, proved his heirship with Christ (Romans 8:17).
If you live in a community where you can witness and worship freely (as the present writer does), without restraint or fear of severe reprisals from others, then praise and thank God. For such a privilege may not long be ours.
Yet surely, if we are living up to our high calling as believers in Christ, we will still — even in our laid-back, pluralistic West — draw some flak? Although unpleasant, this will be mild in comparison with the almost daily brutality many brothers and sisters are experiencing in other lands.
Yes, we might face ribald laughter or scoffing. We may be passed over for promotion, or suffer worse economic hardship. Certainly, we shall be the butt of sarcastic remarks, and possibly practical jokes.
We may even experience some physical or online bullying, but nothing we currently experience in the democratic West matches what believers in other nations are suffering.
Paul’s physical sufferings for the cause of Christ, and the courageous example of our brothers and sister, should be of the greatest possible encouragement for us to boldly live as followers of the suffering Saviour, and to be willing to be considered fools for him.
For believing, witnessing Christians — even in the post-Christian West — there is always a cross to bear (2 Timothy 3:12).
The author lives in New South Wales, Australia