Athanasius and suffering
Can we really understand the intense suffering our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ go through, if we have not felt it ourselves?
Perhaps the best way we can try is to go back in church history and read about times of brutal persecution for the faith of Jesus Christ.
In Athanasius, we find such times and such a man. In a remarkable way he both endured persecutions and shepherded the sheep of the Lord Jesus Christ, pointing them unflinchingly to the hope that Christ gives.
The birth date of Athanasius is not known with certainty. It is generally believed to be AD 296-298. This would mean that, when the last great persecution was ordered by Emperor Diocletian, in AD 303, Athanasius was a young child.
In AD 311, there was a fresh outbreak of persecution, under Emperor Maximin. During Athanasius’ formative, early life, Christians experienced atrocities, imprisonment, mutilation and martyrdom. One of his teachers was killed, as was the Bishop of Alexandria. It was a terrible time.
Not only did Athanasius endure the same persecutions that any believer in Christ would, but his unswerving defence of orthodoxy intensified the attacks against him. His life narrative is rightly called Athanasius contra mundum (‘Athanasius against the world’).
After mentoring from the then Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius was chosen to succeed him in that office. This was in AD 328. By now, Athanasius had demonstrated much ability in defending the orthodox position of the church.
The main doctrinal debate centred around the heretical teaching of Arius, who in AD 319 questioned the deity of Christ. Arius said of Christ that ‘there was a time when he was not’. But Athanasius’ attitude was robust, saying that ‘those who maintain “there was a time when the Son was not”, rob God of his Word like plunderers’.
The passion of Athanasius’ life was to vindicate the deity of Christ. He saw this as more than a theological debate; without Christ being fully God as well as man, salvation is at stake.
Athanasius has been described as ‘one of the purest, most imposing and most venerable personages in the history of the church’. He was a formidable opponent, a saint of stubbornness, with ‘an enormously ruthless strength of character’.
While still a young man, he was heavily involved in the Nicene Council, held at Nicaea in AD 325 to address Arian teaching.
This Council supported the orthodox position that Athanasius had been contending for. Interestingly, many of the bishops in attendance bore the physical scars of earlier persecutions.
But, sadly, the Nicene Council was not the end of the matter for Athanasius. There followed a campaign of persecution and calumny against him.
Time and again, the Arians brought charges, seeking to remove him from the debate and place their own man in episcopal authority in the influential city of Alexandria.
Athanasius was falsely accused of murder, illegal taxation, sorcery and treason. In all, he was exiled five times. During his 45 years as bishop, no less than 17-20 were spent in forced exile from his flock, because of Arian and state persecutions.
But this did not mean he stayed silent. He was active in writing, including a Treatise on the incarnation and many letters. One of the latter (Letter X) helpfully reveals Athanasius’ attitude to persecution.
It was an annual custom of the Bishop of Alexandria to write a ‘Festal’ or ‘Easter’ letter to his people. Seemingly, it was part church bulletin and part pastoral encouragement. Letter X, written in AD 341, has since been entitled ‘Suffering prepares us for eternal glory’.
There had been no letter in AD 340, the previous year, probably because of persecution. But Letter X, though brief, is immensely pastoral. Athanasius writes from hiding, as one impacted by persecution. He points his flock to a God of comfort, revealing his care for them, even though absent from them.
He reminds them they are not suffering pointlessly, but are in the refiner’s fire for Christ’s sake. Throughout, he talks of numerous attacks, oppression, persecution, violence, whipping, viciousness, ill treatment, and being torn apart on the rack, and strongly encourages them to be all the ‘more determined’ as a result.
He gives solid hope in the midst of trials, referencing the Word of God throughout.
He says, ‘Troubles such as we are going through give opportunity to improve ourselves’. He explains that the fruit of persecution is demonstrating the reality of faith. It results in God’s reward both now and in the heavenly kingdom.
He draws the people’s attention to the unchanging goodness of God. With pastoral skill, he contrasts their attitude and motivation with those of rebels. Rebels run from trials, whereas Christians are made better by them, as they draw closer to God.
Virtues are revealed by testing, and this results in a more steadfast faith and witness to the unconverted. Yes, our faith is tested, but we should be glad and reflect on the glory that awaits us.
Athanasius points to biblical examples. First and foremost is that of Christ, who did not take the easy way out. Christ is ‘giving aid to those who are distressed and cry out to God day and night’ (Luke 18:7).
He draws inspiration from Job, Paul and Issachar; God has been faithful to others who have gone through persecution before. Throughout, he sets the backdrop of a sovereign, good and caring God.
Athanasius also educates his flock to expect to be persecuted by a world full of people who have rebelled against the Creator. But while those rebel, Christians need to continue to live for the Saviour.
To that end, he states firmly that the celebration of Easter will continue: ‘For us, the feasts are a regular passage to heaven in the midst of this present life, the seasons mean a great deal to us’.
He addresses the issue of martyrdom, seemingly the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. But the reality is a wonderful hope beyond this life. He does not minimise persecution and hurt; he empathises deeply, but stresses the promises and goodness of God.
We need to ‘take pride in the troubles that come when enemies attack us. And when we are persecuted we should not be discouraged, but instead we ought to press even more earnestly after “the crown of the high calling in Christ Jesus our Lord”’ (Philippians 3:14).
So, although we find in Athanasius and his flock those under an intensity of persecution many ET readers are unlikely to experience, yet we also find him standing strong in Christ.
Remarkably, Athanasius was finally able to return to his position in Alexandria and spend his last years there, peaceably writing against heresy. He went to be with his Lord in AD 373.
‘One foot raised’
Letter X in its tone is a bit like a pastoral letter written by John Calvin many centuries later. Calvin too had suffered persecution at the hands of others. The letter encourages a lady experiencing many trials, including the loss of her husband, to live with ‘one foot raised’.
He encourages her to live with her heel off the ground at all times, on the cusp of that final step into eternity, looking to the promises of God and the hope of eternity.
I see Athanasius as a man living with ‘one foot raised’, encouraging others to live in the same manner. Athanasius wrote: ‘It will matter little to the faithful what their sorrows may have been in this vain world, since no traces of them will remain when they enter on that ineffable peace which is in store for them in the life to come’.
How should this all affect us in the twenty-first century? Steve Lawson rightly says, ‘Nothing has changed. The truth is always under ruthless assault and the stakes are always high’.
We too need to stand firm for the faith of Christ, regardless of personal cost. We need too to be prayerfully and practically supportive of those who are suffering persecution for the Lord’s sake.
‘Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution’ (2 Timothy 3:12). In this, may we have the same attitude as Athanasius inasmuch as he emulated his Saviour.