Since becoming a pastor I’ve been convinced that one of my most important responsibilities is to preach and pray in a way that prepares people to suffer for the glory of God. Suffering – which is a wide and broad biblical category – is a stewardship given to Christians and the church, and it must be stewarded well.
Seasons of suffering – no matter how dark and difficult – do not free us from our responsibilities to God. Rather, a great part of Christian discipleship is learning how to suffer in obedience to him.
This is something for which we need to prepare. After all, no one is born knowing how to suffer. We don’t have an innate instinct for what to do when the heaviness of depression washes over the soul or when we get the doctor’s bad report or when a loved one suddenly dies.
Add to our natural ignorance the tendencies of sin, and crosses and losses become extremely difficult to carry. Suffering is something our minds and hearts need to be trained for before – if at all possible – it is unexpectedly foisted upon our lives.
A coming persecution
I have thought about this in relation to the corporate church over the last several months. The new religion of Woke-ism, cancel culture, and heavy-handed government restrictions have caused the word ‘persecution’ to be thrown around in many Christian circles.
While I have the suspicion that some of what is called ‘persecution’ is really sensationalised drama, we cannot deny that our society is growing more hostile. To be fair, true and biblical Christianity hasn’t ever been very popular. But the cultural dining room table isn’t giving Christians a lot of elbow room, and soon we may find ourselves banished from the table altogether.
Now, that is not a bad thing. We don’t need culture to be a kind host to flourish as the church. After all, Jesus taught that true blessedness is a persecuted life: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:10).
In a sense, kingdom possession is evidenced by kingdom persecution. Contrary to the Western spirit, blessing isn’t found in comfort and ease, in political majorities, or in holding popular opinions. It’s found in picking up the cross and following Christ.
So, if the corporate church is facing what will be societal persecution – which is more than the edge of the sword – it’s all the better for us! That’s the way the wisdom of God works.
However, the Bible is clear that it’s not ‘persecution’ in itself that is a blessing. A simple dictionary definition of persecution is ‘hostility or ill-treatment based upon one’s beliefs’. The Bible doesn’t share that expansive definition. Not all persecution is alike. For example, Peter wrote: ‘For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this a gracious thing in the sight of God’ (1 Peter 2:20). He also wrote: ‘For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil’ (1 Peter 3:17).
This is why persecution, biblically speaking, is a qualified persecution – it’s persecution ‘for righteousness’ sake’ (Matthew 5:10), ‘on account of the word’ (Matthew 13:21), ‘for the cross of Christ’ (Galatians 6:12), and for a ‘godly life’ (2 Timothy 3:12). In short, the persecution that is a blessing is persecution for Christ’s sake (see Matthew 5:11). Not all persecution is commended by the Bible, but persecution for the right things.
What’s the difference?
How can we tell the difference? This persecution isn’t something we actively go out and seek. It’s long been regarded as an error of the church father Tertullian that we should seek out and desire affliction. It is, rather, an apostolic command to ‘aspire to live quietly’ (1 Thessalonians 4:11), and to pray for civil leaders for that end: ‘First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’ (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Of course, we shoulder persecution when it’s placed upon us, but we don’t force it upon ourselves.
In Peter’s words, it’s a persecution for being zealous for what is good (1 Peter 3:13). In context, ‘good’ is spelled out by Peter: promoting unity, being sympathetic, showing brotherly love, being tender-hearted and humble in mind, blessing others, and speaking truth (1 Peter 3:8-12). Or, in the language of Paul, it’s the godly life as it’s lived out in faith, patience, love, and steadfastness (2 Timothy 3:10-12).
Christian persecution isn’t ill-treatment or hostility arising from our own stupidity or sinfulness, nor from being bombastic and loud-mouthed. It’s not even a persecution for holding stubbornly to civil liberties – no, suffering for civil liberties and righteousness’ sake aren’t necessarily the same thing. It’s persecution that meets us on the pathway of living a godly life and being zealous for the good.
The stewardship of persecution
When we are called to the stewardship of persecution, it matters how we respond. First, we must have a single eye to the honour and glory of God. Remember, Jesus warned that it is easy to practise our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, and in that there is no gain or reward (Matthew 6:1-3). Similarly, it’s easy to steward persecution in such a way that our aim is actually to further our platform, politics, or even social media clicks.
Second, as Christians we need to frame persecution in terms of privilege and not victimhood – the ‘woe is me’ pity party that abounds in our society. Paul wrote: ‘For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake’ (Philippians 1:29). This is why the apostles could rejoice despite being beaten: ‘They were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name’ (Acts 5:41). It is a privilege because it is to identify with Christ and share in his sufferings (1 Peter 4:13).
Third, there needs to be a holy contentment that not all ill-treatment and hostility will be remedied in this life. As an innocent man Paul was legally persecuted in the presence of Festus, but he used what avenues he could to appeal to Caesar (see Acts 25:11).
But there comes a time when avenues are exhausted and there is no more earthly appeal. There comes a time when we must not love our lives even unto death (Revelation 12:11). Rather, we embrace the sword of persecution as that which hastens us to the Lord Jesus and entrust ourselves to the Judge of all the earth who will do what is right.
One final response: in the midst of persecution, we must still seek to be Christians – to respect our authorities, to love our enemy, to guard our tongues, and not to repay evil with evil.
In persecution our gospel holiness should shine brightest. And perhaps one of the best ways to do that is to endure persecution without complaining. As Paul wrote: ‘Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world’ (Philippians 2:14-15). Isn’t that interesting? One of the best ways to stand out against a dark society and culture that is pushing hard against the claims of Jesus Christ, is not to complain.
Aiming at realism and not pessimism, the Western church has for far too long been lulled with the appearance of ease and comfort. If a coming persecution should dispel that appearance for what it is – a mere mirage – then let the church of Jesus Christ assume its ancient glory and rest in the infallible promise that through many dangers, toils, and snares Jesus is building his church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Reproduced with permission by gentlereformation.com.