Persecution: The Reality

1 July 2018

There is a truism in that Christians who are passionate about the Gospel will be persecuted. The Bible tells us that the dark cannot abide the light, yet the Church in the West, particularly, has its luminescence dimmed which indicates why there is a reluctance in spreading the good news of Jesus.

One of the reasons that Jesus riled the religious authorities was because of His passion for people to be released from religiosity and into a real relationship with their Heavenly Father. If He had sat back and waited for people to come to Him, His impact would have been minimal. Indeed, He stated that His mission was an active one: ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.’ (Luke 19: 10) The opposite to love is not anger but is apathy – the lack of any emotion – which is what we are seeing as the result of our inactivity and lack of concern as people continue their path of a lost eternity.

In contrast, where people are roused by the determination that all shall hear, there is opposition because people’s consciences are affected, and the kingdom of darkness is threatened. Where people’s lives were comfortable and untroubled, they are now confronted by the impact on their lifestyles and mindsets that bowing their knees to King Jesus would mean.

If we are standing out for the kingdom of God, there is the inevitability that people will react harshly, aggressively, and even violently against us. The New Testament tells us: ‘do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.’ (1 Peter 4:12)

Increasingly, the evidence demonstrates that world religions of belief and unbelief are acting against the claims of the Gospel. An example of the former is that, in 2017, the Hindu-led government in Nepal issued a decree that ‘No one should involve or encourage in conversion of religion.’ We can see other examples of hostile nations, whose religiosity (such as militant Islam or worship of an ideology) is challenged by the truth of the Gospel.

Christians in the Western world rarely know what true persecution is – they read about in the media and see the quotations in the Bible and try to wrap its definition to meet their situations. It is not being bullied or sniggered at, and, most of all, it is not a reaction to a conservative social agenda. We can get so caught up with issues rather than centring on the Gospel, which is dynamite in an intolerant world that claims to be tolerant. We can concentrate on rules, regulations and laws rather than yearn for revival – a change in people’s hearts is far more effective than any change in legislation. In the book of Acts, the early Church prayed for boldness to preach the Gospel, not to change the laws of the Roman Empire (Acts 4: 23 – 31). As someone who believes in the inerrant Word of God and that it has implications in aspects of our lives (so I believe in the sanctity of marriage and the worth of human life at all stages), I would not classify any negation of what I hold true to be persecution as society can cope with or deride the social implications of the Bible, but the strong claims of Jesus as the only Saviour is beyond their boundaries of acceptance.

In the lap of luxury, the reality is that western Christians have become chameleons – indistinguishable from the society around them, even letting the ‘little sins’ (like gossip and gluttony) pervade our churches.

It is the Church that lacks persecution that has the indulgence of diverging from the truth, such as promoting the prosperity ‘gospel’ or having an incorrect and unbiblical view on sexuality. Where persecution exists, the Church’s principle concern is to share the good news that Jesus came and died so that we can be with Him for ever.

It is true that ‘if one member suffers, all suffer together’ (1 Corinthians 12: 26), yet we tend to compartmentalise their experience into our Sunday morning prayers rather than seek to share in their ferventness in service for Jesus. We theorise about how we would react in times of persecution instead of seeking to stand out in the work of the Gospel.

There is the danger of sitting idly by as the fires of persecution are being stoked around us. There is the story that priests in the Russian Orthodox Church were discussing the niceties of whether, if a fly fell into a communion cup, the fly would be sanctified, or the cup would be contaminated. During this discussion, there was the Communist revolution taking place in Russia that would seek to abolish religion (unsuccessfully) in the coming years.

James knew of the importance of facing persecution as a tool of sanctification. He wrote: ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ (James 1: 2 – 3) It is only after this entry into the crucible that he goes on to deal with teaching in the Church for doctrine must be refined in the harshest heat. There is an expectation that we will share with the Master in His sufferings (Philippians 3: 10, see also 2 Corinthians 1: 5; 4: 10 – 11; 13: 4), we will know the blessings of His resurrection.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states that those who are persecuted will be blessed or made happy because they suffer for Him (Matthew 5: 11 – 12). It is not some kind of masochistic joy, but getting the reality that this world is not all there is and more will be happening in the grand scheme of eternity. Incidentally, we often treat the passage about salt and light as another section (due, in part, to Bible publishers unhelpfully putting a title between the words), but the words about persecution lead directly onto those about salt and light. It is important as we show Christian distinctiveness in the Gospel that Satan and the demonic powers will do all in their capabilities to try and stop us, even in the limited earthly realm as they have none in the heavenly.

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, in the hall of fame, that there were men and women of faith who ‘were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.’ (11: 35) Later in the chapter, the author tells us what that ‘better resurrection’ was: ‘God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.’ (verse 40) That is, persecution is momentary, even to the point of losing one’s life, but being with God will be forever.

It must be drummed into the newest Christian in the faith that living in the lap of luxury is abnormal in God’s perspective. If we want to be effective, we must be prepared to give up for Him. When Saul/Paul was converted, he was set aside to work for the Lord Jesus, but he was also told of the consequences: ‘I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’ (Acts 9: 16) We cannot expect to be highly effective for the kingdom of God without losing more of ourselves, including experiencing deep loathing and hatred.

Sinclair Ferguson, in his book Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, wrote that Stephen’s death was key to bringing about Paul’s spiritual life. He continued by quoting John Calvin who said: ‘from the beginning that God has so constituted the church that death is the way to life, and the cross is the way to victory. Union with Christ, I think, then grinds that into the lenses through which we see absolutely all of the suffering of our lives,’

Tony Reinke (in his blog ‘Does Christianity Make Life Harder?’ on the Desiring God site) develops the idea by stating: ‘So yes, our union sanctifies our inevitable suffering in the world. And yes, our union with Christ also brings with it a greater sting in our suffering, as we live contrary to the world and as we see the ravages of sin in this world and among those we love.’
It means stepping out of our cosy Christian subculture and into the fires of those who will hate what Jesus stands for. There are many of the teachings of Jordan Peterson, the high priest and prophet of the ‘nones,’ that I would take issue with; however, I strongly agree with his assertion that Christians do not apply the teachings of Jesus. Whatever he may mean by that assertion (and I suspect that he would not be comfortable in the least should they do so), we are meant to turn the world upside down with the Messiah’s radical good news that He is the way, the truth and the life and there is no other way to come to the Father. 
There is a closeness to God through suffering for Him that cannot be obtained in any other way. ‘But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.’ (1 Peter 4: 13 – 14)
Tim Keller has commented: ‘Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.’ (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, p. 30)
It is not in the easy life that maturity comes about, but in those times where it is difficult to nail your flag to the mast. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a man who know what it was to die for his Saviour) explained that many of us experience ‘cheap grace,’ where our Christianity costs us nothing.
In a paraphrase of the great writer, A W Tozer, ‘One thing you know about a man walking out of town with a cross on his back: he wasn’t coming back.’ There was that commitment to Jesus Christ that we die to ourselves so that He would be glorified. Indeed, it is only in dying to ourselves that we find life in all its fullness. It is that injunction that we find coming from the lips of Jesus: ‘Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14: 27) It is an active thing that we have and not a call to passivity.
I remember going on holiday and attending a small chapel in the evening. There was a session before the service started properly, filled with hymns that I had never come across before. One man stood up and announced that if we carried on singing in the way that we were, people would stop in the street outside and walk into the building. In that moment, I had a feeling that the emphasis was all wrong: we should be like the Master in seeking them, not them seeking us.
Church is not supposed to be a cosy social club, but the body of Christ that we should be prepared to lay down our lives for. Paul reminds us: ‘Now I rejoice in what I suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking in regard to Christ’s affliction, for the sake of his body, which is the church.’ (Colossians 1: 24) It is something that we need to remind ourselves when we disagree about trivial matters with our brothers and sisters in Christ. For when we suffer for the body of believers, we suffer for the One who is head over all.
You only have to look at the life of Jesus on earth to know what is expected of us. It was not in the early years of Christ’s ministry (when people clamoured to Him in admiration) that the fruit was borne, but in the later times of opposition which culminated in His death and subsequent resurrection.
The difficulty in many Christian circles is that they are often falling into the trap of fighting battles on the periphery (many, I am sure, are worthy of attention) and, if the State or other organisations are countering their tenets with legislation or other means, then it is termed ‘persecution.’
Not only is the term being missed applied, it also cheapens what is really happening. I am sure that wearing a cross at work or expressing that same-sex relationships are wrong (for example) are good causes, but is not what the Bible describes as persecution, for the issues are far greater than the working out of a Christian belief. Persecution is not merely about what we believe but Who we know.
The regimes and organisations that persecute Christians (for it is rarely individuals acting on their own) do so because they have no argument that counters the persuasiveness of the Good News. The act of aggression (whether physical, mental, emotionally or otherwise) comes about as they must face the fact that Christianity is a torrent force of love and truth – things that they cannot handle. If Christ and His followers are proclaiming this eternal reality then their hearts, minds and lifestyles will have to change radically, which is an anathema to them as their self-fulfilment is the object of their existence.
It will a matter of development as we walk on the narrow way in following Jesus. C S Lewis stated that hardship often prepares an ordinary person for an extraordinary destiny.
The impression that Christians living out for Jesus has is that ‘your faith in God has become known everywhere.’ (1 Thessalonians 1: 8) Instead of being seasoning that is considered irrelevant or lights being hidden under bowls (Matthew 5: 13 – 16), the people of God should be turning the world upside down.
There is cowardice in trusting in God in manty Western churches, lapping up the luxuries of a consumer society rather than depending on the durability of the eternal God. We state that we own our eternity to Jesus, but forget His promises about being with us. The Lord has promised: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.’ (Isaiah 43: 1 – 2)
Our sure foundation is the One who walks with His people. The surety of the situation was expressed by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, when they faced what seemed like certain death for standing up for the Lord God: ‘,,,we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’ (Daniel 3: 16a – 18) These words are so opportune as people who oppose God today have sought to promote their gods of personality cult and materialistic lifestyles.
We can forget that this world is a transitory thing as the Bible urges us to live as aliens and strangers whilst we are here (1 Peter 2: 11).  Paul also wrote: ‘But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3: 20)   
If the cry of the loving God on the cross is too close to affect them, their only means of combatting it is to lash out against His disciples. We are not only to be the recipients of Christ’s grace but are to be proclaimers of it also – whatever the cost of it to ourselves – because we are to have the greater perspective that to share in Christ’s sufferings now will be worth the living with Him eternally.