June 23, 2014

3 Reasons to Think about Persecution

Persecution is not a pretty word. For many in the American evangelical church, persecution is something that happened a long time ago, or that is happening somewhere else. Perhaps we only associate it with Paul and Silas. Or the seemingly super-human profiles and gruesome scenarios in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. It's something we may briefly hope never happens to us. Possibly—possibly—we’ve had an occasional midnight plagued with thoughts of ostracism, criminal charges, or prison. 

Mostly, though, I suspect we avoid thinking about it altogether. 

But persecution—what I might define as antagonism or suffering because of allegiance to Christ—is not some fuzzy and unpleasant dust-bunny to shove under the dark corner of the mind’s bed. Nor is it something that happens only in alternate universes which are not 21st century America. Nor is it a topic only for conspiracy-theorists or alarmists with fringe eschatological theologies. Persecution is not even an unrelentingly depressing subject (remember Paul and Silas?)

No, persecution is close at hand. It already came to the wedding cake bakers and photographers and craft-supply store owners and public-university evangelical groups.  In our current culture, it often comes through biblical stands on homosexuality and the sanctity of life, but it came recently in my life from the T-ball coach at the annual meeting who publicly castigated parents and children who dare decline to play ball on the Lord’s Day. It even comes sometimes to ministry families from church members who object to plain and pointed teaching of the Scriptures. And, if it hasn’t arrived at your door yet, it is coming. 

We ought to discipline ourselves to think about persecution. 

We ought to pray about it, search the Scriptures for it, seek the Spirit’s help in it, and consider its implications for our own lives. We ought to look for it to happen (“in the world you will have tribulation” John 16:33) and call it what it is when it does. 

It’s undeniably uncomfortable to look hard and long at persecution, but let me offer three reasons we should do it anyway. 

(1) Thinking about persecution helps us to understand the Bible. The church throughout history, and notably the first-century church, was a persecuted church. Paul wrote his letters to Christians who were suffering. When James instructed his readers to “count it all joy. . .when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2) this was not a happy thought for them to save for a rainy day. The original readers of the biblical text were intimate with mocking and flogging, with the dens and caves of the earth. (Heb. 11:36-38) 

Thinking about persecution also helps us to understand the church’s more modern history: Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, Ridley and Latimer being burned at the stake, John Bunyan in prison, our Puritan parents fleeing to America. 

Being familiar with the situation of so many brothers and sisters through time enables us to understand just how precious was their—and our!—hope: 
“What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or family or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerers through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37)
Most especially, thinking about persecution points us to our Savior who knew no sin and yet suffered unjustly as a sinner on our behalf. Looking full in the face of persecution allows us to love Jesus more. And if His association with us led to His persecution, how then can we fear the cost of associating with Him? 

(2) Thinking about persecution compels us to pray for our brothers and sisters worldwide who are being persecuted. In so many countries—Eritrea, Iran, China, Syria—Christ’s family, our family, is suffering. Do we remember them? In this country, too, it’s easy to ignore those whose faith is proving costly. Last week my denomination had its General Assembly, and one of the actions of the gathered commissioners was to adopt a statement of thanks to God and brotherly solidarity with those Christians who have suffered for their faith. I am thankful that they did so. 

Hebrews 13:3 commands us: “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” If we do not think about persecution, how can we remember and pray for those for whom it is a daily reality?

(3) Thinking about persecution equips us for our own persecutionThis post is the first, Lord willing, in a series on persecution. My desire is to provide biblical encouragement, historical perspective, and Christ-focused hope for Christians, and especially ministry wives, as we increasingly accept “the reproach of Christ.” (Heb. 11:26) In future weeks, I will address more fully how we can ready ourselves for antagonism and suffering. 

For now, though, I will simply say this: unless we think about persecution and recognize it in our lives, we will never look with expectation for God’s certain kindness in the midst of it. I Peter 3:14 says, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” 

You will be blessed. 

Thinking about persecution is not an exercise in doom-and-gloom negativity. It’s not the exclusive territory of Chicken Littles or gluttons for punishment. Thinking biblically about persecution is ultimately an opportunity to look to Christ and to seek a promised blessing from his hand. 

Who doesn’t want to think about that?

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