July 7, 2014

Before We Call Suffering "Persecution"

Recently, I was talking to a man who is suffering for righteousness sake in his workplace. His faithful stand for Christ means he stands to lose his job. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied: 

“Well, I’m thinking about what they [my co-workers] are accusing me of. I’m considering how I may have sinned. And where I was wrong, I’m repenting.” 

Facing starkly-drawn lines between godly behavior and actions acceptable to the world, we may be tempted to think that all hardship is persecution. It might make us feel better about experiencing suffering if we can call it “persecution,” and minor instances of antagonism, especially, can bring a temptation to self-righteousness and pride. 

But not all suffering is persecution. 

In my first post in the series, I defined persecution as antagonism or suffering because of allegiance to Christ. It is important to realize that we experience suffering which has nothing to do with our affiliation with Christ. Every day, life in a fallen world brings us low with stomach bugs and wasp stings and the price of a gallon of milk. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, said Jesus (Matt. 5:45). The tornadoes and hailstorms do, too. Thankfully, God is often pleased to pluck our earthly splinters for his own glory (John 9:3), and he will remove them all on that day when we are taken, body and soul, to be with Jesus. But while we remain on this earth, we do experience this kind of hardship—and it is not persecution. 

Sometimes, too, our suffering is a direct result of our rebellion against Christ. When we sin, we often face consequences. Speeding down the highway gets us a ticket. And this is not persecution, either. The Apostle Peter writes, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure?” (1 Pet. 2:19) This kind of suffering is not without hope. In the life of a believer those consequences for sin are discipline from a loving God to make us more like him: “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Heb. 12:10b) We receive the unpleasant result of our sin with humility, looking for the kindness of our Lord. But we don't call it persecution. 

But there is a third category, and this is where I suspect most of us find ourselves. Even when we face antagonism or suffering as a result of our allegiance Christ—even when we are doing or saying the right thing—some of our hardship may come because of our own sin. In their commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, A.A. Hodge and J. Aspinwall Hodge write, “Our most holy actions are imperfect, mixed with sin.” And the Apostle Paul says, “Be angry and do not sin.” (Eph. 4:26a) It is possible to be both right and wrong. 

This knowledge is what moved my persecuted friend to search his heart and seek repentance. We may be absolutely right about a particular moral issue but express our position without neighbor-love in our hearts. We may desire the right end but employ foolish means. We may even do the correct thing as a cover-up for evil lurking in our hearts (1 Pet. 2:16).

Our relationship with suffering for righteousness? It’s complicated. 

A Christian acts and thinks with conviction, yes, but he never rides a high horse. Even in persecution, we find an opportunity to examine ourselves and to repent of the sin that surely is there. And this brings us back to Christ: 
“But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet. 2:20b-24) 
As we complicate our suffering with our own sin, we look in faith to the uncomplicated One, whose suffering for us makes us perfectly holy.  Thanks be to God.
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Posts in the persecution series:
3 Reasons to Think about Persecution
Seek Peace. Expect Trouble. Make New Friends.

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