We turn our attention now to another major problem area – PERSECUTION. To some Christians, persecution and suffering are topics which they vaguely associate with Christian living. Persecution is not something real in the lives of these various ones, and many of the scriptural truths related to this topic are not clearly perceived and understood. They seem so distant and the attitudes and response to persecution when it does arise are rather disappointing for disciples of the Lord.
Let us take note of what the apostle Peter said in 1 Peter 4:12-16 – “Beloved – do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you…” When suffering and persecution do come, as God’s children, we are not to be surprised – it is not something strange or unexpected. In fact, it is an area which we need to be prepared for if we seek to honour the Lord. The apostle Paul himself declared that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. The degree of persecution may vary, with differing intensity, for different ones during different periods. Nevertheless, it is something God’s children will have to encounter, particularly in the last days. We should therefore not be caught unprepared or off guard; persecution may not just be in terms of physical sufferings, it may take the form of unfair treatment by men or social disapproval by friends and even family members because of our faith.
The problems we encounter should be because of our faith and not because of wrongful or foolish behaviour. The apostle Peter emphasised that the suffering is for the name of our Lord and for being a Christian, and not because of being a murderer, a thief, an evildoer or a troublesome meddler. There may be those among God’s children who find themselves in trouble because of foolishness in their approach towards others and because of unwise responses in life. This is not in the same category as suffering for the sake of the Lord.
The preparedness to suffer persecution as a Christian would help us in our response, should such a situation arise. I remember interacting with a young Christian some years back. He was lamenting that if he knew that Christian life would involve so much pain and suffering, he would have hesitated in becoming a Christian. Part of this, it seems, was due to how the gospel was shared with him. The gospel was presented to him as a wonderful prospect for his life, full of joy and meaning, and nothing much was mentioned about the cost of discipleship and the prospect of suffering and persecution. So when persecution did come, he was not prepared and he was badly shaken. Contrast this with a Christian sister whom I know. She was one who understood the cost of being a Christian and even though she had to leave home because of her faith and even now has to endure the displeasure of her own family and friends, she continues to press on in her walk with God. I am aware that it pains her heart to have her own family members turning against her, yet her love for the Lord and willingness to go on, despite the tears and agony, truly warm my heart.
The apostle Peter also touched on the attitude and response of Christians in the midst of persecution. He said, “…to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing…if you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (see 1 Peter 4:13-14). Yes, indeed, we are not just to grit our teeth and to endure and to hang on; we are to rejoice and to keep on rejoicing for we are truly blessed in the Lord! Peter went on to say that for the one who suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed but in that name let him glorify God. Our attitude and response during such a time can be a positive testimony as well as a vehicle to glorify and to honour God. I read about a Christian brother who died for his faith in his homeland. His testimony and his words continue to be an inspiration to many to press on in their walk with God. Before he died, he was asked this question. “Are you not afraid that you would be a social outcast by becoming a Christian?” And his reply was along this line, “I have thought this through over carefully and I am not just prepared to be shunned by my people but I rejoice even if I have to die for my Lord.” This brother eventually gave his life for his Master and his words and testimony live on in the hearts of many of God’s people in a land where being a disciple of the Lord would inevitably mean pain, persecution and suffering.
James, the brother of the Lord, also wrote about the attitude of the child of God towards times of sufferings and trials, in James 1:2-4 – “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Here the apostle James highlighted one significant reason why we can rejoice in the midst of pain and suffering. If we respond properly, times like these would purify and strengthen our faith and they would serve to mould our character. Something precious and wonderful can take place in our lives during periods of persecution and trials and this is certainly something to rejoice in.
God does allow persecution and suffering to test and purify the faith of His people. Looking at the history of the church, we may recall how the Roman Christians were burnt at the stakes, stoned and thrown to the lions’ den. Even today, in some contexts, the Lord’s people still undergo torture, imprisonment and ostracism because of their faith. The church of God can become stronger and purer during such times of testing.
The evil one uses the pull of this world and deception to ensnare the people of God. In the area of persecution, the evil one is also very actively at work. And the primary weapon he uses in persecution is FEAR. Fear of pain, fear of suffering, fear of rejection – all these are harnessed to cause the children of God to falter and to compromise. So when the pull of the world and deception fail, the prince of this world would resort to fear as his offensive weapon. In practice, different combinations of the three may also be employed at the same time.
So, as we face the onslaught of persecution, let us pause and consider several principles which may help us in our perspective and response. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Let us take heart in the fact that the evil one is limited. He may inflict pain and suffering on our body but he cannot ultimately touch our soul if we remain steadfast and true to the Lord. The Scriptures remind us that the sufferings in this world are only temporal; they cannot be with the eternal weight of glory that awaits the faithful servants of God. Even physical death, which seems so terrifying to those without God, has lost its sting for those who have their eyes upon God and eternity. And the Lord would grant grace sufficient for us in each moment of trial if we learn to look to Him and to cast our burdens upon Him. The Lord, in His wisdom and faithfulness, would regulate and He would not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able but will provide the way of escape that we may be able to endure it. Hence, we need not succumb to the fiery darts hurled at us by the evil one; we need not be fearful of those who kill the body, for our lives and our souls are secure in the hands of our dear Lord and Master.
Not only have we nothing to fear; in fact, we can count it a privilege to suffer for our Lord and Master. The Lord will not overlook our faithful response during such times. “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you, when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). The Lord Jesus Himself here affirms that those who are persecuted for righteousness sake and on account of Him are indeed blessed. They should be glad, for their reward is great in heaven.
During times of persecution and suffering, let us not forget to look at the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter, in writing on the subject of suffering unjustly, sought to help the Christians to remember this (see 1 Peter 2:19-24). The Lord has indeed left us an example for us to follow in His steps. Let us learn to walk in the steps of the Master and let us always remember that all our sufferings cannot ever be compared with what the Lord has gone through for us at Calvary. Let us humbly learn from Him and seek to honour Him in all our ways.