hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of race or political or religious beliefs.
As Christians, why does persecution surprise us?
Why does it anger us and bring us outrage? Why do we demand to be treated better, often see our persecutors as opponents unworthy of God’s grace, and even sometimes retaliate or call for retaliation? Were we not told to expect this when we signed on with Christ? (2 Timothy 3:12) Were we not given directions in advance to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? (Matt 5:43-48) Peter even says not to consider persecution “as though some strange thing happened to you” (1 Peter 4:12-19). So why does our reaction to persecution of the Church today look so…well, typical? Predictable even?
My fellow Christians, God has a call for us. He is calling us to shower the world with Christ’s love. He is calling us to respond to persecution of ourselves and fellow believers not with hate or disgust for the persecutors, but with support for the suffering. Dare I say it, he is calling us to respond to the persecutors themselves with love and empathy for these lost people. He is calling for us to graciously accept anything and everything that the world throws at us or the rest of the Church. He is calling for us to turn the other cheek, to offer our tunic to those who rob us of our cloaks, and to surprise the world with how incredibly different we are. He even calls us to enter persecution knowingly and willingly.
Today, the Christian church is facing persecution of various degrees.
Tens of thousands of Christians were recently forcibly evicted from Mosul in Iraq, Christians across Syria are suffering at the hands of extremists, Christians have been imprisoned recently in Iran and Sudan, the Church continues to be persecuted to near elimination in North Korea, and Christians in Nigeria are suffering at the hands of Boko Haram. Overall, Christianity is illegal or physically dangerous in about 51 countries of the world. Persecution of a lesser degree has happened in the West, with some seeing certain political actions as persecutions of the Church and with parts of Europe being seemingly hostile to religion altogether. So yea, we’ve got some tough stuff going on. But let me tell you, we can use that hostility to turn the world on its head.
We’ve just gotta respond in a way that would turn heads.
Jesus says some pretty awesome stuff in chapter 5 of Matthew. Something he says about persecution specifically that’s always stuck out to me is Matthew 5:11-12, “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.”
Wow. Be glad about persecution? What? Um, Jesus, you do understand what persecution is, right? It kinda sucks… Huh, maybe he just doesn’t understand what persecution is like… Or maybe, just maybe, He plans to use our persecution to save others and to glorify His name. In all honesty, I think many of us Christians today often respond to persecution in much the same way that anyone else would. We avoid it, detest it, and get angry about it. We march in protest, shout about our rights, and overall demand to be treated right. I can’t blame ya. Everyone deserves justice, yea? Everyone deserves to be treated fairly, yea? Isn’t that what Western society, democracy, and the modern world is all about? Equal rights for all and such gooshy stuff?
But what if we took a more humble approach?
What if, instead of spending time marching for our rights that are infringed upon, we spent that time ministering to the needs of those infringing on our rights? What if we considered others as more important than ourselves? (Phil 2:3) What if we chose to be wise not in the world’s way, but in God’s way. “But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.” James 3:17-18.
I will say, it is crucial and absolutely called of us as Christians to stand for justice. And we are meant to oppose wrongdoing and evil. But I believe we should oppose evil itself. Oppose the Evil One, not the ones he has deceived. Make it your priority in life to reconcile the lost to Christ, even when they persecute you or others. Let your heart break for those stuck in hatred rather than also being driven towards hatred by their actions. “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12. Trust me, God will judge those who allow themselves to be instruments of evil and do not turn from their ways. No condemnation from us will even make a difference in the end.
But for us, love, above all things, is meant to emanate from our lives, absolutely regardless of anything going on in the world around us. I call you to pray for the persecuted, but to pray for the persecutors just as much (if not more). We can change the world through Christ, but we must consider ourselves nothing for the sake of others first.
Counting our lives as nothing for the sake of others.
About a century ago, a band of brave souls became known as one-way missionaries. They bought tickets to the mission field without the return half. Instead of suitcases, they packed their few earthly belongings into coffins. As they sailed away, they waved goodbye to everyone they loved and all they knew, knowing they’d never return home. They gave up everything to leave for near-guaranteed persecution. One of those missionaries was A.W. Milne. He set sail for the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, aware that the headhunters there had martyred every. single. missionary. before him. But guess what. Milne didn’t fear for his life because he had already died to himself. His coffin was packed. He ended up living among the tribe for 35 years, sharing Christ and His love with people who had previously horrifically killed many of his brethren. When he died, they buried him in the middle of the village and inscribed the following on his tombstone: “When he came there was no light. When he left there was no darkness.” I wish to see more people thinking like that today. Counting our lives as nothing for the sake of others.
See the world as God sees it.
I hope that we can all come to see the world as God sees it, a place full of people desperately in need of their Creator, beloved and beautiful, and in need of healing over their brokenness. In Ezekiel 18:23 and 27 God says, “Do you think that I like to see wicked people die?…Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live…if a wicked person turns away from the wickedness they have committed and does what is just and right, they will save their life.” I encourage you to do all you can in your life to help people turn to God and be reconciled to Him, so that their incredibly valuable lives will be saved.
I will leave you now with the passage of 1 Peter 3:8-18. This passage summarizes beautifully the focus that God hopes to see in our lives.
“8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For,
“Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech.
11 They must turn from evil and do good;
they must seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.”