Blessed Are the Persecuted

Despite the prayers of some overzealous, first-year seminary students, most Christians do not long for suffering. They do not grab their morning cup of coffee hoping their day ends with their home on fire, their fingers broken, or their heads chopped off. We prefer peace.

Still, persecution finds us. Jesus declared persecution to be the inevitable outcome of the Christian life. He closed out the beatitudes with these words: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:10). Those who mourn their sin, pursue purity, and facilitate peace receive both God’s blessings and their neighbor’s hatred.

We should not be surprised by such an outcome for Jesus experienced the same fate. Jesus loved those around him with an intentional level of perfection, sharing truth, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Despite earning the pleasure of his heavenly father, Jesus still ended his life very much nailed to a cross. He followers should expect the same fate. Jesus noted in Matthew 10:25

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.

Christians will be persecuted for righteousness sake.

What is Persecution?

The term persecution conveys the military idea of total annihilation. A persecutor would be one who commands his troops to hunt down and annihilate all his opponents. Prior to his conversion, the apostle Paul did this. He testifies that,

I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished (Acts 22:4-5).

Paul looked far and wide for Christians so that he could crush them out of existence through physiological manipulation and physical force (Acts 26:9-11).

Throughout church history, groups of Christians have experienced such physical persecution. The seventeen-year-old girl Margaret Wilson was drowned for her faith off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1685. Graham Staines was burned to death in his car in India in 1999. All over the world, Christians are harassed, imprisoned, and murdered for their faith.

Though countless groups and governments still pursue Christians as Paul did thousands of years ago, millions of Christians are blessed to live in nations with stable borders. They do not wake up contemplating whether they will be imprisoned because they attended church. This reality brings us back to those over eager seminary students. Do we need to pray for and seek out physical persecution to achieve the kingdom of God? Do we have to be flogged to be blessed?

Jesus says no. In Matthew 5:11, Jesus expands upon the concept of persecution with his disciples associating the term with reviling and lying. Our savior teaches that much of the persecution that we will endure will be verbal. As the famed reformer, Martin Luther, noted, persecution often consists of “bitter slander and poisonous defamation.” Even if a Christian never kneels to prepare for the executioner’s sword, he can still be certain that his good name will be assaulted by the world. To be slandered for righteousness sake is to be persecuted for Christ.

Not All Persecution is Equal

But not all slander and lies constitute biblical persecution. Once while walking in a rough part of Louisville, KY and sporting a University of Louisville jersey, I was verbally accosted by a slow-moving station wagon jammed full of kids and one loudmouth dad. Those insults brought God no glory. Similarly, the insults we receive after we post about our favorite political candidate, share our ideas on nutrition, or discuss our views on fashion do not constitute righteous persecution. God still uses those moments to shape and model our hearts, but they do not prove our membership in the kingdom of heaven (Jm 1).

Similarly, persecution associated with our sins brings God no glory. A pastor in Alabama has been excoriated on twitter and elsewhere for plagiarizing sermons. Though I believe the Alabama pastor meant well, seeking to grow the body of Christ, he still bore false and presented the intellectual property of another as his own to grow his brand. He has suffered much but not for righteousness sake. He suffered because he sinned. The twitter attacks should not lead him to rejoicing but to repentance.

To suffer for righteousness sake, one must be criticized for being like Christ. The deacon who was asked to step down because he regularly mocks people’s Instagram posts has not suffered for Jesus. The deacon who builds a ramp for a widow in the church and then is wrongfully accused of coveting the widow’s inheritance has been persecuted for righteousness sake. The woman who was fired from her job because she said such and such a political candidate deserves to be removed from office (if not shot) has not suffered for Jesus. However, the woman who is fired because she shared Jesus with a grieving coworker at lunch has suffered. And when we do suffer for loving God and others well, we should rejoice.

Rejoice in Suffering

When we find ourselves attacked for helping the poor, visiting the sick, and evangelizing the poor, we can be tempted to respond in bewilderment and anger. We should do neither. Rather we should rejoice for the displeasure of the world reveals we have attained the pleasure of God. Those who are persecuted may lose out on jobs, friends, and a host of earthly amenities. But they get so much more than the trinkets of today. The get Christ. When Stephen who shared Christ and cared for widows was executed after being falsely accused, he did not stumble into sorrow. He was raised to glory. When the stones reigned down upon his head, he got Jesus. Acts 7:25 reports, “And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Rejoice when people dislike you because you are like Jesus for you like Jesus will too be in heaven.

But we do not have to wait for heavenly vindication. Throughout history, God’s people have been persecuted. Isaiah was thrown in jail. Jeremiah was thrown into a mud pit. Daniel was tossed into a lion’s den. The prophet Uriah was hunted down and executed because he declared the message of God. As Jesus noted in his parable on the unjust tenants, the world has taken God’s servants, “and beat one, killed another, and stoned another (Matt 12:35-26).” To suffer for righteousness sake is to be on the right side of history. Instead of bemoaning their hardships, Christians should rejoice when persecution comes for they walk in the footsteps of giants.

Blessed are those who persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Do You Know How to Suffer Well?

sufferingThe Christian life is a life a suffering. One Russian pastor who suffered much under the old Soviet Regime remarked to Nik Ripken, the author of The Insanity of God:

Persecution is like the sun coming up in the east. It happens all the time. It’s the way things are. There is nothing unusual or unexpected about it. Persecution for our faith has always been – and probably always will be – a normal part of life. 

But such glum sentiments hit many American Christians like a punch in the gut. We are seeking to find our best and most satisfying life now through Christ. We are following Christ in part so that we can have nice kids, a stable career, fun vacations, and the occasional spiritual high that comes via a powerful sermon, a great choir special, or a short-term mission trip. We are not embracing Christ because we want something hard and messy. We want our best life now.

The Normalcy  Suffering and Persecution

But despite our thoughts, the Scriptures actually affirm the Russian pastor’s understanding of suffering. Jesus repeatedly tells us to take up our cross and follow him.

 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. – Matthew 16:24

While such denial obviously consists of the spiritual realities associated with battling the flesh, they also have physical consequences as well. Jesus says:

And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved…if they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. – Matthew 10: 22, 25b.

To identify with Christ, to call Christ our savior, and to follow Christ, we must be willing to suffer persecution. We must be willing to first fight against our flesh, to battle our desires, and to deprive our sinful hearts. And, we must be willing to endure snide comments from our mother-in-law, embrace a pink-slip from out boss, and to suffer death at the hands of our neighbors. Those who embrace Christ and who refuse to abandon the gospel when the world labels them foolish, hateful, and bigoted will suffer.

Paul makes this point clear in 2 Timothy 1 and 2. Verse 1:8 famously says,

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in the suffering for the gospel by the power of God

In 2 Timothy 2:3 Paul revisits the subject writing, “Share in the suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”

Christians who are unashamed of the gospel are those who share in suffering. Suffering and persecution happen all the time. They are like the sun coming up.

rome-2350633_1920The question quite naturally becomes, “How do we do this?” How do we suffer well? How do we avoid  seeing suffering and falling away from the gospel like Phygelus and Hermogenes did and stand firm like Onesiphorus (2 Tim 1:15-18)? How to we prepare for and then suffer well?

Paul gives us three analogies or three pictures of the Christian life that help us prepare for and survive suffering.

1. Avoid Civilian Pursuits

First Paul tell us to avoid civilian pursuits and to keep our focus on Christ. “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him (2 Tm 2:4).” We must not allow God’s good gifts to dominate our lives. We must not peruse a spouse to the point where we become entrapped in sexual sin and cease to live for Christ. We must not pursue our kids athletic of theatrical skills to the point we seldom attend church and we regularly neglect our and our children’s spiritual life. We never or seldom read the Scriptures, prayer and serve with others in the church because we are always at the field or at the auditorium. We must not become so devoted to our job and financial success that we neglect family worship and praying with our spouse. We must not allow civilian pleasures, the cares of the world to undo our faith.

We must live to please God. We must live to glorify Christ with our speak, our eating, our drinking our everything ( 1Cor. 10:31). As James McDonald said,

Our decisions do not boil down to meaningless preferences about food, drink, and other minutiae; they boil down to giving glory to God.

We must bend our kids’ sport’s careers to the gospel, we must bend our work schedule to the gospel, and we must bend all of our ambitions to the gospel. We must live as soldiers devoted to their heavenly Lord. And when push comes to shove, baseball, careers, and the world must be shoved aside for the gospel. If we shove the Gospel aside for the world, we will only despair and spiritual ruin. If we hope to be ready for suffering and if we hope to suffer well today, we must live as soldiers who sacrifice all civilian pursuits for Christ.

2. Compete According To The Rules

Second, we must compete according to the rules. Paul writes, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules (2 Tim 2:4).” Brother and sisters we must abide by God’s revealed Words. We must obey the Scriptures if we hope to finish well. The Russians were recently kicked out of the Olympics because they repeatedly used illegal drugs to give their athletes and unfair advantage. And instead of winning more medals and accruing fame and fortune, the Russians were kicked out the competition and won dishonor and condemnation.

If we attempted to live the Christian life by breaking the Word of God, we too will awake to find our lives filled with dishonor and condemnation. If we lie about the health of our church budget to attract deceive people into giving more gifts, if we refuse to report sexual abuse in an attempt to further the gospel, and if we promote non-Christians to assume positions of leadership in our church to gain fame in the community, we will end in ruin. If we hope to survive persecution, if we hope to find spiritual hope in the midst of cancer, and if we hope to find the power to continue loving our unlovable great grandmother whose in hospice, we must compete according to the Word. We must obey God. We cannot expect to experience spiritual blessing while breaking his reveal Word. We must compete according to the rules.

3. Labor Faithfully

Thirdly, we must labor faithfully. The last word picture Paul employs is that of a farmer.  “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops (2 Tim 2:6).” Farming is not going to get you notice. Farmers who daily work their farms planting crops, tending to their animals, and working on tractors do not get reality T.V. shows. The world does not stop and notice the farmer who painstakingly plants field after field with soybeans. No, the world is attracted to mid-twenty somethings who wear tank-tops and short skirts while the get into bar fights on the beach and to powerful men and women who gain power through quips, brides, and flashes speeches.

Paul mentions farmers for exactly this reason. The Christian life is hard and often unnoted. The persistent hardships of caring for young children, of counseling teenagers, of taking senior adults to the doctor rarely earn the praise of others. No one asks us to write a book about the many unseen things that we do. But this unseen things are the crux of our spiritual life. The faithfulness that comes from loving unlovable kids, that comes from bearing with unbearable teenagers, and that comes from helping unhelpful seniors is what makes us into the Christians we are today and into those who can suffer well in the future. The boring, plod-along things of life are precisely the things God uses to shape are form us. God is in the mundane. God cares greatly about our interactions with our children, the grocery clerk, and out next door neighbor.  The mundane things of our lives are vitally important to our spiritual formation. Embrace those thing through the power of Christ. And as we live out the gospel in the little things, we prepare our hearts for future hardships and sufferings.

If we do work out our live faithfully in the little unnoticed things of life, we will reap. We will not get the leftovers. We get the first fruits. We get salvation; we get heaven; and, we get eternity with Christ!

Final Thoughts

Suffering, persecution, and hardship are not exciting words. But until Christ comes or until we go to him, they will be constants in the Christian’s vocabulary. Are you ready for the sun to come up in the East?

Do Christian Sacrifices Payoff?

We are often tempted to wonder was it worth it? Was it worth it to give up family vacations, newer cars, and our kids’ sports’ careers for the faith? We see our neighbor drive up in her new Lexus, we hear a dad at school talk about his family’s latest vacation and we wonder: Does God notice? The self-centered families seem to be doing just fine while we scrape and pinch to get our kids new shoes. They seemingly have everything that we have given up. What gives?

In Mark 10:28, Peter brings up this very point with Jesus. He points out that he and the disciples have left everything. They have made the sacrifice that the rich young ruler would not make. They have left all for Jesus. They are following him. And now Peter like us wants to know: Does God care?

Thankfully, the answer is an amazing and full yes.  Jesus says,

Truly I say to you there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But the many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Jesus understand that following him carries real cost. People will hate us. We will lose friends because we refuse to get drunk, engage in sexual immorality, and look the other way while our brother defrauds an insurance company. Standing on truth and calling sin evil and calling people to embrace Christ will cost us everything we cling to in this life. The gospel cost John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrims Progress, years in jail. It cost Willaim Wilberforce, who outlawed slavery in England his reputation, health, and wealth. It cost the Atlanta  Fire Chief his job. The gospel has real cost. But it also has real benefits. When we embrace Christ we embrace the people of God.

In Soviet Russia, A pastor was thrown into prison for preaching the gospel. He left behind a wife and two children who were promptly sent to the harsh winter land of Siberia. Having little food and no friends, they cried out to God for help.

A little over 18 miles away, deacon was being divinely awoken from his sleep. He felt God telling him to take food in his church’s recently restocked pantry to first house he saw in the next town over. The deacon argued with God, running over all the dangers, The ranged from the bitter cold to wolves. But still, he felt the Holy Spirit telling him to go. He heard, “You don’t have to come back. You just have to go.” So on faith, he ventured forth. When he got to the cabin, he knocked loudly on the door. He greeted the surprised pastor’s wife and told her, “Our church collected this food for you. Be fed. When this runs out, I’ll bring more.” (The Insanity of God).

This is the beauty of the gospel. God is huge. Following him cost us everything. But God has not forgotten us. He sent his son to die for us. Jesus is the perfect and unbreakable promise from God. He will care for all of our needs not because we are great. He cares for our needs because he is great. He does not do things in accordace with our timing or approved methods. He does things better. He gives us new families and new homes bond together by his love. The family in Russia lost their father and gained all kinds of brothers and sisters in Christ. Following Christ is hard. We lose much in this world but we gain the church. We gain the people of God. That is a great exchange.

But even more than that, we gain eternal life. Sorrow ends. We will be with Christ in heaven. Life may seem hard. It may seem that we are losing. But do not lose heart, God saves. He does the impossible. He will care for us and bring us to heaven.

Consequently, many of the first people that we would place in the kingdom of God will not be there. And many of the drug addicts, wife beaters, porn addicts, greedy swindlers will be there because they have repented and trusted Jesus. They will be there because God saves. They will be there because they have found that true life comes from following Christ.

When we are tempted to despair, when we are tempted to think that we have a sacrificed too much, we must remember that God is good. God has and is and will continue to care for us. Everything we give up will be replaced with something better – the family of God and eternity with God. Our sacrifices our worth it. When we embrace Christ we get more than benefits, blessings, and joy than we could ever imagine. We get the people of God and God himself! 

So is the sacrifice worth it?