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.