Disclaimer: I am not disagreeing with the biblical fact that it is not wrong to flee persecution when possible, nor to desire to live a peaceful life. However, as with all good things, our human nature often wants to elevate them to an inappropriate, sinful level. My prayer is that we can all examine ourselves and ask if we love safety and comfort more than our God. I’m not idolizing martyrdom, either, as has been done in the past. America is a blip, an oddity in the history of Christianity, and it surely won’t last forever. How will we cope? Are we preparing the future generations? Is this topic even on our radar?
Cakes. Bills. Pizza. Indiana. Kenya. ISIS. Guns. Knives. Death threats. Death.
I’m not here to talk about recent news or politics. I’m here to talk to my fellow brothers and sisters about change and trials. American Christians have caught a lot of flack for crying “persecution” over very trivial things compared to the very real persecution overseas, but I don’t think it’s foolish to say that times may change. We may learn what true persecution is. And many conservative American Christians are balking at the progression, at change, at losing our luxury status as the free and majority religion in this nation. Defenses are up, Christlikeness is down and we’re all so very unsure of the future. Some even argue that with these religious freedom bills, we’re unknowingly sealing our own fate as we become the marginalized.
So, what now?
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that stories of persecution and martyrdom are tough to hear, read, contemplate. I’ve restricted my husband from sharing those stories at times, and a few years ago when my faith went through the wringer I think the concept of embracing such a fate was so foreign and so scary that I was overcome with anxiety and frustration and anger.We all want to argue that while our freedom is here, we should embrace it. And of course we should fight for those freedoms because they’re a blessing. And on the surface it sounds so logical.I was listening to Francis Chan on living biblically and he was speaking to a group of seminary students about the dangers of clustering together in our Christian bubble. He was talking about seminary, but the principle is the same. He pressed the importance of being able to relate to the world and to know how to live as a Christian in it, how to have unbelieving friends, how to fit in (not through compromise, but through social skills). He shared his experiences of how after he graduated, he was thrust back into the world where surprisingly, people didn’t care to have theological conversations. He thought seminary would prepare him for influencing others, but instead it hindered him. Not the school of course, but his own habits.It’s so natural for any who are like-minded to gravitate toward one another, but if we allow ourselves to get comfortable in our bubble, soon we’ll forget how to live anywhere else. And the longer we stay in our bubble, the harder it will be to leave.I think his wisdom applies just as much to our issue of freedom and comfort and complacency. We’ve taken it all for granted for so many years that it’s just not something we can part with. It’s not something that we’re simply taking advantage of because it’s here, it’s something that we have now become unable to live without. Biblical Christianity – the type that was marginalized and persecuted and was the minority and had no freedoms – is horrifying. Uncertain. Unjust. Contrary to everything we know and love.
So, is our freedom and abundance a blessing? The world says riches, comfort, freedom, here and now, are blessings. They’re what makes life worth living. But Christ says woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation, woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep, woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
Blessed, says our Lord, are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. Will we rejoice? I believe there are deeper reasons for us to rejoice in suffering and pain than there are for us to rejoice in ease and comfort, if only we will accept and pursue them: 1) WE BECOME MORE LIKE CHRIST “Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope.” – Romans 5:3,4 It’s when we are tested that we both see our flaws, and also see God’s spirit working in us as we grow. 2) THE BIBLE BECOMES RICHER Suddenly the Psalms are like water after dehydration. Suddenly you’re poring over the letters in the New Testament, seeing clearly verses like, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” or “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” or “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” or “But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.” 3) WE DRAW CLOSER TO GOD Many believers in God run to him when they have nowhere else to turn. That may be better than never seeking him at all, but even better than that is to know God and to trust in him enough to run to him before you “must.” Nevertheless, we often don’t realize how much our devotion and relationship with God is lacking until we are thrown into the furnace. I’ve had glimpses of this in my life and it’s a strong reason for why I believe calling comfort a “blessing” is misleading. The truest blessing is to know God, to seek God, to desire God above all else. And comfort and ease only stand to compete for our affections. “One of the main ways we move from abstract knowledge about God to a personal encounter with him as a living reality is through the furnace of affliction.” – Timothy Keller 4) WE RE-PRIORITZE The struggle is real in America. The struggle to set our minds on things above is so, very real. Because we’re distracted. We forget that this world and the enjoyable, beautiful, exciting things in it aren’t all that there is. We struggle to get a daily prayer in or to compel ourselves to read a verse or two of our Bible each day. We react out of anger and are ruled by our emotions or desires, even if they’re good ones, because we forget who we are. We want to serve God, and we want just as equally or even more to pursue a certain career, or live at a certain standard, or align ourselves with certain causes and parties. We might postpone our faith until this or that comes to fruition. We might hold our tongue when it comes to sharing the gospel, or we might hold back in our giving and service. Is that a blessing? Or a tragedy? Only in suffering, do the blinders come off. “But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis 5) WE BECOME STRONG EXAMPLES Do you know what inspires infinitely more wonder and awe than Christians refusing service to gays? Christians rejoicing in persecution. Of the 21 Christians martyred in Egypt, one was a Muslim who had only recently converted to Christ. He chose to die with his brothers as they all cried, Oh Jesus. My faith remains untested in comparison. Though my first reaction was a sickening lump in my stomach, as time went on and as more reports came of the bloodshed and torture in other countries, another feeling crept up: shame. I think it was shame. Whatever you would call a feeling that would nudge you to God in prayer, asking for a stronger faith, that would cause you to reminisce about those times of trial in your life when you truly were closer to God, that would almost maybe even inspire you to rejoice in the prospect of change coming closer to home. We know that the faith has spread triumphantly in oppressed areas. That’s just another beauty of the gospel. And it’s how God intended it. “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” Philippians 1:12-14 6) WE LIVE BY FAITH AND HOPE How often do you truly rest in the hope we have in Christ? How often does that thought enter your mind? Isn’t that kind of a huge deal? If we view our hope as “meh” or some place we want to go, after we die a painless death following a long and abundantly blessed life, we will unwittingly hinder our growth and work for the kingdom. If we live in fear of losing the transient earthly things, we will never feel free to risk all or love without restraint. Can we say, “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” Anne Frank wrote “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.” I might modify that a bit. The truth is that all is not as it should be. Not yet. But we do have these beautiful, quiet glimpses of what God is preparing. A world free from sin and pain and injustices and suffering. A place that puts our greatest hopes for our lives to shame. Why obsess over the puddle of mud when the ocean is just ahead? Suffering jars us from earthly comfort and frees us to live solely by faith in God’s goodness and the hope of the resurrection. 7) THE CHURCH IS PURIFIED, REPUTATION IS RESTORED I would love to worship in a home. Personally, that appeals to me, and I think there are good biblical reasons for it. But in conversations about house churches, the question generally comes up: what if there’s not enough room? I’m sure house churches have dealt with this issue before, and I know in the past Christians used to remodel their homes to make more room but honestly, if we started worshiping in homes, do you think all of the members would continue attending? Do you think it might weed out a few? In the same way, except on an infinitely larger scale, I believe if persecution came to America, we might see our numbers changing. The lukewarm, those on the fence, suddenly would be out of the picture. What would be left is a tight-knit community of transformed believers, united in mind and purpose and hope. Maybe we would see unlikely converts as they began to see a truer, more Christ-like representation of the gospel amidst suffering. The persecuted church, the purified church, is the church that shines as a beacon of power and hope. I pray that I, and you, would be found a part of the real “true” church on that day. 8) WE RELY ON THE POWER OF GOD TO SAVE In America, or at least in the Bible belt, we rely on all sorts of things. Entertaining sermons, door knocking, lectures, gospel meetings, fliers, websites, tracts, bumper stickers, commercials, radio programs, business meetings, ourselves. We read books and attend meetings on how to draw in visitors and where there’s success, there’s the trap of believing it couldn’t have happened without clever tactics and marketing. I mean, how illogical is it that there’s a thriving underground church in China and other countries? But it’s because it’s God who gives the increase. It’s because the church cannot be destroyed- it’s not even in our own power to destroy it. And when we’re daily faced with that reality, we rely on God, we give thanks to God, we petition God, we praise God all the more. And those around us will take note.
“The will of God is never exactly what you expect it to be. It may seem to be much worse, but in the end it’s going to be a lot better and a lot bigger.” –Elisabeth Elliot
9) WE UNITE Division is a luxury. And we have an abundance of division in our land of ease. There will always be healthy arguments from scripture, there will always be disagreements and debates, there will always be a very strong need for deep study and the grasping of meaty doctrine. That doesn’t disappear even in trials and hiding and suffering. But I think, as a result of our re-prioritizing, and as a result of the purifying that comes from putting pressure on the church, we learn to assemble together with those we might not have when we had a choice. Things like patience and graciousness and earnest study increase when everyone is so steeped in faith and hope. “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” – Philippians 1:27 10) WE LIVE Finally, if you add up everything above, the result is true living. “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Isn’t that kind of backwards? Rejoicing in weakness? Being strong when he’s weak? What about this one: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Thailer is a very logical person. It’s his personality. Logic. Logic. Logic. And it’s often exactly what I need. Logic is good. But logic isn’t perfect. God often turns our logic upside down through the gospel. Things often just don’t make sense. Things like good being bad and everything we try to avoid actually being the key to God. Things like the greatest becoming servants, the foolish becoming wise, the first, last, the poor, blessed. Things like adulterers, the marginalized, sinners of all sorts being forgiven, and yet the highly-religious being rebuked. Things like a homeless, uncomely man executed among criminals overcoming the powers of darkness, reigning as king over all. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe….For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men….God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God…Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord… For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age…But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God…The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” 1 Corinthians, 1, 2 As Christians, we know the upside-down power of the gospel. And we should ask ourselves if maybe we’re hiding from the power of God within persecution in suffering. True life is life that can be lived without fear. Not that we should insulate our circumstances from anything terrifying, but that we should find our life in the one who can take away our fear of death and loss. True life is life that can be lived with reckless abandon, sacrifice without restraint, love without bounds. But it’s fear that keeps us from these privileges. Or it’s comfort that distracts us from these duties. Do we or do we not serve a risen King? Do we or do we not count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord? “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Do I say this as someone with a great faith and confidence and readiness to face what hundreds of our brothers and sisters in the middle east are facing? No. It’s terrifying. I have kids too, you know. It’s heartbreaking. And I think it’s even more terrifying because I’ve been so cushioned and pampered and privileged, a fact that I’m glad to realize now, while the ball is still in my court. Maybe our nation moving away from biblical principles is a great blessing. Maybe we should seize it now, practice sacrifice and patience and gentleness in suffering now while the risks are small in comparison to real torture. I want to be prepared. I want to let go. I want to boast great confidence in my hope. I want to become like Christ. I want to have the privilege of loving my enemies. I want to learn real forgiveness. I want to be free from this blinding ‘freedom’. By the power and grace of God, I want to rejoice. Will we? “When pain and suffering come upon us, we finally see not only that we are not in control of our lives but that we never were.”- Timothy Keller
As cold as everything looks in winter, the sun has not forsaken us. He has only drawn away for a little, for good reasons, one of which is that we may learn that we cannot do without him. —George MacDonald
No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be. —Bram Stoker
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? —Kahlil Gibran