How to Face the Rising Tide of Persecution in the West

  
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THE SUMMER OF ‘89

I spent a couple of months in the summer of ‘89 taking language classes in Europe. Several other students joined me a few days early to do some sightseeing. As we walked down a crowded street, several locals began pointing at us and saying words I didn’t understand.

It was an awkward moment, to say the least. And it got worse. When we passed by, they spit on us and berated us in unfriendly tones. One of the girls in our group knew the language and was able to translate. They were cursing us for being from the U.S.

The look in their eyes, the venom on their lips, and the anger in their words gave it away. We were hated. For being American. Even though it wasn’t for being a Christian, that was my first experience of what persecution for Christ must feel like.


THE MARKS OF JESUS

The apostle Paul knew exactly what it felt like. He not only had suffered low impact name-calling but the type of persecution that leaves scars. In the final two verses of his letter to the Galatians, he writes,

17 Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

Paul’s “marks of Jesus” are not the mysterious appearance of wounds on his hands and feet as some have speculated. They are the scars of having been nearly stoned or beaten to death on numerous occasions as a Christian missionary. In 2 Corinthians 11:24-27, he describes his experiences,

“24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”[i]


THE RISING TIDE

According to Mariam-Webster, the legal definition of persecution is “punishment or harassment… on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or political opinion.” Persecution is not always severe but varies in scope and intensity. Usually, it starts small, with insults and discrimination until it gains momentum, becoming a complete system of oppression.

North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and many other countries are known for state-sponsored suppression of Christians. In these places, the penalty for sharing the gospel or even being a believer ranges from imprisonment to death.

While Christians in America are not enduring that severity of mistreatment, the tide seems to be rising. As once fringe, political and social doctrines become culturally mainstream, it will not be long before Bible-believing Christians are widely considered cultural heretics. Just like they were in the first three centuries A.D.

I am not complaining about the winds of change on the cultural horizon. God has always used persecution to purify the church and expand the reach of the gospel. You may remember in the book of Acts that the message about Jesus didn’t spread from Jerusalem until persecution broke out with the stoning of Stephen.

Even today, regions of the world where the church has grown most rapidly are places where having your name on the membership roll puts a target on your back. What if there were no first amendment? What if to be a Christian meant the loss of position, loss of property, and potentially loss of life? I’m not sure I would be a member, much less a preacher.


CONSIDERING THE COST

I wonder how many of us have considered the cost of what we are called to give up of this world in order to gain Jesus as our all-sufficient hope in this life and the next. Or do I want Jesus in addition to the comforts of the world? What if I had to choose?

I’m not trying to scare you. I just want us to be realistic so that we can prepare ourselves and our children to live as a missional community in a post-Christian culture in much the same way as believers in the early church, who were not surprised by persecution. They expected it.

In fact, Paul told his pastoral protégé, Timothy, if anyone wants to live as a faithful follower of Jesus, they will be persecuted. He didn’t say they might be persecuted. They will be persecuted.

You may have already felt it. A teen committed to Jesus may not be invited to the party. A university professor may lose his job or not be hired at all due to her profession of faith. Pastors may be charged with hate speech and churches lose tax-exempt status for teaching basic biblical doctrines. Who knows, fines and imprisonment could be waiting for us down the road.


PERSECUTION AS BLESSING

If you are prepared to suffer for the sake of King Jesus, be encouraged. In the Sermon on the Mount, he makes a promise of present blessing and future reward for those who become objects of reproach on his behalf. 

“10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).

The apostles must have believed this. In Acts 5:41, after being brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin and beaten for preaching about the risen Christ in the Temple, we read this commentary, “Then they [the apostles] left the presence of the council [after being beaten], rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”[ii]

They didn’t file lawsuits or organize a boycott. They celebrated.

When was the last time you celebrated being the object of abuse for the sake of Christ? I don’t know if I have ever rejoiced for suffering dishonor or having someone slander me. Instead, I’ve complained and felt sorry for myself. What if I could see opposition from the perspective of blessing perspective?

Did you notice what Jesus said about the source of persecution? “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely.” Who are the “others” of whom he speaks? He tells us in verse 12, “For in the same way, they persecuted the prophets.”

Who persecuted the Old Testament prophets? Not the Romans. Not the Assyrians or Babylonians or any foreign oppressor. “They” are members of the covenant community. Paul calls them false brothers (wolves in sheep’s clothing) who, rather than repenting of their sins, kill God’s messengers for speaking truth “they” don’t want to hear.

This has been the story from the beginning.

  • Able was persecuted by his brother, Cain.

  • Joseph was persecuted by his brothers.

  • Moses was persecuted by the Hebrew rabble in the desert.

  • The prophets were persecuted and killed by the congregations they served.

  • Paul was persecuted, not only by the Romans, but especially by his fellow Jews, whom he calls his brothers.

  • Believers in the church were persecuted by “false believers,” wolves in sheep’s clothing.


PURPOSE IN THE SCARS

As depressing as it is to think of how pervasive persecution has been and will continue to be, let us not forget that, like all suffering in the Christian life, persecution is not without purpose. The Lord has a purpose for every scar inflicted upon the people of God. We know this because of the purpose of the scars inflicted upon Jesus.

Earlier I asked, “Have any of us really considered the cost of what we are called to give up of this world in order to gain Jesus?” The reason some of us are unwilling to be persecuted for Jesus is that we haven’t fully appreciated what he was willing to give up in order to gain us.

He left heaven. He disrobed of his glory. Ultimately, he sacrificed his very life. By allowing himself to be mistreated by his own people and eventually, willingly crucified by the state, the scars on his hands, feet, and side represent the plan of the Father to rescue sinners from the hell we deserve.

Jesus was persecuted for me. He was spat upon, stripped, and beaten for me. He was cursed, ridiculed, and abused for me. He was crucified with nails for me.

I suppose believing that is what enabled Paul to conclude his letter to the Galatians with a benediction. Even though many of them had set themselves against him as enemies, reviling and slandering him, his final words are these: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

Whether they are in the church or in the world, may we give the same grace to our enemies. That they may wonder why we respond to insult with kindness and accusation with blessing. That they eventually will ask, “Why do you welcome the scars?” To which we will reply, simply, “Because Jesus welcomed the scars for us.”


POSTSCRIPT: Domestic violence is not the kind of persecution anyone should endure. If you are the victim of such abuse, you are encouraged to seek safety and protection by calling the police and a domestic abuse hotline.


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[i] In 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, he describes more of his experience, “11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

[ii] Maybe their example inspired believers who received the letter of Hebrews. “32 Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33 sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34 For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:32-34).