After reading scores of stories describing how my Christian brothers and sisters are suffering and dying for their faith, I had to stop and ask, doesn’t God see this? Doesn’t God care? How can the good, loving God I know let such horrors happen to His chosen people?
I was having a hard time getting around these thoughts when I came across an article written by a contributor from the Middle East, and adapted for INcontextMinistries by Mike Burnard. (You can see the original adaptation here.) That article has provided the inspiration for some of my thoughts here.
We in the West are too comfortable. We have a hard time acknowledging that our God might ask us to suffer social ostracism, ridicule, or insult. Even more abhorrent is the idea that we might suffer physical loss for following Jesus. “Sacrifice” means getting up Sunday morning and going to church instead of lying around in bed reading the newspaper. (And our pastor had better finish the sermon in time for the afternoon football game!) While we hope that we would be willing to die for our faith, in reality we suspect that that level of commitment will never be put to the test. Thus, our theology can’t accommodate the true suffering of others.
Yet, Jesus makes it very clear that we will suffer for our faith. It’s not just that the “bad guys” are going to win some of the time. Rather, suffering is foundational—God’s plan of redemption is built upon suffering. As the article mentioned above states, “Salvation came through the cross and therefore has to be displayed through the cross. Persecution is not a curse.”
In Colossians 1:24, Paul says something we western Christians may not relate well to:
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
We have a hard time understanding what Paul means, so I found John Piper’s explanation helpful:
The one thing lacking in the sufferings of Christ Jesus is that His fully atoning love offering needs to be presented in person through missionaries to the peoples for whom He died. And Paul says, “I do this in my sufferings. In my sufferings I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.”
It’s no coincidence that the church has grown exponentially in places where persecution is the strongest. It’s through the suffering of the saints that the light shines brightest.
Persecution also serves to purify the church. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the western church has largely grown soft, more enamored of our comfort than of our Lord and Savior. While I’m not advocating that we pray for persecution, it would certainly weed out the fence-sitters and fair weather believers. Remember what Jesus thinks about lukewarm Christians! (See Revelation 3:16.)
Instead of running from suffering, is it possible to embrace it? Paul seemed to think it was a good thing, not for the experience itself, but because of the fruit it produces. Consider Romans 5:3-5—
…but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Or how about Romans 8:17—
Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
Paul writes at length about his persecution in 2 Corinthians. In chapter one he mentions the great comfort he receives from Christ in the midst of his suffering:
For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
And in 1 Thessalonians 1:6 he speaks about the joy:
You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.
Finally, Peter echoes Paul’s sentiments that our suffering is more than repaid by the incredible inheritance God has waiting for those who have followed Jesus (See 1 Peter 1:3-9.)
Perhaps this is why an imprisoned Chinese believer didn’t ask for prayer to be set free. Rather, he asked for prayer to persevere in his faith in the face of suffering. Let’s keep that in mind as we pray for the persecuted church.