We read in Philippians 1:29 “For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but to suffer for His sake.” Suffering and persecution is not just a doctrine that we teach, but it is a reality of what is happening in the world around us. More Christians are being martyred for their faith than ever before. It is estimated that between 500 to 1000 Christians are killed every day because of their faith in Jesus. In addition to this there are millions who are at present suffering in some way or another because they have believed in Jesus. In China and North Korea alone, thousands of Christians are at present languishing in prisons or in labour camps.
If one looks at the fate of the apostles: Peter was crucified upside down. Paul was beheaded in Rome. Andrew was crucified. Thomas was killed by a spear near India. And all the others were beaten, killed, crucified or tortured to death. In John 21:18 Jesus talks about the way Peter would die, indicating that he would be crucified. Jesus gave the warning to His disciples, “If they have persecuted Me, they will persecute you, if they have kept My word they will keep yours also.” (John 15:20) If one looks at the life of Paul in the Book of Acts we find that he was either on his way to prison, in prison or on his way out of prison. He seemed to be continually in chains. There is overwhelming evidence that suffering and persecution is the lot of many Christians today and has been the lot of many of the saints of old. We read in 2 Timothy 3:12 “Yes, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” If we do not suffer persecution, we need to ask ourselves the question whether we are living a life that is worthy of the Lord Jesus Christ or not. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves some important questions: 1. Why does God allow it? 2. What causes it? 3. How can I endure it?
Why does God allow it?
1. It tests our devotion to Christ: Often the love and devotion of Christians are put to the test through suffering and persecution. Jesus devotion to us was proved by the suffering He endured for us! Jesus said that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another.”(John 15:13)
2. It can often deal a death blow to sin: In 1 Peter 4:1-2 we read, “Therefore, since Christ has suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same mind, that he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin. That he should no longer live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but to the will of God.” Many who have been persecuted for their faith have experienced a death to the desires of the flesh and a new level of purity in their lives. Often the fires of persecution and suffering have had a purging effect on them. We must note however that it is not the suffering that purges us, but obedience and yielding to God in the suffering. Furthermore, we do not have to wait for suffering and persecution before we yield and obey God. It should be a daily experience for all of us.
3. Suffering and persecution often releases more power through us to influence people. Jesus said, “If they persecute me they will persecute you, If they have kept My word they will keep yours also…” (John 15:20) In 1 Peter 4:14 we read, “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of Christ rests upon you.” Many who undergo suffering and persecution find an increase of Gods power on their lives. Many of the dynamic ministries in China have been trained in the school of suffering and persecution.
4. It has great eternal reward. 1 Peter 4:13 “But to the extent that you partake of Christ sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may be glad with exceeding joy.” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “Our light affliction, which is for a moment, is working in us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory…” Jesus said in Matthew 5:11, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you for My name sake … for great is your reward in heaven.” God may allow suffering and persecution to work in us the qualities we will one day need to reign with Christ in the millennium and in eternity.
5. It encourages other Christians to stand firm for Jesus. Philippians 1:12-13. “Most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” When certain Christians go through suffering and persecution it often challenges others to make a bold stand for Jesus. Years ago in Russia, the martyrdom of a young soldier called Vanya inspired many Christians to make a strong stand for Christ.
6. Suffering and persecution is often form of spiritual warfare that releases God’s angelic forces to fight against the powers of darkness. It was after the suffering of Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16:25-31) that the prison keeper was saved with his household. A great breakthrough in Philippi occurred after this event. Great revivals have often followed times of persecution, for example in China. In a mysterious way, God’s angels are often released into the spirit realm after Christians have been through persecution and destroyed the powers of darkness. It has been said that the “blood of the martyrs are the seeds of revival.”
7. It brings glory to Jesus: In John 21:19 we read “Signifying the death by which he (Peter) would glorify Jesus.” Jesus was telling Peter that his martyrdom would bring glory to Him.
2. What causes persecution and suffering?
The attacks of the devil: 1 Peter 5:8-9 “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary, the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brother-hood in the world.” Many times the powers of darkness react to those that challenge them. It is like a bees-nest. The bees will not trouble us until we throw a stone at the hive. However, we need to be led by the Spirit with regards to warfare in the spirit realm. Sometimes we will be instructed to attack and at other times we will be instructed to flee. We see this in the life of Paul in the book of Acts. We read that he was eventually led by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, straight into the “lion’s den” of religious demonic activity and suffered great persecution as a result of it. Some martyrdom happens in the will of God, while sometimes it can happen because of stupidity and carelessness.
God allows it. We have the Acts 1:8 and 8:1 principle: In Acts 1:8, Jesus told them to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. However, they remained in their comfort zones in Jerusalem. God then used the persecution after the stoning of Stephen to scatter the believers. In Acts 8:1 we read how they were scattered into Judea, Samaria and some even went as far as Antioch. If we do not respond to Acts 1:8, God may use Acts 8:1 to achieve His goals.
Sin and stupidity can cause suffering. We are not supposed to suffer for sin. The Bible says we must suffer as a Christian and not as an evil-doer. (1 Peter 4:15-16) Suffering for sin does not bring any glory to God but a reproach on His name. Sometimes plain stupidity and ignorance will cause unnecessary suffering. For example, if someone joins the JW or Mormon sect and goes from door to door, they will suffer persecution and reproach, but this will not be in God’s will. God may sometimes allow suffering and persecution to purify the church. However, we should obey God and be pure, whether or not we suffer.
Christians sometimes suffer because of lack of prayer. Read 2 Thess. 3:1, 2 “Finally brethren pray for us … that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men…” Romans 15:30, 31 “Strive together with me in prayers … That I may be delivered from those in Judea.” Protection from the devil is not automatic! We have an enemy and it is our responsibility to build walls of protection around us through prayer and spiritual warfare. Many have suffered and even died from their faith because of lack of prayer. We have the example of James and Peter in the book of Acts. James was martyred because of lack of prayer. Peter on the other hand was delivered from martyrdom because people prayed. If we go into the enemies’ territory without the covering of prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit, we are being careless and will probably suffer unnecessarily for it.
How can we endure suffering?
Rejoice in the Lord. In Romans 5:3 we read that we are to “Glory in tribulation.” Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you … rejoice and be exceeding glad…” We have the example of Paul and Silas in prison in Acts 16. After been badly beaten up, they sang songs at midnight. In China, one of the wonderful characteristics of the suffering church is how they rejoice and sing under severe suffering. Praising God is often like a spiritual anaesthetic that enables one to endure the pain of suffering.
Commit the situation to God. 1 Peter 2:23 “Who when He was reviled, He did not revile in return … but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.” We are not to react in a negative way to those who persecute us but we are to “overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:21) We are to trust God in the midst of suffering and persecution.
Look for opportunities. Many times persecution and suffering can open doors for us to be greatly effective for Jesus. We need to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and use those opportunities. Paul says in Philippians 1:12 “The things that have happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel.” There are many testimonies of “prison revivals” in China.
Keep your attitude right. Don’t react negatively. Matthew 5:44 says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Finally, we should not go out looking for suffering and persecution. It may from time to time come across our path as God allows. Jim Elliot, a missionary who was martyred for his faith in South America once said, “He is no fool who gives what He cannot keep to gain that what he cannot lose. Amen