Signing Up for Persecution and Suffering

Once upon a time there was a boy named Andy, who came from a poor family and difficult home situation. He didn’t have memories of abuse particularly, more rather of loneliness and neglect. And this eventuated in his residence for several years in a children’s home. That too was an experience of loneliness and the lack of a real family.

So it was quite a joy for Andy to learn when was in second grade that he had been chosen for adoption just out of the blue. And not only was he going to go to a real home with a real family, it turned out that it was the Baxter family that was adopting him. This was the ultimate family in town with the ultimate mansion house on a beautifully landscaped property just beyond the city limits.

A part of Andy’s excitement was his expectation that he would no longer have to suffer the occasional teasing and abuse at the hands of those who mocked his poverty and living condition. He was indeed, as they say, “movin’ on up!”

But even so, he determined to not pay back those who had abused him, but to rather be expressively kind toward them. It was going to be great!  He was now set up for his best possible life!

However, he was surprised to find out before long that he actually had more social interaction problems than he experienced previously. Some of the other boys who had been friends were now distancing themselves from him. They expressed resentment toward his new life, particularly disliking Andy’s kindly words toward them about how they too might hope to have better lives. And a couple of them, when they caught Andy alone in an isolated place on the playground, would actually hit and slap him, mocking him and calling him horrible names. And even when the teachers did see some of these things happening, it seemed to Andy that they almost acted like they were happy to see the new rich kid get smacked around a bit.

And beyond that, the living situation at home was not quite what he anticipated it would be like. The love of his new parents was certain, but he was surprised at how life in the big house and in the new family was not as carefree and easy as expected. In fact, though his new father could certainly afford to supply every convenience for Andy’s happiness, Andy was shocked to find that he had a rather substantial list of chores to accomplish. As well, he thought his father would march down the hill to the school and use his power and influence to stop the abusive treatment he was now getting from his peers. Instead, dad simply gave him advice and perspectives about how he might handle these situations with grace and character.

All in all, Andy was profoundly grateful for his new family, yet at the same time, he was surprised that many of his life complications had actually increased rather than being perfectly solved.

Andy’s experience, versus his expectations, is what we might call “counterintuitive” by definition: counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way. And this is of course the title of our summer series.

Here is a big idea to guide us today: Though we may think that being persecuted for our faith is extraordinary, it is rather the daily experience that should actually be expected.

When we come to faith and trust in Christ, we join the true winning team, and the creator God of the universe is now our Father through our adoption. We’re like the boy “Andy.”  We expect that NOW everything is going to go well in this life, because God is for us!  And it is often not long before we realize that we have indeed – even while being profoundly grateful for the eternal salvation – now entered into an entirely new world of problems and complications. New people dislike us and who we are, and Dad doesn’t seem to come to our rescue as quickly as we might expect; rather he gives us wise advice on how to live with our “new normal.”

So how do we deal with suffering in our lives, with even hostility and persecution for our faith values system?  Let’s turn today to an assortment of passages written by Peter and James – Scriptures written to first century believers who were suffering because of their new faith in Christ and identification with Jesus and the Church.

The first thing we will see today from these passages is this …

  1. Realize that suffering, hostility and persecution are normal Christian experiences. (1 Peter 4:12)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

The issue here is one of calibration. I don’t know about you, but when I am having a life experience where things are not going well, I find myself trying to understand how my level of suffering or concern fits within a bigger context.

For example, when recovering for a surgery, the immediate medication makes it more than bearable. But about 24 hours later, everything has changed.  So my pattern has been to call my nurse friend Linda Ellis, seeking to understand if my horrific pain is normal or not. If this is the way it should be, well, I’ll just have to bear it (and that’s how it has been).

For another example, when in college and taking tests, there were times I was surprised at how difficult an exam was … beyond my expectation. So I would question others for their evaluation, hoping they all thought it was even worse than I did.  I want to find out if it is normal or not.

You get the picture. There is comfort in knowing that something is the normal expectation of things. And suffering and persecution is the normal experience in the Christian life. It is, to use the golf illustration, par for the course, totally normal.

Jesus said to the disciples, “You will be hated by everyone because of me” … “you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” … “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” … “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

It is natural that the world – under the control of the Evil One – will hate the follower of Christ. The truth that the believer stands for, lives by and espouses is a standard that exposes the sin and emptiness of the unbeliever. And they don’t like the exposure, feeling guilt and judgment simply by being in the presence of eternal truth or the people of the truth. So it is all very normal and to be expected to experience opposition.

  1. Rejoice in the midst of suffering and opposition, trusting God anew. (1 Peter 4:13-16)

Yes, this is also counterintuitive – to actually find pleasure in the position of suffering.

It is sort of like coming out of the Super Bowl wearing the jersey of your team that just won the game, but finding yourself in a crowd on the sidewalk with all the angry people of the losing team. You might not like the uncomfortable situation, but there is still a resident pleasure within you of being identified with the winning team.

1 Peter 4:12-16 – Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

The “fiery ordeal” – Peter could have meant this very, very literally. About this time was the persecution under Nero, with Christians being covered with tar and burned, as Nero used this despised element of society to blame for the big fire that burned Rome. Possibly this practice might go empire-wide?  Maybe that is reading too much into a mere metaphor, but the persecution was real and pervasive.

“Rejoice” … this shows identification with Christ. You really are part of the family, the fellowship, which is what the word “participate” means. It is the common Greek word “koinonia.”

“Overjoyed” – at the coming of Christ. Suffering gives us more reason to look forward to the “apocalypse”… the word used here (more later on that concept).

“Blessed in insults” … “glory rests” … Those with a Jewish background would particularly read these verses and think of the Old Testament accounts of God’s presence descending and being around them as a cloud. The idea is to know of the presence of the Lord around you, even when the worst things are happening and you are in the target zone of the enemy.

The natural response to persecution (like having property confiscated) would be to respond in kind and fight back. So Peter tells them to not be found doing such things as “murder” (physically taking matters into one’s hands), or be a “criminal” (like stealing back from those who stole from you), or as a “meddler” (an odd, rare word, picturing a gossipy activity, like doing things to learn the business of others in order to set them up to fail).

No, bear the name “Christian”.  This is one of only 3 times the word is used in the Bible. Likely, the earliest usage of the term in that culture was completely “derisive.”  Rather, God’s people should hear that name used of them as something that led them to praising God.

  1. Endure difficult times with patience and trust (James 5:7-11)

We are currently the society with the least need to be patient about many things. Imagine going back to life without cell phones and computers. In that scenario, if you are home late in the evening and desperately need a piece of information, but you don’t have the books or reference material in the house to get the answer, there was a time when you would need to get to the library or wait until the morning. Now we can just get the answer in a matter of seconds at any time of the day and in most any place.

Though we may have certain concerns about the execution of full justice in America, we do live in a time and place where the gravest of injustices are not allowed to stand and perpetuate. Certainly not like the scattered Jewish believers to whom James wrote in the first century. Most of them were poor, being taken advantage by the rich. They were abused because of their faith, by both their own Jewish brethren who saw them as traitors and by the Romans in the secular Greek culture. They had to endure much, and thus James encourages them to be patient …

James 5:7 – Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

James 5:10 – Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

He gives three illustrations of patience…

  1. The farmer – Here is a guy who plants his seed and waits a long time for it to bring about a crop to sell. Much can go wrong all along the way. The early season and late season rains (the situation in Palestine) may not come, or may be too copious. Much can go awry before the crop is harvested, but he remains patient and hopeful.
  2. The prophets – So many of the well-known prophets of the Old Testament suffered terribly while simply serving as a mouthpiece for God. It was very unjust. For example, Jeremiah was put in stocks, thrown into prison and lowered into a dungeon, but demonstrated persistent faithfulness. These prophets were a model to follow. The Greek work for “example” is actually the first word in the sentence in this instance (word order in Greek is not as strict as in English, and a way of emphasizing something was to make that word first in a phrase). The term pictures a representative figure of something or someone, particularly to be imitated – a “poster child,” we might say. This same Greek word is used in John 13:15 in the account of Jesus having washed the disciples’ feet, saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
  3. Job – Though we have the common phrase “the patience of Job,” he was not actually a great example of that. But he was a wonderful example of endurance, and he gained back twice of all he lost.

It has been the healthy experience of God’s people over the centuries to endure persecution and opposition with patience. That models the faith that we have, and it demonstrates it to be real and unshakeable.

But it is more than just passively sitting back and taking whatever is dished out. In the midst of displaying patience, we may also actively do the following …

  1. Model the example of Christ who met hostility with kindness and service. (1 Peter 3:8-18)

Peter wrote to the suffering recipients of his letter to encourage them about how to behave in an oft-hostile culture where they were out of step with the world around them.

8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. 11 They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” [from Psalm 34:12-16]

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” [from Isaiah 8:12] 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

So Peter speaks first of the oneness of mind and attitude that they should have with each other in the family of faith. And beyond that, as they lived in kindness and grace with each other, to also extend that to the world around them, even when it was undeserved (or deserving of just the opposite).

This would give them the approval of God, a generally disarmed response from others, and a clear conscience and spotless record if falsely accused and slandered.

This would also mean that they would be following the model of Jesus Christ. He was the righteous, innocent one who took the sins of the guilty upon himself to bring us to God. As it says in Romans 5:8, Christ did this for us WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS!

So extending consistent kindness and service to others, deserving or not, is not beyond a reasonable pattern of life for those who have received the grace that we have received from Christ.

  1. Never forget the big picture and the end game. (James 1:12)

James 1:12 – Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

So, why should we wait patiently for justice in unfair circumstances? The answer is the soon coming of the perfect Judge. He will set all matters straight. And the picture presented by James in chapter 5 is that He is standing at the door!  Imagine the judge about to come out of his chambers, with his hand on the doorknob – that is what we should remember when treated wrongly. That is who we should primarily look to.

We may have a chance to live out these truths more and more. Christians are becoming increasingly the target of hate groups, both around the world and even in our own country. Reviled by the popular culture, devout Christians are even mocked at the very moment when 26 of them are gunned down in a church, because they were praying at the time – obviously stupid to be trusting in God when their prayers were in the process of being ignored.

More difficult times may indeed be just ahead, but remember that the Judge is at the door.

So persecution and suffering are normal … worthy of our rejoicing … to be endured with trust … responded to with Christlike service … always recalling the bigger picture of God’s work.

But again, why does God allow it?  Just as with the story of the adopted parents of Andy teaching him by not solving all his problems, God permits the residue of a fallen and sinful world to fall upon his own in order to teach them responsible trust in Him. Though He could by His power solve all our problems, we would never really grow in faith and dependence.

When is it that you have most grown in your life?  Is it from the times of blessing when all is going well, or is it from times of pain, suffering, opposition and even persecution for your faith?  Yes, God’s grace is greatest when our need is the greatest; that is when we most grow, in the storms of life.

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