It seems to me that American Christians are really scared. We have been used to being in a greenhouse, a historic watershed of persecution-less peace, an era of peaceful prosperity for those who love Christ. Frankly, Christians kind of ran the show for a while in this country. Can you imagine a time when presidents quoted hymns like “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as they were dying?¹ William McKinley died with that prayer on his lips. I think that probably sounds a little shocking and incongruous to those of us who are growing up in the 21st century.
In the Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan masterfully talks about Christians and prosperity in the dialogue of Christian and a fellow traveler named By-Ends. By-Ends, in defending his values, exclaims: “We are always most zealous when religion goes in his silver slippers; we love much to walk with him in the street, if the sun shines and the people applaud!”² It used to be that one was proud to be a Christian in America. Of course, we loved our silver slippers.
But the mood of our country has shifted, and Christianity is now increasingly viewed unfavorably. That has thrown a lot of believers heavily off-balance.
Two of the big ways in which we see the changing environment is in the LGBTQ rights movement and Obamacare’s ‘forced contraceptives’ section. Although several court cases have since been decided in favor of religious groups, that episode really shook up a lot of Christians. It was like a watershed moment when many realized that they’d lost the culture war and started thinking about how to protect themselves instead.
I believe that we have enjoyed our greenhouse days, and are none too eager to join the rest of Christian history in being persecuted for our beliefs. (But the threat of pushback or exclusion is not new to Christianity. Living in peace is actually not normal for disciples of Jesus, although it seems that American Christians often treat the concept of being rejected by worldly society with so much shock and confusion that you’d think this has never happened before to the church!)
Let me take a detour to explain what I mean when I use the word “persecution”. The word could admittedly be used in various ways. Some people envision guillotines and ISIS knives. That’s a reality for many of our people throughout the ages – and at present, in some places – and I deeply respect all the Christians who have experienced death or its threat at the hands of Christ-haters in the last two millennia. I only wish to love the King as heartily as they did, to the end. But scripturally, the idea of persecution/death for Christ is also used to describe pushback or hatred directed toward us because of our faith.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As it is written,‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.³
“Being killed all the day long” is a quote from Psalms used here by Paul to encapsulate many forms of suffering for Christ. This is not only literal death, but by facing mere opposition, we join Jesus in his suffering.
Hebrews 13:12-13 beautifully models how to view taking shame from the world for Christ’s sake:
And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.
Jesus died outside the camp: a perfectly clean person, dying rejected outside the city as unclean. And with that as our model, we can take our small (and great) sufferings with delight, because we have been given the chance to join Christ in walking through real shame with the conqueror. And in doing so we recognize that no shame is eternal except the shame of rejection from Christ.
While few of us actually envision an America where people are killed for their belief in Christ, we all know what it’s like to be rejected because we spoke out about Jesus. So I wish to speak of persecution in those terms: the exclusion, shame, and maltreatment we increasingly receive as 21st-century Christians in America.
I often feel the pressure to shut up about my faith. In my relationships with unbelievers, it’s already gotten to the place where I’m tempted to be apologetic about my Christianity, because I know how offensive the gospel is to the average American. Of course, there’s a sense in which it has always been hard to be bold in the faith. However, let’s be honest with the changing realities: It’s just not as easy for one to identify as Christian as it once was.
Although living in a hostile environment seems new for American Christians of the present, a look at the church’s history at large would convince us that our little slice of history is actually the odd one. All throughout the last couple of millennia, Christians have faced intense (albeit, certainly modulating) pressure to be like everyone else and have many gods. And every time, true Christians have had to make the choice to go with the flow (and in doing so, deny Christ) or take the way of death. Sometimes, that was physical death. Always, it was the death of losing dreams, relationships, opportunities, and jobs to follow the Master.
The essence of Christianity has always been simple, devastatingly so:
If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.⁴
That model of identification with the death of Christ has to be the nexus of all of our run-ins with suffering. In other words, we must always view pain with this perspective: walking through suffering is taking the path of the Conqueror. It is saying, “I’m feeling a little of that tearing loss, unfathomable pain, and palpable shame that he experienced, so now I can understand a bit more of what the conquering Christ did for me.” And also, “In this pain, I acknowledge with Christ that future joy is greater than present disaster.”
Why am I bringing in identification with Christ’s death to this post? Because I think that in this lies the key to facing the changing atmosphere against Christianity, with confidence. We must be Christians. We must be humble, stubborn heroes in the face of trouble. We must learn to win over adversity, instead of yielding to the pressure to shut up about the fact that we know Truth. And the only way we can do these things is by taking on the fearless attitude of Jesus.
When you’re at work and you are on the verge of bringing God into the discussion, but are concerned about whether it will be received, do it! When you are drinking tea with your friend and listening to her tell her life story, and you want to give her the answer of Jesus but aren’t sure if she’ll listen, say it. But say it with wisdom. And when you are talking to your neighbor about those normal things, stop. Start talking about how normal life for you is meaningful because you believe that everything you do is really for God, because you know that He is actually your true Teacher and Boss and Father.⁵
Yes, rejection is real, and will continue to become more real as time moves on for American Christians. But start taking it like real Christ-followers do – even “enjoy” it like Paul said he did.⁶ This is the way we conquer.
People okay with literally dying for a cause are unstoppable. Christians who choose to take suffering in stride like a soldier, are likewise invincible. That’s the sort of people we need to be, to face the current and future anti-Christian climate.
The fears when facing the future are many, but the response must be only one – the way of victorious death.
³ Romans 8:35-37
⁴ Luke 9:23
⁵ Matthew 23:8-10
⁶ Romans 5:3-5