Every now and then I hear the phrase that American Christians need persecution. I find it interesting that, with few exceptions, it comes from those who have not seen or experienced real persecution themselves—persecution that resulted in bodily harm, financial devastation, or forfeiture of life itself. Sure, most of us have read books describing the persecuted church such as The Heavenly Man or Vanya. We are inspired by the faith that Christians demonstrated under intense suffering and hardships that advanced the work of God in extraordinary ways. And that is good. We need to hear the stories of those that suffered for the faith. They reveal to us how easy we have it. They disclose how much we take for granted and how foolish our whimpers at the mere inconveniences we have to “overcome.” They show us what following Christ to death can mean in reality.
But is persecution the antidote for apathy? Will persecution propel our zeal and devotion for Christ? Will we see a revival if we enter into a time of persecution?
Before further discussion, it is a poor choice, I think, to pray and ask for persecution or hardships for the purpose of bringing about sanctification. The apostles never postulated deliberate asceticism as a spiritual purifying process. When we think the cause of complacency and lack of spiritual vigor is the absence of physical suffering, we have effectively defrauded ourselves, curtailing spiritual growth. Spiritual growth materializes when we increase in faith, love, hope, holiness—when we become more like Christ, essentially.
True, suffering will be part of every Christian’s experience but hardship does not equal growth. I can easily recall several of my acquaintances who found life’s journey too difficult and less glamorous than they imagined the Christian calling would be and consequently shipwrecked. Bitterness, strife, and anger at God that is born out of hardships is common, unfortunately. Spiritual growth occurs in hardships only if we allow God to further crush our selfishness and arrogance, becoming more anchored in our faith and satisfied in His will for us.
When people make a bid for persecution, they’re reaching for the idea that sanctification and whole-heartedness in God seems to be forged in trials. And I would agree with this observation. No, I’ve never been persecuted for my faith, but I grew up in a family whose legacy of persecution has provided me with many accounts of those that had. Immediately prior to the Red Revolution, my great-uncle David was the first to bring the Gospel to my father’s village. These early years were turbulent. As were many ministers of the Gospel during that time, David was arrested multiple times for initiating religious gatherings. Finally, the ruling Communists had enough and he was arrested one last time—never to return to his family. The firing squad was the quickest way to deal with enemies of the State that, ironically, promised equality and justice for all.
My own father spent numerous short stretches in confinement for attending and initiating religious services. He was serving his final three-year sentence when the Perestroika facilitated his early release by a few months. Then there were those like Nikolai Khrapov. He spent 28 years collectively in prison for the faith. When nearing the end of his last three-year sentence, Nikolai was told that his children—whom he had not seen for those three years—were waiting in the visitors’ hall but he would not be given permission to see them. He died that same day of a broken heart. There are countless more whose bodies were wasted and deformed through brutal working conditions and beatings—many of whom never returned to their families, languishing in exile. Words cannot justly describe the atrocities they suffered. Needless to say, the blood of martyrs has flowed freely and the torture endured at the hands of the Communist Party is sickening to recount.
So what does intense persecution foster and cultivate? What observations can be made from those that have endured it? What can we learn?
The price is real.
The persecuted Church proves the words of Jesus.
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.¹
The global church has and always will have those that are persecuted for the faith. Just because we have it easy here in the US does not mean it’s that way everywhere. But this is a peace we are actually encouraged to pray for:
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.²
Understanding that this peace is a blessing does not mean we are to coast along in life or chase the American dream. Because of this serenity, we easily become insipid and lukewarm. We have a low threshold for what turns us off and “offends” us. I know it’s so easy for myself to become caught up in feeling I didn’t receive “what I deserved.” Is your life really that hard? Has your dad been taken away to Siberia, your mom to a women’s labor camp in another country, most of your siblings placed in an orphanage, all while you are spit on at work and told you are a worthless piece of trash by your boss? How is that for a comparison? Don’t wallow through your easy life in resentment. Let your freedom and ease embolden you to redeem the time and advance the kingdom of God.
Don’t fill the God-void with “good” things.
God has placed a void in each person to seek Him—a void not to be glossed over with mere lip service but to be filled with Him and His purpose. At times we allow things such as social media, sports, or even very good things like family, friends, etc. to stifle that desire to seek the face of God. When the persecuted Christians were faced with scorn or even death, it was easier to keep their priorities straight. Yes, families were still a priority, and relationships were cherished, but the burning desire was to do the will of the Father. No, humans are not perfect, and they have their incongruencies. But exceptions do not necessarily determine the trajectory, and we would be foolish to study the wrong and miss the good.
How do you prioritize your life? What do you find taking up more and more of your time? What you invest in is what your life will become. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Keep your focus.
When writing this post and thinking about what could be learned, I became curious if there were church splits during the time of Soviet persecution. I wasn’t surprised when my parents confirmed that church splits were rare. They were almost exclusively along the lines of collaborating with the government or obeying the Scriptures. Churches that collaborated with the government were allowed to have church buildings and hold religious services. But this freedom came at a cost. Before sermons could be preached, they were given to a local communist censor and edited to comply with the ideologies of the State. Every person seeking baptism was put on a list and checked in for approval. Youth were barred from baptism because they were considered too young. An adult with a job had a 1 in 10 chance of being given permission to be baptized. After all, you were already advancing the communist state where there was “justice and equality” for everyone. Why still seek some ceremony that would identify you with “those old and mentally unfit people that believed in god?”
The underground church didn’t agree with this. They believed that authority first belonged to God. This sharpened awareness and focus on following God and His Word—though they paid dearly for it—helped them see their brothers and sisters as fellow heirs and servants of God. Knowing every day that your brother or sister in Christ could be taken away for three years forced you to think of ways you could encourage them and strengthen their faith and trust.
If you knew that one-third of your church would be missing after this coming Sunday, how do you think you would relate to them all? What would you encourage? What would you discourage? What would your focus be? At times it’s good to force this perspective on yourself and think about what really matters and how you can better serve those around you.
Opportunity for growth in times of peace.
1. Invest in yourself.
There is a certain false notion among my generation that we expect maturity to come by merely reading a two verse devotional and repeating a prepared prayer every morning. Oh, I forgot to mention the stunning background image—it helps. Why do you think you can squander the extraordinary time God has given you and magically grow in spirit and truth? I’m not against devotionals (I use them myself at times) but we must not always rely on carefully prepared and processed spiritual food. Paul exhorted Timothy to study the Word “But as for you, continue in what you have learned…[from] the sacred writings…[for it is] profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”³ We do ourselves a gross disservice when we neglect one of God’s greatest gifts to us. The Bible should have a distinctive place in our lives—above other writings regardless how spiritual they are—and we should be sure to spend focused time in it often.
Prayer should also have a prominent place in our lives. Meditating and communing with God—with all confidence, knowing that He listens to our prayers—is an important component for spiritual growth. It’s easy to rush through our prayers and move on, but we should not think of prayer as unidirectional. It’s during our personal devotions that we can be completely open before God. I have discovered personally that conviction often comes during prayer if I allow time for reflection on recent situations in my life. Prayer must not be ignored, considering the strong agent for personal growth that it can be.
Many passages in the Scriptures speak of being rich in good works. You cannot give what you do not have. If you do not sew or make a wage, how will you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, or shelter the destitute? In societies where most do not lack in basic needs: encouragement for the depressed, a helping hand in time of need, or ministering to the emotional and spiritual needs of those around you. True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping. Of course, it does not always take physical currency, but it’s also not something we pull out of thin air.
Learn so that you can make informed decisions. You will not always make the perfect choice, but with sincerity and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the dedication and study you invest into following God’s ways will not be lost. Invest in yourself not for the purpose of lording over others, but with the intent of pouring out your life for others. And this is a good segue into my next point.
2. Invest in others.
How to practically accomplish this cannot be answered with specificity. Our work is so varied that it’s impossible to enumerate the ways in which we expand the Kingdom of God. For some, it’s working with children that were rescued from trafficking. For others, it’s investing in and raising their own children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord at home. For yet others, it’s living and sharing about the love and commandments of Jesus with their classmates or co-workers.
The mistake I see many making is that they don’t think God cares about what they do. What foolishness it is to think that God—who knows the exact number of hairs on your head at any given moment—does not have anything for you. Even if you are merely a younger child under your parent’s authority, God has given that parental authority for a time to live and flourish under—even when things don’t always go the way you think would be best. You can share in the privilege of raising a family by helping your parents in their duties and helping your siblings to make the right choices by teaching through example and encouragement.
Returning closer home, what do you spend your time on? Are you infatuated with engine size? Or perhaps it’s spending inordinate amounts of time in front of the mirror to perfect that look? There is a time for taking care of yourself and your needs, but what do you seek first? The hallmark of a true Christian is an outward focus.
Represent your King well with dignity but don’t spend your time, money, and energy foolishly on the transient. Wherever you find yourself, seek opportunities to further the Kingdom of God.
Much has been said but the essential ideas are not complex. Remember that we were never promised that following Christ would be easy. In the peace we live in, don’t be blinded to the needs and cries of those around you. Redeem the time and build up the church of God by strengthening and encouraging when you are able. Advance God’s kingdom by keeping your focus on Christ and teaching others by example and word. Keep God in the center of your life and remember to ask yourself at times: Christ gave his life as a ransom for mine; what am I doing in return?
¹ John 15:18-20a
² I Timothy 2: 1, 2
³ II Timothy 3:14-17