Learning from the Persecuted Church
Christian persecution is one of the biggest human rights conflicts of our time. Not only our time, but the first century church as well. Millions of Christians living all over the world are experiencing high levels of persecution. There is a lot to learn from those who boldly witness and testify for Christ no matter the cost to themselves.
Many people love the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the three young Hebrew men in exile in Babylon who were thrown into a fiery furnace for their refusal to bow down and worship an idol. They violated King Nebuchadnezzar’s order rather than violate their commitment to worship the one true God. Rather than go along with the king’s command, the young men replied with what had to be one of the greatest statements of radical faith ever uttered. They said: “16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3: 16-18).
It takes great faith to believe that God is able to deliver us from our difficulties. It is, radical faith, however, to say that even if God does not do that, it’s okay. Believing God for miracles is a great thing, but believing God in tribulation or persecution, when no miracle comes, is faith at a profound level.
3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. James 1:3-5
This type of radical faith is not formed through a life of ease, where everything goes as we want it to. It is formed in the crucible of persecution. There are many in the Persecuted Church who may not have an expansive theological knowledge, but they have lived through difficulties that have given their faith the opportunity to become deep and powerful. A faith that is not dependent on circumstances, “7 For we live by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7
Persecution gives us the opportunities to develop radical faith.
There are some things in the Bible that really sound strange when we first read them. One of these statements is found in the book of James. We are to 2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything – James 1:2-4. Let that sink in for a moment. This is not an admonition to simply “hang in there,” “shake it off,” and “keep your chin up.” James tells us the trials, difficulties, and persecution that we may face as Christians, we should receive with an attitude of joy. We must learn that these circumstances can be used by God to benefit us in such significant ways. To live in such a way is to live in radical joy.
The Persecuted Church is often among those who live in this reality. This is because there is a recognition that a sovereign God can be trusted in every situation. It is possible because there is a certainty that God will never waste our trials, but will, in fact, redeem them. When prison is understood to be “God’s seminary” for teaching and training someone for a greater service in God’s kingdom, it provides a perspective on life that enables one to consider even trials to be joy. The promise in James chapter 1 is that our trials will be used by God in ways that will ultimately result in our being made “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” When one can understand the struggles of life as the means through which a faithful God perfects and completes us, even those very difficulties can be considered to be joy.
The Persecuted Church teaches us this can be more than a crazy thought: it can be a lived-out reality.
Hope is unquestionably one of the most powerful forces in the world. As long as a person has hope, they can persevere. Hope enables heroic efforts in the midst of insurmountable odds. Hope stirs passion. Hope energises the will. Hope sustains life. Conversely, without hope, we are defeated. Our passion will dry up, the will is broken, and life will seem to have no purpose or meaning. Hope is both powerful and essential. As such, our great enemy seeks to destroy our hope. Through the witness of the Persecuted Church, we can see how God takes Satan’s schemes and uses them for His eternal purposes and for our good.
The enemy desires to make our lives seem hopeless. He wants us to feel like there is nothing in our world that has beauty, value, or possibility. He tries to accomplish this in different ways, but primarily through our hardships. His plan is to make life hard to the point that we can focus on nothing else but our struggles. If difficulties are all we see, our hope quickly fades. The testimonies of the Persecuted Church are a reminder to us that God is still faithful and He is working for our good.
The Persecuted church helps us understand the truth of Romans 5, which begins with tribulations, but ends with a hope that does not disappoint. They have learned that it is through tribulations we learn to persevere, and through perseverance we develop the strength of our character. A life of continual ease does not enable us to know who we are or how we would react in times of struggles. It doesn’t give us the chance to experience God’s faithfulness in a time of crisis.
Tribulations provide this opportunity. When we develop an assurance of God’s faithfulness, we will never be without hope. In fact, we will have a hope that is confident and steadfast. This type of hope will win every battle.
Sometimes basic Christian concepts run counter to what comes naturally for us. They go against our basic nature, which is why we are not encouraged to be “natural,” but rather we are encouraged to be “spiritual.” Often, societal norms are completely different from the Biblical admonitions for us as well. One example of this is the concept of radical love.
Love is not something that we would like to think is contrary to our nature or to the norms of our society, but the type of love we are called to as Christians is definitely unnatural for us. Jesus made simple, yet shocking declarations that may be hard to apply, but show us a radical approach to how we treat others.
- “Love your enemies.”
- “Pray for those who persecute you.”
- “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”
- “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
These commands represent something far different, far deeper, and far more profound than what is natural to us. They are unnatural responses to unjust circumstances, but they are the responses of the radical love we are called to as followers of Christ. For the Persecuted Church, these are common experiences. The Bible commands this is how we should love and how we should live. The Persecuted Church shows us that it is possible to do so.
Enemies give us an opportunity to love at a deeper level. Unfair treatment and persecution teach us how to forgive at a level that most of us have trouble comprehending. What others meant for evil, God uses for good. We learn how to do this through the difficulties we experience at the hands of unjust people. The testimony of the Persecuted Church, whose primary prayer is for the salvation of their persecutors, lets us know this radical love is possible.
Isn’t it amazing how God uses even our enemies and persecutors for His purposes in our lives? We don’t have to live according to our natural impulses. We don’t have to live natural lives; we can live supernatural lives.
All of us live our lives from a particular perspective. This perspective is shaped by many factors, including our experiences, our education, and our upbringing. Hopefully, all of these things that shape our perspective on life are also shaped by our spiritual life. This includes our relationship with God, and is reinforced by the scriptures in a significant way. We can also add to our perspective through the observation of the Persecuted Church.
We have discussed the radical faith, joy, hope, and love that the Persecuted Church demonstrates as they serve the Lord through difficulties and suffering. Finally, we will focus on their radical perspective. This perspective is an eternal one, and when we see our lives through the lens of eternity, our lives change dramatically and for the better.
The Beatitudes offer an incredible window into what life is like when one has an eternal perspective. We are prone to see the things of everyday life, as if this life is all there is, and ever will be. The Bible teaches just the opposite. It shows us that our lives are “like a vapor that appears for a moment, then vanishes away.” Since we will live on in eternity as well, we should see this life and all that it contains for what it is: the beginning notes to the prelude of forever.
The Beatitudes give us an eternal perspective on humility, mourning, gentleness, righteousness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking. They also give us a true understanding of Christian persecution. Every statement of the Beatitudes begins with “Blessed are…”. This text shows us how we are actually blessed when we are reviled, persecuted, and slandered for the sake of Christ. This will seem to be absurd, unless we understand life in light of eternity. The truth is seen in the scripture, but the life and witness of the Persecuted Church testifies of the experiential reality of this lofty spiritual concept. When we learn to have this radical perspective of seeing life in the light of eternity, radical faith, joy, hope, and love will fill our lives.