I need to lay my cards on the table right at the outset. As far as I know I have never been persecuted for being a Christian. Certainly there have been occasions where ‘friends’ have made fun of me. Undoubtedly there have been times when my Christian faith has caused me to be excluded from some activity or opportunity. But persecuted? Not yet.
And that, frankly, is quite remarkable. The Christian heritage that we have enjoyed in Britain for centuries has kept the vast majority of us shielded from the truth which most of the rest of the world knows all too well. The persecution of Christians is a normal state of affairs.
I say all this because there is an increasingly realisation that the privileges that we have enjoyed for so long are beginning to come to an end. Even in this country there have been recent occasions where Christians have lost their jobs simply for living out their Christian convictions. There have even been those arrested and prosecuted for doing what you and I believe the Bible commands us to do.
We know this because the Christian newspapers – and occasionally even secular ones – have reported those stories. So remember this: here, now, persecution makes the news. That’s worth repeating: here, now, persecution makes the news. But in most of history, in most parts of the world, persecution is a normal, everyday occurrence that is no more newsworthy than a minor parking accident or a mild illness.
The Church and the World
It is remarkable that most of us are indignant when a little opposition comes our way. We mutter about our civil liberties and our human rights. We talk about living in a Christian country, and claim that we shouldn’t be treated like this. But brothers and sisters in Christ, persecution is normal! Persecution is to be expected! It is lack of persecution that should shock us, not the reverse.
But if persecution is normal, why have the majority of us never really suffered persecution at all? Of course, it is partly down to the grace of God. We should be extremely thankful to God that the world around us is as tolerant as it currently is. But for many of us, it is probably also down to our weakness and failure to live up to the standards that the Bible sets for us.
American pastor Kent Hughes has said this:
By far the greatest reason there is so little persecution is that the church has become like the world. If you want to get along, the formula is simple. Approve of the world’s morals and ethics—at least outwardly. Live like the world lives. Laugh at its humor. Immerse yourself in its entertainment. Smile benignly when God is mocked. Act as if all religions converge on the same road. Don’t mention hell. Draw no moral judgments. Take no stand on the moral/political issues. Above all, do not share your faith. Follow this formula and it will be smooth sailing. But the fact is, the church must be persecuted or it is no church at all.
For years we’ve been shielded from the truth because the world has persuaded us – or perhaps we have persuaded ourselves – that there is not that much difference between a Christian and a non-Christian. And, while most of our neighbours and friends were relatively moral, believed in God, came to church at Christmas and admired some of the truths in the Bible, we allowed that myth to persist.
Yet the simple truth is that regardless of behaviour, there is a great gulf that separates the church from the world. There are differences between men and women, between young and old, between black and white, and between rich and poor. But there is no greater difference than that between the Christian and the non-Christian.
Now, as our nation moves ever further from its Christian heritage and Victorian morality, we’re starting to see the chasm between the church and the world. For several generations we have been allowed the luxury of quietly tolerating ‘respectable sins’. But under God, it appears that our nation is beginning to remove that sinful luxury from us. It seems as though God is reminding us that we have tolerated too much for too long. It seems as though God is saying that it’s time we took a stand.
And if, for God’s sake, we take a stand, we must do all that lies within us to avoid hypocrisy. It is easy to decry the sin in others, it is far harder to deal with the sin in ourselves. We should remember that our persecuted brothers and sisters all around the world are persecuted not because they condemn others, but because they live out the gospel themselves.
Biblically, taking a stand for the Gospel does not simply mean marching, waving banners and shouting slogans. It does not just mean writing to the newspaper or to your MP. But it does mean living holy lives. As Peter puts it (1 Peter 2:12), “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
And just as importantly, it does mean preaching the gospel. Preaching the gospel will always expose sin. But it will never only expose sin. Preaching the gospel means not only bringing men down, but lifting Christ up.
It is this, perhaps, that will awaken us to the realities of persecution.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was banned from preaching by the Gestapo. But in 1937 he had written in his classic work The Cost of Discipleship:
Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship… Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true church, and one of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the Augsburg Confession similarly defines the church as the community of those “who are persecuted and martyred for the Gospel’s sake.”… Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact, it is a joy and a token of His grace.
It is perhaps not a surprise to discover that in 1945, after imprisonment in a series of concentration camps, he was hanged by the Nazis. Ten years later, the camp doctor wrote “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
What can bring a man to see so clearly that suffering is an undeniable part of the Christian life? What separates our faith from his? John Piper has the answer:
We don’t have a wartime mentality and therefore our young men and women do not gather late at night in basement rooms and plot their strategies to detonate Satan’s bridgehead and liberate some of his captives. We don’t see ourselves as insurgents in the alien territory of sin planting explosives of righteousness and truth at every fortified wall; and so our eyes don’t meet with a flame of eternal friendship… and say without a word amid a thousand aliens: “You and I will die for this cause and join hands in the resurrection.” We don’t feel like a fifth column devoted with all our strength to sabotage the rule of Satan in this world; and therefore our life together is not intense but petty. There are no coded handshakes of joy, or secret passwords. And there are few tearful embraces and songs of thanks because a squad of witnesses has returned safely even bringing some liberated captives home.
How many of us have surrendered to Satan’s lie that the world is not really lost, and the battle is not really great? How many of us are living as if Christ’s sufferings was not of much worth? How many of us must plead guilty to Bonhoeffer’s accusation that we’ve cheapened grace?
Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.
The Bible teaches us that we are called to share not just in Christ’s glory, but also in His sufferings (Romans 8:17). And suffering Christians are always pointed to Christ, both for explanation, and for encouragement.
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you… If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. (John 15:18-20)
Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:10)
It may be many years before Christians in this country face death for the sake of the gospel. Perhaps God will keep this nation from it until every one of us has passed into glory. Nevertheless, we must certainly be bold enough to face fundamentalist atheism and secular liberalism.
Yet does not God call us to be more than a witness for Him in the country of our birth? And therefore the challenge of Jesus’ words, to be faithful to the point of death, are not simply to encourage Christians in North Korea, in Pakistan or in Saudi Arabia. Why shouldn’t Westerners also be bold enough to face militant Islam, religious nationalism or military dictatorships?
Perhaps in our fear and trepidation, we need to be reminded that Christ’s suffering on our behalf is infinitely greater than ever our suffering on His behalf will be.
Jesus, and shall it ever be,
A mortal man, ashamed of Thee?
Ashamed of Thee, whom angels praise,
Whose glories shine through endless days?
Ashamed of Jesus! that dear Friend
On Whom my hopes of Heav’n depend!
No; when I blush, be this my shame,
That I no more revere His Name.
Ashamed of Jesus! yes, I may
When I’ve no guilt to wash away;
No tear to wipe, no good to crave,
No fears to quell, no soul to save.
Ashamed of Jesus! empty pride!
I’ll boast a Saviour crucified,
And O may this my portion be,
My Saviour not ashamed of me!