Facing up to persecution

When I was in Bible College, the only time we learned about persecution was in Church History classes. Yet in some parts of the world, ‘Standing Under Persecution’ is a required module for all evangelists and pastors.

We’ve had it easy in the West, for generations. I’ve never preached or heard a sermon about dealing with persecution. I don’t have any recent books about it. Modern systematic theologies don’t mention it.

It’s tempting to say that we don’t suffer from or think much about persecution because we are fortunate to live in a nation that allows religious freedom. But that would miss the point. American pastor Kent Hughes says:

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… 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.

A depressing issue

Thinking about persecution and opposition may seem very depressing. It’s not. I said earlier that modern systematic theologies don’t mention persecution. That’s true, but those from earlier generations do. This is what John Calvin had to say about persecution in his Institutes:

Now, to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake is a singular comfort… We must undergo the offenses and hatred of the world, which may imperil either our life, our fortunes, or our honour… Poverty, if it be judged in itself, is misery; likewise exile, contempt, prison, disgrace; finally, death itself is the ultimate of all calamities. But when the favour of our God breathes upon us, every one of these things turns into happiness for us.

If we are cast out of our own house, then we will be the more intimately received into God’s family. If we are vexed and despised, we but take all the firmer root in Christ. If we are branded with disgrace and ignominy, we but have a fuller place in the Kingdom of God. If we are slain, entrance into the blessed life will thus be open to us. Let us be ashamed to esteem less than the shadowy and fleeting allurements of the present life, those things on which the Lord has set so great a value.

Calvin wasn’t writing from an ivory tower. By the time he wrote this, he’d be exiled from his own native France, and forced to find shelter in neighbouring Switzerland. He knew first-hand poverty, exile, contempt and disgrace. He often wrote to colleagues and friends who had been imprisoned. Some, he knew, had been martyred. So it was from his own experience he could write ‘But when the favour of our God breathes upon us, every one of these things turns into happiness for us.’

We shouldn’t seek persecution. As far as it is possible, we should live at peace with everyone. We should seek the good of the places where we live, and submit to ruling authorities.

But neither should we be afraid of opposition. Satan himself is already defeated. The final victory is already secure. Yet too often, in the comfortable West, we prefer silence to sacrifice, and we fail to speak up for Jesus. Our brothers and sisters in many other parts of the world condemn us by their courage. We must pray for them – but we must also learn from them.