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“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angles nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
Suffering is an integral part of the normal Christian life–even here in the West. Suffering is not reserved for those believers in Asia, Africa and the Middle East alone. Scripture tells us:
“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude…” (1 Peter 4:1)
Suffering and persecution is part of “normal” Christianity according to the Scriptures. If we are not enduring some form of persecution for the sake of Christ, I dare to say the Scriptural reason is that we are not living a godly life (2 Timothy 3:12) but, rather, a false form of “Christianity”.
“Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their fathers treated the prophets…Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23, 26)
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” (1 Peter 4:12-14)
Suffering is the inevitable consequence of living a holy life in a sinful world (or compromising church).
The Western world is a culture of comfort, convenience and putting oneself first. We pamper and indulge ourselves in these things. How foreign is that from the gospel and from Biblical Christianity!
This “comfort culture” thinking has sadly infiltrated and permeated much of the Western Church, manifesting itself in both blatant and subtle ways. It has contributed to the false but common viewpoint that God primarily exists to alleviate suffering from our lives. Many of us unconsciously relate to God from that viewpoint on a regular basis (though the majority of us would deny it). This heart attitude manifests itself in a variety of ways: lack of absolute surrender (to the point of suffering), petitioning God with our wants and our “to do” lists more than praising and thanking him for who he is, and getting angry and upset with God when things don’t go “our way” (among other things).
I personally believe the proper, Biblical viewpoint is, “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-12). We exist not only for fellowship with God but also for his glory. God’s will for our lives is not that he would be our personal Santa Claus but our personal Savior who outworks his glory through our sufferings!
Throughout the Scriptures, glory is intrinsically linked with suffering. One of the primary ways God manifests his glory in our lives is by allowing us to suffer. Suffering brings us to the end of ourselves so that we have no more power to live by our own strength. It is in that completely broken, powerless, ‘dead’ place, that Christ manifests his resurrection life and power of the Holy Spirit through us. This is truly living! (See “Submission to the Breaking From the Hand of My Master” (Believer’s Road Series), which explains more about this subject).
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11)
We often pray that God would glorify himself in our lives and that he would achieve his will and his plan through us. If we are REALLY serious about God answering that prayer, then we must submit to the suffering that he sovereignly sends our way because it is one of the most common ways he answers these prayers!
God has granted us mercy, saved us from an eternity in hell, given us spiritual joy, peace and hope, granted us an eternal inheritance that can never perish and countless other “benefits” in him (Psalm 103:1-5). God is pleased to bestow his blessings upon us, but it is also his will that, as an act of worship and gratitude, that we would take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him down the road of Calvary, the road that leads to suffering and death for his sake that he may be glorified in our lives.
“Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him [Jesus] and cause him to suffer…and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied…” (Isaiah 53:10-11)
“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19)
“But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21-22)
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
Many of us Christians, including myself, do know the pain of suffering and persecution here in the West. We have suffered for the sake of Christ. We have felt the pain, rejection, humiliation, shame, exclusion, mockery, insults and, for some, even physical threats and beatings for the sake of Christ.
Brother Yun (otherwise known as “The Heavenly Man”), a leader of the underground house churches in China who endured severe persecution, makes an interesting comparison between physically suffering for Christ in China and spiritually/emotionally suffering for Christ in the West:
“In China I had been used to beatings, torture with electric batons, and all kinds of humiliation. I guess that deep in my heart I had presumed that now I was in the West my days of persecution had ended…
[After a vicious attack of false accusations in the West, attempting to discredit his ministry] My translator told me, ‘Brother Yun, these people don’t want to know the truth. That’s why they’re not calling you or wanting to meet you. In China, Christians are persecuted with beatings and imprisonment. In the West, Christians are persecuted by the words of other Christians.”
This new kind of spiritual persecution was no easier than physical persecution in China, just different.
Brother Yun also goes on to comment:
“How we mature as a Christian largely depends on the attitude we have when we’re faced with suffering. Some try to avoid it or imagine it doesn’t exist, but that will only make the situation worse. Others try to endure it grimly, hoping for relief. This is better, but falls short of the full victory God wants to give each of his children. The Lord wants us to embrace suffering as a friend. We need a deep realization that when we’re persecuted for Jesus’ sake it is an act of God’s blessing to us. This might sound impossible, but it is attainable with God’s help. (Matthew 5:11-12)…
We can grow to such a place in Christ where we laugh and rejoice when people slander us, because we know we are not of this world, but our security is in heaven. The more we are persecuted for his sake, the more reward we will receive in heaven.
When people malign you, rejoice and be glad. When they curse you, bless them in return. When you walk through a painful experience, embrace it and you will be free!
When you learn these lessons, there is nothing left that the world can do to you.”
Many of us have felt like the man in this drawing. We feel the intense heat of the persecuting crowd, the sting of the beatings, the piercing words from their lips, the shame of their mockery. From my personal experience, the most difficult part of persecution, however, is feeling like I’m all alone, like God has abandoned me (as in the beginning of Psalm 22). Sometimes, when the pain of persecution is really intense it seems to drown out our sense of God’s love for us and his presence with us in our suffering, and it saps our confidence and strength.
Sometimes we can even be tricked into thinking the hatred men vent upon us is actually God venting his disapproval and condemnation of us through them because of some sort of sin in our lives. This particular deception usually comes when it is other Christians, especially Christian leaders, who are persecuting us (See “Vindication” (Spiritual Warfare, Victory, Freedom, Healing Series)). However, the Scriptures say this is not true because, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1) and “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). (Remember that it was the religious Pharisees who killed Jesus, not the pagan Romans. In the West, our worst opposition usually comes from other Christians.)
Perhaps the deepest pain from persecution I have ever felt is when other Christians, out of ignorance, attack Jesus within me. We can also feel pain when the church or unbelievers, in their ignorance, hurt Christ through sin. Because of our love for Christ, we get hurt when others ‘hurt’ him because we so closely identify with him. “For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face. I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons; for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me” (Psalm 69:7-9).
During these times, we can really feel like God has forsaken us (but he hasn’t).
I believe this is why God gave us the following passage:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
It is God’s loving presence that enables us to go through these sufferings. Knowing that he is lovingly right there with us, holding our hand through it all is what gives us the strength and encouragement to go on. This fellowship with Jesus is our comfort as we share in his sufferings. Like Stephen, the church’s first martyr (Acts 7), we can see and feel the loving presence of the Lord even as we feel the pain of being stoned to death.
From personal experience, I have found that the love of God is a stronger force than the force of “death” that comes against us in suffering and enables to live, even as we are (figuratively) being put to death, “…for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away…” (Song of Songs 8:6-7).
I did this drawing one night as I was worshiping God. It was a response to the pain I felt from persecution as well as a response to the fellowship I had with Jesus as I shared in his sufferings.
“…you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 5:9-11)
“Therefore we do not lose heart…For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)