By Lane Corley
Throughout the New Testament, persecution and suffering are presented as foundational elements of the Christian faith. Jesus said in Matthew 5:11 – You are Blessed when you are insulted, persecuted, falsely accused. He says that we should, “Be glad and rejoice” Matthew 5:12, and “leap for joy” (Luke 6:23) when this happens. Really? A few other verses:
- 2 Timothy 3:12 – “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”
- Acts 14:22 – “It is necessary to go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God”
- Philippians 1:29 – “it has been granted to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him”
What are we to make of these and other words of Jesus and the Apostles on the issue of suffering?
Defining Christian Suffering
First of all, it’s worth noting that we’re talking about suffering and being persecuted because of your relationship with Christ and his work in and through your life. We can make ourselves martyrs in a prideful way, pointing out how hard we work compared to others and in attempts to get the recognition of others. This usually is not about the righteousness of God but the self-righteousness of man. Jesus gets little glory from prideful martyrdom.
Also, some are persecuted because of rudeness, annoying behavior, or for being jerks, not necessarily for representing Christ. When we set out to offend for the sake of offense, we are not following the way of Christ.
Jesus warns us over and over about the reality of suffering for his followers. He is preparing us for the collisions that are inevitable for those living out his values in a hostile, foreign land.
Christian Suffering Around the World
Did you know? In just the last year, there have been…
- Over 260 million Christians live in places where they experience high levels of persecution
- 4,305 Christians were killed for their faith
- 1,847 churches and other Christian buildings were attacked.
- 3,150 believers detained without trial, arrested, sentenced, or imprisoned
There are many Christians that are suffering persecution around the world. They lead the way for us in standing up for Christ and representing Christ, even in the face of threats. Find out more about modern-day persecution and ways to help at OpenDoorsUSA.org and Persecution.com.
7 Types of Christian Suffering
Life in Christ may bring you face to face with at least 7 types of suffering and persecution. You can also see levels of maturity in these 7 types as well. Or degrees to which you are willing to say “Yes” to following Jesus, and no to self and the world.
- Discipline and the Natural Consequences of Sin – Revelations 3:19; Romans 6:23; Proverbs 12:21; Isaiah 57:21;
There is a fair amount of suffering in the world, just because of sin and the reality of life in a fallen world. We suffer oftentimes because of our sinful and foolish choices and/or the sinful and foolish choices of others. God also promises discipline for followers that step out of his will. This may mean he allows consequences in our lives that lead to suffering and pain so that we may learn a lesson. There are costs, painful costs to disobedience and choosing the way of the flesh and the world. Many people are stuck in the painful cycle of sin – consequence – start over —- sin – consequence – start over. The suffering we feel at this level is meant to help us want to break out by God’s power.
- Self-Denial and Humility – Mark 8:34; Philippians 2:3-4
One of the first level, basic calls of life in Christ is to deny self. This includes saying no to entitled living and making life about God’s glory and the needs of others. When we’re immature in the faith, this can be painful and a type of suffering. We must say no to our fleshly nature, to the ways of the world, to relationships that may lead us astray. Denying self leads us to spiritual maturity and life on mission. We discover that joy is found in life that is about God and others. But there may be painful breaks with the sin nature and its ties before this discovery. Necessary pain for those who desire to grow in Christ.
- Risk-taking and Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone – 1 John 3:16-18; 2 Corinthians 1:5-7
Beyond self-denial, the Christian begins to take opportunities to live unselfishly with intentional choices that make life easy for others but harder for ourselves. As it says of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8, he chose the good of others every chance he had, even to the point of death. This may include simple things like hospitality and opening your home for others, taking a mission trip to a third world country, living with radical generosity in financial decisions, mentoring or taking in a child that is without a family, teaching a small at church, sharing the Gospel with a friend or neighbor. These things are sometimes risky, intentional steps of generosity and servanthood that are inconvenient and uncomfortable. For the growing Christian, serving God and meeting the needs of others is becoming more important than his/her own discomfort. So it may only seem like suffering in the eyes of others.
- Being Misunderstood and Misrepresented.
The relational aspect of following Christ can be hard. All relationships are hard. But when you put yourself out there in love with others, you will likely get hurt. Jesus’ closest disciples caused him some of his greatest grief through their betrayal and abandonment in time of need. Sheep bite. Hurting people, hurt people. Leaders and people that are serving have a target on their backs. In stepping out to shepherd and serve others, you can expect to be misunderstood, misrepresented, gossiped about, betrayed, and treated unfairly. It is painful every time, no matter how well prepared you believe you are for it.
- Experiencing Spiritual Warfare – Ephesians 6:11-12; Revelation 2:10
Spiritual Warfare could be related to each of these seven types in some way. When you get out of the sin – consequence – start over the cycle, and began denying yourself, taking a risk for the sake of the gospel, you will get the attention of the spiritual forces arrayed against God and his glory. They can’t touch Him, but they can influence you. We must be aware that spiritual warfare is a reality, but it’s one that we can overcome in the power of Christ and his work in our lives (see Revelation 12:11).
- Being targeted for What You Say and Who You Are – 2 Peter 2:2-3; John 3:13
Around the world, believers experience social persecution and isolation. Imagine if just because you’re a Christian, you can’t get a job, go into a store, or access certain services. We may experience some of this in our country or in isolated places, like being targeted for gossip or not included because of our faith. And some may lose social standing for choosing to follow Christ. Are you ready to follow Jesus, even if you lose social standing?
- Being Tortured or Killed for What You Say or Who You Are – Acts 5:40; Revelation 12:11
Many believers throughout history and still today experience the threat of physical pressure and persecution because of Christ. Many have been arrested, punished, or killed for being Christian. Are you ready to follow Jesus, even if you lose your life?
Responding to Suffering and Persecution:
- Embrace it as a lifestyle. 1 Peter 4:1. From breaking out of the clutches of sin, saying no to self, taking a risk for the good of others, and the growth of the gospel, suffering is a way of life for those who follow Christ.
- Recognize its benefits. Romans 5:3; 2 Corinthians 4:17. Suffering produces! It produces endurance, character, hope, and longing to see and experience more of Jesus’ power. When you’re suffering, you’re in good company as well. Spiritual giants through the ages have faced suffering with great faith and are promised a reward in eternity.
- Trust God to bring justice. 1 Peter 2:23; Romans 8:18. When we suffer, our natural tendency is to consider the unfairness or maybe respond in revenge. The example of Jesus reminds us that it’s not our place. God will bring justice and a reward awaits those who suffer for righteousness and because of Christ.
- Is your Christian life all about avoiding suffering instead of embracing it?
- Is the fear of losing worldly pleasure or relationships keeping you from fully following Jesus?
- What entitlement do you need to deny or what risk do you need to take to grow in your Christian life this year?