The definition of persecution is to subject someone to hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of their race, political, or religious beliefs. Around the world every year tens of thousands of Christians are killed, and many more suffer under persecution. Here in North America, however, there has been nothing overt for hundreds of years. Christians have enjoyed great religious rights and freedoms under the law. That is changing, however. The political and cultural climate is increasingly hostile to the truth of the one true Savior, Jesus Christ. Having never experienced true persecution, many of us lack an understanding of how to face it. Knowing why persecution exists and how God wants us to react to it becomes steadily more important.
First, it is important to understand why persecution exists, especially for Christians. Statistics show that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world. In the 21st century between 100,000 and 150,000 believers are killed each year (Gordon-Conwell Resources and World Christian Database). This does not include the many more beatings, rapes and imprisonment that take place. Why are Christians reviled so much more intensely? It is because we are set apart from the world to serve the One True God. As John 3:18-20 says,
“He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”
The natural bent of all mankind is toward darkness, or sin. When a non-believer is confronted with a true believer in Jesus, their sin-loving nature is revealed to them, and they hate the guilt and pain it causes. This hate extends to the Christian speaking these painful truths. They wish to extinguish the spotlight of Christ’s truth pointed at their depraved life and return to the blind pleasures of this world. Thus they lash out at the only thing they can, the person indwelt by Christ. For Christians in North America, persecution is not generally as physical. Possible persecution ranges from non-believers avoiding us to potentially being fired from a job for refusing to compromise our beliefs. This can cause us to question God’s will in allowing persecution to befall us.
Jesus warns any potential believers to, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me” (John 15:20-21). Being a Christian and persecuted is inextricably intertwined. As strange as it may sound, God uses this persecution for His own Glory, and through persecution, God separates true believers from people who maintain a façade.
Persecution also reminds us that our home is not this earth, and forces us to choose whether Jesus is our highest priority or not. God said, “I will bring the one-third through the fire, will refine them as silver is refined, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘This is My people’; and each one will say, ‘The Lord is my God’” (Zechariah 13:9). This process purifies us of our selfish desires and allows God to work His Will through our lives for His Glory.
How then are we to live Christian lives under persecution? The apostle Peter tells us, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified” (1 Peter 4:12-14). He tells us to rejoice and be glad, which seems impossible to maintain under constant persecution. However, the key to that fortitude does not come from within us but from the Holy Spirit working through us. An important reason we are called to suffer with joy to glorify God is to witness to unbelievers by, “having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Thus, by setting ourselves apart from the world, we are a light on a hill; drawing those who want to turn their lives to Christ.
Since we have kept the faith and forsaken all but Christ, we care not for the trials or pleasures of this life but look to our future reward. As Paul said, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). That reward is eternal life in joyous communion with Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, because persecution makes us choose whether to serve Christ and refines us in order to do the will of God, it is a vital component of the Christian life—one that has been absent for too long in North America. This is demonstrated by the rise of liberal and tolerant thinking in the church. Thinking which, in turn, is reducing our impact on the culture and leading us toward much harsher persecution. We may not desire persecution to befall us, but if it does, God will use it to purify us for His Glory. May we remember His Word and be prepared to face that persecution, and rejoice.