Expecting Persecution: Responding To The World’s Hate

Last year, the persecution of Christians during the past quarter century hit a record high for the third year in a row. The World Watch List, released by Open Doors every year for the past 25 years, examines the pressures Christians face and levels of religiously motivated violence to rank the top 50 countries where “Christians face the most persecution.”click to read article, "Expecting Persecution: Responding To The World's Hate" | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Here in the United States, I’ve heard the Christians around me talk about being persecuted. “It’s getting bad,” they say. You might lose your business for not baking a cake or go to jail for not issuing a gay “marriage” license. You might be scared to say “I’m a Christian” because people will laugh at or ridicule you. Your kid might be told they can’t bring a Bible to school.

While that does qualify as persecution, the U.S. isn’t anywhere on this list, nor on the expanded list of countries to watch. India, on the other hand, comes in at #15. There are 64 million Christians in India and “approximately 39 million experience direct persecution.” That means about “40 incidents were reported per month, including pastors beaten, churches burned and Christians harassed.” A little closer to home, last year “23 Christian leaders in Mexico and four in Colombia were killed specifically for their faith.”

In 35 out of the 50 countries, including most of the top-ranked countries, Christians are being persecuted by Islamic extremists. In a rising number of Asian countries, the driving force is religious and ethnic nationalism. In summary, “Christians throughout the world continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of their faith.”

Why The World Hates Us

Many U.S. Christians don’t even know about the level of persecution our brethren face overseas. And if we do, I think all too often our response is an American knee-jerk reaction that the solution is to export more of our ideas like religious freedom, tolerance, and equal justice. Those same ideals drive the indignation we feel seeing any sort of persecutions happen here in the United States.

As Americans, we think we deserve religious freedom. Under U.S. law, we’re right and I do believe we should continue to fight for that on a political level. But we should also realize the level of freedom we’ve enjoyed to practice our faith in the U.S. is an anomaly in world history. And while U.S. citizens should be able to count on freedom from persecution because of the Constitution, as Christians we’re never promised exemption from persecution. In fact, we’re told the opposite. Continue reading

Baruch Hashem

As I wrote in Monday’s post, my sister and I visited a Messianic congregation last Sabbath/Shabbat. The teaching given that day by the Rabbi centered around the Hebrew phrase “Baruch Hashem,” which translates as “bless the name” or “blessed be God.” Jewish people traditionally write the initials B”H at the top of a letter to begin their correspondence, as a way of contextualizing everything that follows as being for God’s glory. The composer Johann Sebastian Bach did something similar by starting each new piece of music with the initials JJ (Jesu Juva — Jesus help me) and ended his compositions with the letters SDG (Soli Deo Gloria — all glory to God).

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Bless The Lord

One of the songs we opened services with last week was my new favorite Christian song, Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons. Like many of the Psalms, it is about wholeheartedly singing and offering praise to God at all times, “whatever may pass and whatever lies before me.”

Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! (Ps. 103:1)

Praise the Lord, O my soul! While I live I will praise the Lord; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. (Ps. 146:1-2)

Have you made it your purpose in life to praise God? Perhaps this comes naturally for some people, but I suspect it is hard for most of us to be in a continuing mindset of praise. When things are going well it is easier to feel  like praising, but we often get so distracted by how well things are going that we forget to offer glory to God. Things going badly can serve as a reminder, but when that happens our typical response is usually to beg God for help rather than praise Him.

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9)

One of the reasons we have been chosen is the show forth God’s praises, not just when we feel like it, but all the time. Ephesians 1:5-6 tells us that we were predestined to adoption as sons “to the praise of the glory of His grace.” Verses 12-14 add that we were “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise,” redeemed, and purchased “to the praise of His glory.” Praising God is one of the key reasons we were created.

Praising His Glory

When we talk about God choosing us, we often turn to 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, about how God has selected the foolish, weak, and despised people who are nothing apart from Him so “that no flesh should glory in His presence.” There’s a “but” right after this, though.

But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God — and righteousness and sanctification and redemption — that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30-31)

We’re not told to just mope around and wallow in our insignificance. We are to be humble, yes, but there is also something we are to “glory in.” It’s not something that came from or belongs to us, though. Even if we have something which is impressive by the world’s standards, it still pales in comparison to what God gives us.

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, nor let the rich man glory in his riches; but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24)

If we’re going to talk about, glory in, and be inspired by something we have, it should be our relationship with God. I recently re-read a book called Refiner’s Fire written by Sylvia Bambola. It is fiction, but set during the very real reign of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania during the 1980s. A large part of the plot centers around the horrible persecutions Christians endured under Ceausescu’s leadership.

When we sit in our comfy armchairs reading about the apostles “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name,” it seems marvelous, but rather far removed from our own experiences (Acts 5:41). Perhaps we wonder if Christians in general, or us in particular, would react like that today. We in the U.S. complain about being persecuted when public prayer is condemned — not a bit of praise to God for being counted worthy to suffer for Him. Christians in Romania gloried in sharing the love of Christ when it meant being beaten to death or incarcerated and tortured. Reading something like Refiner’s Fire kinda puts things in perspective.

Can we do this? Can we live our lives in the context of always glorifying God no matter the cost? Do we let people see God’s work in us without fearing how they will respond? Will we bless His name even if people give us weird looks, wonder at our sanity, take us to court, or perhaps worse in days to come?

Written In Our Hearts

We might not write B”H at the beginning of our correspondence any more, but God is writing something in our hearts that should result in our lives being contextualized by blessing His name.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jer. 31:33)

God is writing on us, while He is re-writing us in His image. Let’s think about this analogy for a moment. When you write on something, you change it. I write these blog posts in pen on notebooks before typing them up. Once I’ve done that, you can’t use that paper for anything else — it has been changed by the writing process and the words are there to stay. Even if I used pencil and erased it there would still be marks visible. God wants to have an even more indelible impact on us.

At one time, God wrote His laws on “tablets of stone” (Ex. 24:12). Now, He is writing on a surface far more precious with the potential to be far more enduring — our hearts. In a way, we are His letter to the world, and our whole life should be contextualized by that.

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. (2 Cor. 3:2-3)

God’s work in us — what He is writing on us — should change the way we approach our entire lives. When people see us, they should be able to read what God has written in us, seeing His signature on all that we do.

Spiritual Persecution

In the sermon I referenced in last week’s post, the speaker briefly touched on a point that I wanted to make the subject of further study. Since I also needed a topic for today’s post, I decided to “kill two birds with one stone,” as the saying goes. This first section is going to summarize relevant parts of that sermon, then I’ll move on to my own thoughts on the subject.

In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul writes that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” There are no exceptions. However, as this speaker pointed out, we can all name Christians we know of who went through life without having to face the kind of persecutions mention at the end of Hebrews 11. His conclusion, from bringing in Ephesians 6:12, is that this verse includes persecutions from a spiritual source.

Not Against Flesh and Blood

The Armor of God passage in Ephesians talks about arming ourselves for our struggle against sin as if for war. It also gives us important information about who our enemies are and what must be done to overcome them.

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. (Eph. 6:10-13)

In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry describes the kind of assault we can expect from this type of enemy, who he describes as “subtle,”an enemy who uses wiles and stratagems.”

They are spiritual enemies: Spiritual wickedness in high places, or wicked spirits, as some translate it. The devil is a spirit, a wicked spirit; and our danger is the greater from our enemies because they are unseen, and assault us ere we are aware of them. The devils are wicked spirits, and they chiefly annoy the saints with, and provoke them to, spiritual wickednesses, pride, envy, malice, etc. … They assault us in the things that belong to our souls, and labour to deface the heavenly image in our hearts; and therefore we have need to be upon our guard against them. We have need of faith in our Christian warfare, because we have spiritual enemies to grapple with, as well as of faith in our Christian work, because we have spiritual strength to fetch in. Thus you see your danger.  (Eph. 6:10-18, 1. [3])

Overcoming Through Christ

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Seeing our danger is one step toward overcoming the adversary. We can’t fight something if we don’t recognize that is is putting us in peril. As in other areas of our lives, our focus should be on spiritual, not physical things. It is hard to be on guard spiritually if we are too focused on physical safety. Are we more worried about keeping our hearts, minds, and spirits safe than we are about protecting our lives? Perhaps this is one reason we are told, “do not worry about your life” (Matt. 6:25). To much focus on the physical distracts us from the importance of our spiritual future, the condition of our spiritual lives, and the danger from our spiritual enemy.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. (1 Pet. 5:8-9)

We must be on constant guard, steadfast in faith, and strong in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. The line right before this warning about our adversary reminds us where our true strength come from: “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7). To win a fight against a spiritual enemy and endure spiritual persecutions, we need the aid of our Spiritual Savior. When we fully submit to God, we can say along with Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Reasons for Suffering

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One of the best sermons we heard during the Feast of Tabernacles was titled “Why Will God Release Satan to Deceive the World Again?” (Sept. 24 sermon, link in Pacific COG archives). I could probably write half a dozen blog posts on different points he brought up, but for now I want to focus on just one. In the context of trying to see things from God’s point of view (such as understanding His decision to release Satan after the Millennium [Rev. 20:1-10]), the speaker brought up the subject of suffering. When we’re suffering, our automatic response is to want the suffering to end because we view it in a negative light, but God’s perspective can be very different.

Blessed Persecution

If we start reading the beatitudes, those who Christ calls blessed are not always in a condition we would consider a blessing. They are “poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), they mourn and weep (Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:21), they are hungry (Luke 6:21), they are hated (Luke 6: 22), and they are persecuted.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:10-12)

I don’t know about you, but my first reaction when I’m feeling persecuted is not to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” or to “leap for joy” (Luke 6:23). Yet we should be more like the apostles who, after they were beaten and commanded not to preach Jesus any more, “departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” and made themselves the target of more persecution by continuing to preach (Acts 5:40-42).

If we suffer with Him

The question, “Why would God allow suffering?” is frequently asked by those in the church and by those who have rejected belief in God. If He’s all powerful, we wonder, why would He allow such terrible things to happen? One answer, as pointed out in the sermon I’ve been referring to, is that God sees suffering in a different light than we do. Often, what we see as negative in this moment will ultimately be for our good. For example, in Romans 8, Paul writes that we will be glorified with Christ on the condition that we suffer as He suffered.

The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Rom. 8:16-18, KJV)

This is certainly not the only scripture that talks of our glorious future as being conditional on present suffering. Here are a few more:

our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:17)

if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed (1 Pet. 3:14)

But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps (1 Pet. 2:20-21)

Why is suffering so important?

Finding these scriptures and understanding that suffering is part of being a Christian is not hard. Accepting that there is a good reason for suffering in your life or in the lives of those you love is the hard part. And this is why I really appreciated this sermon message, because the speaker didn’t just tell people “suffering is good for you, be happy.” He pulled together an easy-to-understand analysis that moved logically from the proper reaction to suffering, to the reward for suffering, to the reason for suffering.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)

The reason for trials and testings and suffering is that it helps us learn to be like God. If we were dancing through life without a care in the world, we would forget how much we depend on God. If we never suffered for following Christ, we would have no sense of how much we owe Him for dying in our place. If we did not suffer the consequences of sin, we would never learn to hate sin as much as God does.