Understanding and Preparing for Persecution

To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death.
-Revelation 2:8-11

It’s been said that American evangelicals have a persecution complex, that we are hyper-sensitive to even the smallest slight against our religious beliefs. The accusation is that we are quick to claim that we are being persecuted, even in relatively mundane situations where no violence has occurred. For example, we often equate dismissive comments by atheist professors with persecution, but is it? Granted, the power structure and knowledge differential between teacher and student is significant, and dismissive or incendiary comments from the person at the top of that structure carry a special weight, but we shouldn’t see this as persecution. We tend to view any opposition to our faith as the persecution of the righteous, but maybe we aren’t always being opposed by people because our love for Christ and Christlike behavior are so evident to them. Maybe we’re opposed and “persecuted” because we’re being jerks — because, all too often, we actually fail to be like Christ. We need to be careful with the word persecution.

American Christians are far more likely to be seduced away from the faith than intimidated or oppressed out of it.

Real persecution is a program to exterminate a group of people because of their religious or ethnic identity. It involves violence (though it is not always murderous), oppression, and subjugation. In the case of religious persecution, the goal is for the religious person to renounce his beliefs and adopt whatever beliefs his persecutors think he should have. If the believer refuses to recant, then the penalty is either death or imprisonment. Persecutors operate with the power and permission of the state (or, at least, enact their violence while the state looks the other way) because the aim of persecution is the extermination of a particular group or belief. Many Christians around the world are experiencing this right now, perhaps more than ever before. You can learn more about what the violence and oppression that our brothers and sisters in Christ are experiencing today at The Voice of the Martyrs.

Understanding the Times

Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John all told us that we should expect to suffer for our faith, but not all suffering is equal. It dishonors the real suffering and martyrdom of these saints when we call what we experience in America persecution. The devil and the world have many ways to achieve their goal of seeing Christians renounce their faith. Sometimes they use violence. Other times they use intimidation or opposition. Other times they use seduction. American Christians are far more likely to be seduced away from the faith than intimidated or oppressed out of it.

We need to understand the difference between persecution, opposition, and seduction. If there is violence, destruction, or state-sponsored coercion, then it is persecution. If there is intimidation, argumentation, or ridicule then it is opposition. If there is advertisement, temptation, or story then it is seduction. In our culture, many Christians have been, and will continue to be, seduced away from following Jesus by the clever marketing and story-telling of corporations and the entertainment industry. Fewer believers are intimidated or argued out of the faith, but that is becoming a more real and pervasive threat.

Is the persecution of Christians possible in America? I didn’t use to think so, but after everything that’s happened in the past year, I suppose anything is possible. We live in a time when victims are sacralized, and wherever there are victims there must be oppressors, and oppressors must always be punished. As our society drifts further and further from a Christian understanding of grace and forgiveness, it will seek scapegoats to punish for the crimes against its righteous and innocent victims. Those scapegoats could be anyone or any group, and Christians should be prepared to: first, defend any group that is wrongly scapegoated, and second, to face persecution themselves.

How To Be Prepared for Persecution

Having never faced persecution before, I am woefully unqualified to offer my thoughts on preparing for it. I recommend reading Rod Dreher’s recent book, Live Not By Lies. (You can find my review here.) Nonetheless, just as Jesus prepared the church in Smyrna in his letter to them above, we also should be prepared for what may come. So I humbly submit the following:

Your goal is to remain faithful to Jesus.

First, know that your goal is to remain faithful to Jesus. This is true in all circumstances, of course, but especially true when you are facing the threat of violence or imprisonment. Jesus remained faithful to us at the cross. He endured his suffering for our sake, so we can endure our suffering for his sake. Think about what Jesus will say to you when you overcome your suffering. He promised the crown of life to the saints of Smyrna because he wanted to give them strength to endure. Can you imagine any greater reward than hearing the king of the universe say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” as he places a crown on your resurrected head? And no matter what happens to us in this life, we always have that resurrection hope. This, too, shall pass, and what awaits us in the resurrection is far greater than we could possibly imagine.

Second, remember your first love and be committed to Jesus above all. Search your heart today for any bit of wavering, anything that you might love more than Jesus. The uncommitted will not endure persecution. Do you love the comforts of this world? I know I do! I have to fight every day to make sure that Jesus takes first place in my heart. Purify your love for Christ today so that you will be able to face whatever comes tomorrow.

The uncommitted will not endure persecution.

Finally, remember what Jesus said: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These are people who need Jesus, who are loved by Jesus, and for whose sins Jesus died. He wants to bring them into God’s family just as he has already brought you into the family. Therefore, we need to have the same attitude of humility and love that Christ demonstrated at the cross. He prayed that God would forgive the very people who crucified him. Whether we face seduction, opposition, or persecution, this is the attitude that we need to imitate.

If people are going to hate us, let it be because we are being like Christ, not because we are failing in this calling. The world is hungry for Jesus, and the Church is supposed to be the body of Christ on earth. If we truly are his body, and they kill us anyway, then so be it. As the apostle Peter said, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”

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