Persecution & Suffering: 13

In John 16:33 Jesus says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

The good news for children of God is that suffering and persecution are only temporary. For at most one hundred years we will suffer, but then we will share in Jesus’ victory over death and hell and evil for all eternity. Revelation 21:3b-4 speaks of a vision of the future when a voice from heaven announces, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

We can be of good courage, knowing this future hope is sure. We are to live in a state of peace, having this assurance. We are to be encouraged because we know how the story ends. In the end, we win with the Lord.

Persecution & Suffering: 12

In John 15:1-2, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”

Being “in Christ” means we will bear fruit. Fruit is evidence of His life in us. Later in this chapter in verse 8 we are told, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” At the very heart of our purpose is glorifying God. Thus, bearing fruit, even much fruit, is an indispensible aspect of our core reason for existing.

One important purpose and reason for suffering in our lives is to “prune” us so we will bear more fruit. For a time, I was a blackberry farmer. You have to be a heartless person if you are a successful blackberry farmer. Each year from each blackberry plant you allow only to shoots (canes) to grow. You cut off all the rest. Then you regularly prune off all branches or shoots that grow off of those two. What is left you tie off to the stake and the two wires between stakes so that all that remains is tied to those supports. That means you end up pruning about 90% of the growth. In the end, the entire plant is covered with large, luscious, delicious blackberries. The plants couldn’t possibly produce that amount of fruit if the plants had not been brutally pruned. Also, the plants couldn’t possibly support that amount of weight if they weren’t tied inextricably along the supporting wires and stakes. The “extreme” pruning is necessary if you want to maximize fruitfulness.

I no longer farm blackberries. We do have wild blackberries in our area, however. My wife goes out each year to harvest some of them. They are much smaller and do not taste as sweet. They are also not nearly as fruitful. What takes my wife all day to harvest from wild blackberries could be harvested in five minutes from well-cultivated blackberry bushes.

In the same way, God’s pruning us, through difficulties and suffering, is for our good and His glory. Therefore, we can rejoice in it.

Persecution & Suffering: 11

Jesus speaks to His followers in Luke 9:23-25, “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?’”

Part of the very definition of being a follower of Christ is that we do not follow our own desires and preferences. By choosing to follow Jesus, we are choosing (in this earthly life), to live in a way that is uncomfortable and difficult and sacrificial and selfless. This is how Jesus lived and how He asks us to live as well.

In Philippians 2:3-8 Paul exhorts us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!’”

Jesus then, is to be our model. One of the reasons we are left on earth after we choose to follow Christ is in order that we can be made more like Him. A major part of being conformed to His image is us learning to emulate Him in sacrificial service and humility. In suffering, if we do it willingly and with joy, we are made more like Him and are identified with Him.

Persecution & Suffering: 10

Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

The things we are willing to sacrifice for the sake of Christ reveal where He ranks in our priorities. It demonstrates our level of commitment. Is He truly the “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45-46) in our estimation? Do we value Him more than any relationship and more than our own lives?

If we do, then the loss of anything for His sake will be met with pure joy because we have all we desire in Him. In Philippians 3:7-8 Paul says, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.”

This means we can constantly rejoice because Christ is in us and we are in Christ. No external circumstance can change this all-important reality. As Paul says elsewhere, “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 8:38-39)

In fact, it is us actually suffering loss of lesser things that proves we are His. It is in dying to ourselves that we are able to live in Him. It is in seeking Him that we lose everything else, including our own lives. The result is life – eternal, abundant, and true life.

Persecution & Suffering: 9

Matthew 5:38-45

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

This is probably one of the least popular passages in the Bible. It is clear but it is not what we want to hear. In fact, in our own strength it is nearly impossible. Obedience to these commands, at least with joy, is only possible through the Holy Spirit within us.

Jesus modeled this for us, even to the point of death. In fact, even down to the details, this could be a commentary on His crucifixion. He did not resist. He turned the other cheek during His trial and its aftermath. He gave up all His clothing. He carried the cross to the point of collapse. He loved His enemies and prayed for them even while on the cross.

Jesus tells us in doing these things we will be like our Father in heaven. He demonstrated these characteristics as well, showing love to the evil and the good, regardless of their hearts or their behavior. We are to respond with this sort of equanimity and blessing as well. Our universal response to others is to be pure love regardless of how they treat us. This is how we demonstrate we are God’s children.

Persecution & Suffering: 8

In Matthew 5:11-12 Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Therefore, our suffering for the sake of Christ results in our great reward in heaven.

Of course, this does not apply to suffering because of our own foolishness or wrongdoing. There are many cases, however, when the Lord asks us to do something that will result in our being maligned or mistreated or slandered or opposed. The question in those situations is whether we will obey and face the consequences or shrink back for the sake of our own reputation and well-being.

This is much the same situation as Jesus speaks about in relation to doing our righteous acts in order to be seen by men in Matthew 6:1-8: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

You cannot have your cake and eat it to. Either you live for reward in this world or in the coming world. You cannot have it both ways. Living for the coming Kingdom means you will not be welcome in this one. Seeking the coming Kingdom means actively opposing and seeking to change the present world. That will result in opposition if we are pursuing it as we should. The wonderful news is that we will be abundantly rewarded. This is why we are told to rejoice greatly when we suffer in this way.

Persecution & Suffering: 7

Matthew 5:10 tells us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In some way, then, the persecution of God’s people is connected with their inheritance in the Kingdom. This should not be a surprise since we are promised in 2 Timothy 3:12, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Persecution is a sign that accompanies godly living and is an evidence of our priorities and purpose in living for the King and His Kingdom rather than for ease and comfort and peace and prosperity in this world. Paul speaks of this in Galatians 1:10 when he says, “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” He speaks the hard and necessary truth to the Galatians and to everyone else even though he knows it will result in hardship and opposition.

The point is not that we should seek out persecution, but that we should fully do and say everything the Lord asks us to, in the way He asks us to, no matter how unpleasant the result may be for us.

Persecution & Suffering: 6

Matthew 5:4 tells us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is related to the old saying, “God afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.” If we want to be on the right side of this equation for all eternity then I would far rather face affliction now and comfort for eternity. You remember in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 6:19-31, in verse 25 it says “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”

In the seemingly upside-down Kingdom of God, delayed gratification is extreme. The discipline and training and testing provided by various afflictions help to prepare us for an eternity of reaping the benefits of character and strength and soundness. This is especially true in the Kingdom of God, but we recognize similar principles even in earthly endeavors. General Norman Schwarzkopf said, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” The idea is that thorough and intense training prepares soldiers for greater effectiveness.

One of the personal frustrations in my life is when people misunderstand the place of “good works” in Kingdom living for the Lord. It is a plain and obvious fact that we can do nothing to earn our salvation. It is entirely free and sets us free from sin and shame and death. We can and should rejoice and relax in this wonderful blessing. Some people, however, then have a distorted view of labor for the Kingdom. They misunderstand completely its valuable and prominent role and place in a life lived for the Lord. They immediately object when anyone begins to speak of discipline and sacrifice, claiming that Jesus wants us to dance rather than march.

I propose that Jesus wants us to march with joy and love and gratitude and freedom. Here I am speaking of marching in terms of disciplined obedience to the Lord. The fact that we are free and still choose to submit to whatever He asks, whenever He asks, however He asks, is a demonstration of our great love for Him. Anyone who understands salvation knows that it has nothing to do with seeking to earn salvation. It still has a vital role, however, in living for the Kingdom. It is a demonstration of our love and obedience. It demonstrates our allegiance and devotion. It prepares us for an eternity of serving the Lord and one another.

As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:3-4, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” Let us then commit ourselves to suffering well for the Lord and His Kingdom. Let us be ready to do His will even when it means sacrifice and suffering. It is precisely our willingness to do so that shows everyone His greatness and goodness and worthiness. He is worth suffering for. We will have an eternity to dance without sacrifice or suffering.

Persecution & Suffering: 5

Lamentations 3:1-57 reminds us that sometimes our suffering is because of our own sin, as God’s way of punishing and correcting us:

1 I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.
He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.
He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.

He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains.
Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.
He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.

10 Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding,
11 he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help.
12 He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.

13 He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver.

14 I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.

28 Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him.
29 Let him bury his face in the dust— there may yet be hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.

31 For no one is cast off by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.

34 To crush underfoot all prisoners in the land,
35 to deny people their rights before the Most High,
36 to deprive them of justice— would not the Lord see such things?

37 Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?
39 Why should the living complain when punished for their sins?

40 Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.
41 Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say:
42 “We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.

43 “You have covered yourself with anger and pursued us; you have slain without pity.
44 You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.
45 You have made us scum and refuse among the nations.

46 “All our enemies have opened their mouths wide against us.
47 We have suffered terror and pitfalls, ruin and destruction.”
48 Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed.

49 My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief,
50 until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees.
51 What I see brings grief to my soul because of all the women of my city.

52 Those who were my enemies without cause hunted me like a bird.
53 They tried to end my life in a pit and threw stones at me;
54 the waters closed over my head, and I thought I was about to perish.

55 I called on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit.
56 You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.”
57 You came near when I called you, and you said, “Do not fear.”

Even when the calamities that come upon us are due to our own sinfulness, however, Jeremiah recognizes that God’s goodness and mercy are in view. Even then, the Lord is acting for our own good. This is highlighted in verses 21-25 and 31-36.

Jeremiah gives helpful guidance on how we are to respond in such situations. Note all the instructions he gives in the passage. In summary, we are to repent and believe. We are to submit to God’s ways and trust Him to know what is right and to do it. We are to devote ourselves to His path and trust His timing. We are to call on Him.

Persecution & Suffering: 4

We already looked at the story of Joseph. It is an illustration of Psalm 66:10-12:

“For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance.”

Here the psalmist recognizes God at work in his suffering. He also recognizes God’s purposes. In this case, God’s purposes were to test and refine the psalmist. The means was a variety of difficulties – imprisonment, hard labor, subjugation, and either literally or figuratively, fire and flood.

Again, there is a recognition of God’s complete authority and wisdom and goodness through tremendous pain and suffering. There is a trust in the Lord to bring His people through difficulties in the end and give them reward and comfort. For some that reward and comfort may well be delayed until eternity, but the Lord is trustworthy. We can trust Him to do what is right and what is best.