We face all kinds of suffering. We suffer on a daily basis due to the nature of our fallen world. We are affected by disease, poverty, natural disaster. We also suffer as a result of our own sin and foolishness. But there is one kind of suffering that is a distinctive mark of what it really means to be a church, and that is suffering due to persecution of our faith. John’s letter, and Jesus’ words, to the Church of Smyrna in Revelation 2:8-11 shows us what this kind of suffering is like. Jesus says that when this church holds to the Gospel and refuses to bow down to false gods, they will be slandered (Rev. 2:2), imprisoned and even put to death (2:19). This kind of suffering, unlike other kinds, is a direct result of our faith in action.
What does this mean for us in our cultural context as Americans? While we painfully stand with those around the world who are being tortured, killed and driven out of their homes as a result of their Christian faith, we must recognize that the level of persecution we face pales in comparison. We, by no merit of our own, are a part of a unique cultural moment that demands our humility and gratefulness.
But, in the absence of this kind of persecution and suffering, we must also ask ourselves some tough questions. Does our lack of persecution show that we’ve compromised our convictions in some way? Are we pursuing comfort and stability in this lifetime more than the fearless proclamation of the Gospel?
The truth is, we miss out on the irreplaceable by-products of persecution when we go out of our way to avoid suffering for our faith. After all, suffering strengthens our faith in much different way from prosperity. In the first portion of Revelation 2:9, Jesus says, “I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich!” In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S Lewis writes, “Prosperity knits a man to this world. He thinks he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him.”
Suffering also leads to a unique opportunity for growth. Throughout history, times and places of intense persecution have often been accompanied by intense Church growth and movement.
For those who are suffering for their faith, Christ makes it clear that two things await them: a victor’s crown and an eternity of bliss, stability and peace that cannot be achieved in this lifetime. The early Christians of Smyrna seemed to have this perspective while we often give into the temptation to make our lives as comfortable and safe as possible.
There is nothing Christ asks us to do that He was not willing to do himself. No amount of persecution, no matter how terrifying, can come close to the physical and spiritual persecution Christ experienced on the cross. He confronted the unjust wrath of man, but also the just wrath of a loving God so that we would not have to pay the price of our sin. He gives us the most assuring promise in Matthew 5:10 when He says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Listen to Sunday’s sermon on persecution HERE.