"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." – Matthew 5:11-12
For over two years, Pastor Saeed Abedini has been imprisoned in Iran for Christian activity. For over five years, Christians in Nigeria have suffered fatal attack after fatal attack at the hands of the terrorist group Boko Haram. For five and a half years, Asia Bibi has been awaiting execution in a Pakistani prison for supposed blasphemy against Allah. These are just a few of the known situations in which Christians are suffering violent injustice. So what are we, their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, supposed to do? Is Jesus suggesting that we smile and nod as if all is well?
First, let's shed some light on Jesus' striking statement about persecution, above.
Though not exactly parallel, consider exercise. There is a cost for getting fit. If you've ever had trouble walking down a set of stairs after doing squats or difficulty brushing your teeth after doing curls, you know what it feels like. It may be painful, and some instances may be worse than others, but it's a good hurt. Your sore muscles prove that you've been using them and mean you're getting stronger.
Now think about persecution. In the terms of our exercise analogy, persecution isn't the work-out… it's the soreness. Just as people don't go to the gym to get sore, Christians don't share the gospel to get a violent backlash. That's not the goal. You go to the gym to become stronger, and you proclaim the gospel that God may be glorified. That is the goal.
When we don't have this end goal in view, we can often have an improper perspective on the type of persecution (and subsequent rejoicing) Jesus talks about in Matthew 5. We can shortsightedly look at this passage, and others like it, and conclude that persecution is a "blessed" thing in itself. But that's not what Jesus says – he blesses persecuted people, not persecution. And why? Because being reviled, persecuted, and slandered is simply evidence of acting on Jesus' account. And just because he blesses them, doesn't mean their aches and tears go away. There's a subtle, yet key, difference between rejoicing in such suffering and enjoying it. Although people don't enjoy sore muscles, they can be glad about sore muscles because it means they're getting stronger. In the same way, although our brothers and sister don't enjoy persecution, they can be glad about persecution because it means they're proclaiming Christ.
I think this is what Jesus is saying – we can rejoice in persecution even though it isn't enjoyable. But this has more to do with the attitude and demeanor of the persecuted than it does our response. Are we supposed to do anything about it? Yes. There are at least three things we should do in response to the persecution of Christians, and none of them include passive smiling and nodding.
First, we should be challenged to spread the gospel. The reality is, Christians are not persecuted for relegating their worship and witness to the home. Persecution occurs in opposition to gospel proclamation. When we hear of brothers and sisters being persecuted for boldly sharing their faith, we should ask ourselves, "Am I sharing my faith? Am taking advantage of my freedom?"
Second, we should pray for the persecuted. We can't overemphasize this response even though it is an obvious one. What may not be as obvious, though, is what to pray. Acts 4:24-30 provides a helpful starting point: pray for their continued boldness, the power of the Holy Spirit, and fruitfulness. But do we pray for their safety? Yes! That leads to the last response…
Third, we should advocate for freedom and justice on behalf of the persecuted. As part of the body with them, we suffer when they do. Fighting for their well-being is part of loving our brothers and sisters well. Believers are to follow Jesus' example of standing up on behalf of the oppressed, Christian or not. Where there is injustice, we labor for justice to reflect our just God. And on top of all that, we should fight for their freedom to proclaim the God-glorifying gospel, because, again, that is the ultimate goal.