When you think about persecution, it’s easy to jump to statistics or stories you know about individuals suffering for the faith. Those are useful things to consider, as the Lord may use them to encourage, inspire, or humble us. They can drive us to pray and care for Christians who are suffering because of the gospel. How can we be thinking Biblically about persecution?
May I humbly submit that, despite all that, we typically don’t spend enough time grounding ourselves in a biblical perspective on persecution? We need to train our hearts and minds to respond to it the way that our Lord intends for us to. To that end, I think the following six reminders are key. I hope they help you grow in faithfulness and wisdom on this important biblical topic.
1. Persecution is not always physical.
The mention of persecution usually raises the specter of tortured or executed Christians—which is persecution. But persecution doesn’t have to be physical to be real.
The most common part of suffering as a Christian is living as an exile, a stranger and outsider, in this world. The apostle Peter encourages Christians by saying, “Beloved, do not be surprised when the fiery trial comes upon you . . .” What is this fiery trial? Being “insulted” (1 Pet. 4:12, 14)!
Physical persecution overflows from hearts that are hostile to the things of God. Before any physical attack, that hostility will show itself against Christians in a multitude of ways.
A young woman in my church is regularly mocked and teased for her faith by her family. When she accidentally broke a family idol in her parents’ house, her story was treated with high skepticism. A young man in my church is regularly excluded from discussions in his office because they know his Christian ethics will “get in the way.” Another man’s family held a funeral for him when he came to faith and they act as though he is literally dead to them.
None of those examples is a physical attack, but these saints are clearly suffering for the sake of the name. Not all persecution is physical.
2. Persecution is normal.
Suffering for the name of Christ—what we call persecution—is normal. Peter tells us not to act as though “something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12). He also reminds us that “the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:9). As Americans, it’s easy to think of the persecuted church as those Christians in extraordinary circumstances. But persecution is actually the normal Christian experience.
Why is this reality important? It affects the way that you treat Christians who are more vulnerable to persecution. Persecuted Christians need the prayers and care of the saints, not coddling. Too many times, we treat believers from those contexts as though they are “special cases.” We should certainly be wise and gracious when considering the particular challenges a brother or sister faces. But I’ve met too many believers who have been persuaded by Western Christians that the ordinary steps of Christian obedience simply don’t apply to them. That is not helping them.
Some Westerners who feel guilty about the relative comfort of their countries treat any theology beyond the basic gospel message as “extra baggage,” as if Scripture’s teaching on other topics was in danger of weighing down Christ’s mission. This perspective is a luxury we can enjoy since we’re not being persecuted. Sadly, though, this approach to persecution deprives churches in situations of extreme cultural opposition of the full counsel of God.
Satan isn’t mainly out to physically harm Christians. He is just as delighted to cut off our access to or undermine our confidence in God’s Word. When we refrain from teaching young churches robust, biblical theology, we are complicit in their persecution. We deprive our brothers and sisters of portions of the counsel of God.
3. Persecution is usually uneven.
Sometimes persecution falls on an entire church at once; more typically, persecution is unevenly distributed. Usually, some suffer while others escape unnoticed.
The places where people most often endure persecution is in their family, their place of work, or their neighbors and acquaintances. Even in cases of government-enforced persecution, its efficacy usually rests on the cooperation of people who know Christians and live near them.
The examples I mentioned before are all members in my church. But the opposition they experience on a weekly basis is opposition I don’t have to endure. My parents are believers. I work for a church. No one is opposed to my Christian ethics in my workplace. My family supported me when I married someone of a different nationality because she was a fellow Christian.
Fellowship of Suffering
Not everyone in a particular church will suffer equally. Not all Christians should expect to suffer to the same degree. But we should all be quick to sympathize and care for those who experience suffering. In John Owen’s Rules for Christian Fellowship, he exhorts Christians,
. . . If any members of the church lie under the immediate afflicting hand of God or the persecuting rage of man, it is the duty of every fellow member and the church in general to be aware of it, and to consider themselves such sharers in it as to be instantly before God in earnest prayer, and helpful to them by appropriate practical assistance in order that their spiritual concern in that affliction may be clear.
Persecution is uneven—and we must be aware of that reality so that we respond accordingly. Those who aren’t being persecuted must rally to those who are being attacked rather than fleeing from them and the dangers of associating with them. We should be willing to visit saints in prison, even if that means having our houses ransacked (Heb 10:34). While caring for fellow believers down the street will look different from caring for those in other nations, we should, in Owen’s words, still seek to apply whatever “appropriate practical assistance” we can, even if that simply means praying for them.
4. Persecution for Christ is an honor.
After the apostles were arrested for causing a commotion in the temple due to their teaching about Jesus, they left rejoicing because “they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
When Christians suffer for following Christ, it is an honor. When the world insults us, beats us, kills us, or mocks us, it is a privilege—because that is precisely how they treated our Lord. It means that when they look at us, we look like Jesus to them.
Suffering persecution is painful and terrible—but it is also an honor. Revelation 6 shows that those who die for the name are treated with particular respect in heaven—because their blood helped demonstrate to the world the worth of Jesus (Rev 6:9–11).
5. Escape from persecution is good.
Persecution is an honor, but relief from it is good. As a young Christian, I was tempted to think that the problem with American Christianity is that it did not experience persecution. If we had some persecution, it would purify the church!
That is sometimes true. The Lord can use persecution as a means of disciplining his children to help us grow in holiness (Heb 12:3–11). And as Tertullian said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
But not all persecution leads to the church’s triumph in this life. Persecution is also hard. When fellow church members betray you to the authorities, the unity of the church is threatened in a way American churches haven’t had to endure. Sometimes persecution is so intense it literally kills off Christians faster than people convert (as during the French Reformation).
Relief is good if you can get it. But it’s not the most important thing. A parallel is Paul’s counsel to bondservants in 1 Corinthians 7:21: If you can gain your freedom, get it, but otherwise, live faithfully in the situation the Lord has placed you.
We should pray and work for relief for our brothers and sisters who are suffering for the sake of the name. But we should first pray for them to be faithful, regardless of the circumstance. Far more important than physical deliverance is that the church not lose its testimony.
That is hard to remember. It’s hard to remember when you’re the one suffering. I think it’s even more difficult to remember when you’re not the one suffering.
6. Persecution is temporary.
Lastly, persecution will not last. Peter begins and ends his letter reminding Christians that they will suffer only “a little while” (1 Pet. 1:6; 5:10). That promise is the baseline of any biblical view of suffering.
The Lord will redeem and restore His people. It may seem like we’re waiting a long time, but it’s not that long compared to the eternal hope all Christians share in Christ. This helps us when we consider brothers and sisters who are suffering for the name. We may grieve with them, but we do not grieve as those without hope. We know how the story ends:
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Pet. 5:10)