Persecution: Normal and Expected

“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” – John 15:20

They admitted to being confused, these pastors and lay leaders who had endured decades of persecution within the now-failing Soviet Republic. Yet they agreed to share their personal, family, and church stories with the broader Christian community, hoping to help churches, mission organizations, and missionaries in the West develop a more biblical missiology of suffering. These pastors and lay leaders were intimately conversant with persecution, suffering, and martyrdom.

The confusion surfaced near the end of a series of interviews. Life histories had been shared, stories of persecution recited and documented, and tears shed while events were dissected. The testimonies were compelling. It seemed to the interviewer that this was the stuff of scripture—that he was hearing Bible stories come to life in his own time.

And that’s when the moment of confusion came, when the interviewer asked some questions that weren’t very professional or well planned. After hearing story after gripping story, he was compelled to ask this group of pastors and lay leaders, “Why have you cheated us in the West? Why haven’t you written these stories down? Where are the books that chronicle your faith and persecution? These stories are worthy of a movie. These are Bible stories come to life! Why have you not shared these lessons learned?”

As Common as the Sun Rising in the East
His outburst was greeted with confused silence. The pastors and lay leaders were dumbfounded. Most of the people simply ignored the embarrassing questions and the harshness of the challenge. Finally, one brother stood up, took the interviewer by the arm, and drew him to the end of the large room by the eastern window of the dwelling. Looking out at the horizon, the man spoke calmly to the interviewer: “Sir, when your sons were growing up, how many mornings did you take them to the window of your house and say to them, ‘Look, boys, the sun is coming up in the east this morning?’”

The interviewer found the question silly. “Well, I never once did that,” he answered. “Had I done that, my sons would have thought I had lost my mind, because the sun always comes up in the east!” Gently, the wise brother made his point: “Sir, that is why we talk little of our persecution and suffering. That is why we have not written our stories down. And that is why we have not made a movie. Our persecution is always with us. It simply comes as we walk with Jesus. It is like the sun coming up in the east.

“Besides,” he continued, “when did you Christians in the West stop reading the Bible? Our stories have already been told. God has already told all of us what we need to know about persecution and suffering.”

To say the interviewer was deeply humbled belabors the obvious. But the truth found a way into his heart and he was changed that day.

What kind of person sees persecution as biblical, expected, and hardly worth mentioning? Clearly, a person steeped in the story of scripture and well-acquainted with God. We would be wise to listen and learn the lessons.

First, persecution is normal for those who follow Jesus. Scripture makes this point from beginning to end. It is, quite simply, like the sun coming up in the east. Persecution is neither good nor bad—it just is. Certainly, Christians are not to seek persecution. But, at the same time, Christians need not give in to a crippling fear.

Persecutors intend for their actions to punish, intimidate, and (ultimately) silence God’s people. But God can use persecution in other ways. His highest purpose in persecution is to call his people closer to himself and to refocus their attention to the suffering of their Lord. When followers of Christ suffer willingly for their Savior, this gives their faith value. That kind of suffering also increases the impact of their witness.

Second, conversion is the primary cause of persecution. That may sound strange, but consider this simple truth: When people come to Jesus, persecution results. And the only way to stop persecution is to keep people from coming to Jesus. Conversion and suffering for the faith are simply two sides of the same coin. Many Christians in the West hold to a missiology of suffering that is, at the very least, biblically inconsistent. They see persecution as “bad,” as “a punishment,” and as “something to be avoided at all cost.” Western Christians facing persecution would typically ask, “What did we do to deserve this?” And that question really means, “What did we do wrong?” But believers who are more at home in the world of persecution would see things differently. They might say, “We are being persecuted because we did what was right!” What a different perspective!

The Western Church has been led by a host of well-meaning proclaimers and organizations asking that Christians pray for brothers and sisters who are experiencing persecution. That is biblically right and godly. Yet those who pray typically ask for God to stop the persecution.

Is that really what we want to pray, when the only way to stop persecution is to keep people from coming to Jesus?

Those who see persecution like the sun coming up in the east seldom ask others to pray for their suffering to end. Rather, they ask that others pray that:

  • they might remain obedient in the midst of their persecution
  • they might be bold in their witness
  • God would use their suffering to bring others to himself

But they do not ask that others pray for their persecution to end. Amazingly, they understand that there is no resurrection without a crucifixion. And while they never seek to suffer, they find joy in being allowed to suffer for and with Jesus. In their suffering, they are privileged to identify with their risen Lord.

Third, even when missionaries do everything right, the result of a bold and culturally-astute witness will be the persecution, suffering, and martyrdom of others. That’s the result of “the mission enterprise.” One of Satan’s most powerful attacks comes against the fruit of a believer’s witness. Consider this scenario: Faith has been shared and received. A new disciple has come into the family. The one who has shared the good news feels responsible. And Satan can use that good feeling of responsibility for his purposes. The words Satan whispers are devastating: “You were faithful in your witness. Now look: someone is being hurt because of what you did! Your beloved disciple is now being persecuted! And it’s all because of what you did. Maybe it would have been better if this one had never come to Christ.”

Subconsciously, it is easy to accept those words. It’s easy to believe that the persecution is your fault. Trying to assuage that terrible guilt, Western workers often move into “rescue mode.” The plan is simple: “Perhaps we should extract this new disciple and keep him safe!” Tragically, in the process, God’s call to church planting gets lost. And, what’s even more dangerous is that the rescuers come to believe that safety is something that they can guarantee and provide.

The Purposes of God?
God’s story speaks to the situation. What do we do when Joseph is wrongly accused and thrown into Pharaoh’s prison? Practically speaking, what do we do when that happens today? We write emails. We distribute contact information for governments and United Nations officials. We fill inboxes and voicemails with demands that the person be freed. We righteously claim that his rights have been violated. We point out that he has committed no crime and we say that we will settle for nothing less than his release. We threaten sanctions.

And that’s all understandable.

But what if God has determined that he needs this person in jail for a season? Or, at the very least, what if God determines that he will use this time of imprisonment for some special purpose? What if we spring this person too soon—before he has the opportunity to interpret “Pharaoh’s” dream? What if we rescue him, only to discover that we have been working against the purposes of God?

Of course, we dare not be careless here: no believer has the right to be silent when another believer is suffering! The Church in the West has no right to ignore the suffering of brothers and sisters around the globe. But even so, there is a God-given wisdom that will lead God’s people to understand that there are times to allow Christians to remain imprisoned for the sake of God and his kingdom. They also will understand exactly when those times are.

For eighty percent of the Christian family in our world today, persecution remains as common as the sun coming up in the east. Surely, persecution is never to be sought nor fearfully avoided. But when it comes, each follower of Christ is invited to embrace it, to see it as normal and expected, and to pray that God might somehow use it for his purposes.

Dr. Nik Ripken (pseudonym) is a mission veteran of twenty-four years with the International Mission Board, SBC, having served in Malawi, South Africa, Kenya, Somalia, and Germany. Currently, he and and his wife serve as strategy associates in Northern Africa and the Middle East with specific responsibilities for the Horn of Africa and some Gulf States.