Have you ever suffered for your faith? More to the point, are you prepared to suffer for your faith? The idea may seem preposterous, especially here in the United States. Such talk is often dismissed as hysteria, attributed to fake news and conspiracy theory paranoia. I am not an alarmist, nor am I a doomsayer promoting sensationalist claims hoping to induce panic or fear. I am concerned with American socio-religious trends. The New Testament urges us to be aware, watchful, on guard, and alert. We are warned to pay attention to spiritual currents, which are often reflected through social-cultural and political-historical conditions. Based on the changes in our country, an article on suffering is anything but preposterous.
Older adults who lived through World War II often tell me they do not recognize modern America. My dad often says, “I’ve seen the best of times, and now I’m seeing the worst of times.” I am not quite a half-century old, yet I am astonished by the cultural transformation in the United States just in my lifetime, especially since high school! Few would refute that there has been a shift in how the church is perceived and received, and that the general attitude toward Christianity has a markedly different tone today than it did 30 or more years ago. This shift is best defined in Newsweek’s 2009 cover story, “The End of Christian America.”
Taking a Christian or biblical position against virtually any ethical-moral issue today will get you labeled as a bigot, racist, or hate-monger. It could one day get you fined or jailed. Incredibly, Christianity is now being associated with domestic terrorism, which is characterized by opposing things like gender reassignment surgery, same-sex marriage, or abortion. Christian organizations like American Family Association are now identified as hate groups. Churches that refuse to marry same-sex couples would fit into this category. As political correctness continues to stifle freedom of speech, preachers in America could one day face charges for “hate speech,” especially in light of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Act. If laws in Canada and Great Britain serve as a barometer, preachers in the U.S. should take notice! Numerous stories are emerging regarding Christian groups being discriminated against on university and college campuses, high school students being expelled for wearing Christian t-shirts, celebrities being boycotted, and people losing their jobs because of their Christian beliefs. Time fails to mention all the cases of Christian business owners who have been fined and coerced to go against their Christian principles in the name of “civil liberties.” There is an undeniable pattern unfolding in this country, which mirrors history.
History of Oppression
During the Early Roman Imperial period, aggression against Christians rose to official status only gradually. Initially, the church experienced freedom as a religio licita (legal religion). But things began to change. It is true there were occasional outbursts of bloodshed, but these were often localized and uncommon. Early forms of oppression included things like property forfeiture, prohibition of assemblage, imprisonment, and physical beatings. In time however, as suspicion and intolerance grew, Christians were increasingly viewed as a threat to society, to Roman values and beliefs. Inevitably, this led to official persecution under emperors like Marcus Aurelius and Diocletian, which included the death penalty. In a similar way, Christianity has enjoyed favor in America; an integral feature in the establishment of this nation and a part of the American identity. But with cultural erosion and the dismantling of our history, we should not be surprised to see more expressions of hatred and aggression against the church. How should Christians respond to such circumstances?
Responding to Suffering
Expect it. The Bible tells us to anticipate hatred and opposition. Paul clearly stated that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus said, “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matthew 10:22). This world stands in bitter conflict with Christ and his kingdom. We should not be surprised by intolerance or unfair treatment, or even violence. These things correspond with Paul’s warning that the end times will be difficult (2 Timothy 3:1-5). It also reflects the reality of spiritual warfare, a constant theme in the New Testament. To assume that religious liberties will forever continue under the protection of the U.S. Constitution is to have an American-centric view of Christianity. Christ’s kingdom is not an American institution, nor is Christianity a civil “right.” It is a life choice that transcends nationalism, and one that comes at no small sacrifice. We must remember that our citizenship is not of this world (Philippians 3:20, 21).
Don’t fear it. Jesus instructed us not to fear those who can destroy the body but cannot kill the soul (Matthew 10:28). Peter said that if we suffer for what is right we are blessed, and that we must not fear or be frightened (1 Peter 3:14). This encouragement comes right before his directive to defend our faith and “give an answer for the hope” that is in us (v. 15).
Don’t respond in kind. Our natural human reflex is usually the opposite of this. Like the disciple in the garden, we want to reach for a sword and fight. However, Jesus rebuked him for such action (Matthew 26:51-53). Among the list of beatitudes is the exhortation, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (5:39,40, New Revised Standard Version).
Rejoice in it. After the apostles had their court appearance before the religious council in Jerusalem, they were flogged and ordered not to speak in Jesus’ name. Luke records, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41). Paul and Silas even sang hymns in prison. Perhaps they were thinking of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:10.
Pray about it. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (vv. 44, 45). Nothing shows godliness more than praying for our enemies. Two of the most striking prayers in the Bible are those from Jesus and Stephen, who, as they faced death, prayed that God would forgive their persecutors (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60).
And finally, continue boldly in the Lord’s work. Even after Peter and John were commanded not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus, they continued to do so, arguing, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19, 20). Afterward, they assembled the rest of the apostles, and they all prayed together, saying, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (v. 29). Each of us has been assigned an extraordinary stewardship by God. He has called us to be ambassadors, witnesses of his truth, holiness, love, and salvation. That is our mission this side of Heaven. According to Scripture, it is not going to be easy. We can expect opposition and unfair treatment. However, as we continue in the Lord’s work, let us remember Paul’s encouraging words, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:9).
Kevin Morrow is an adjunct professor at Ozark Christian College and lives in Joplin, Missouri with his wife Becky.