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Bashir (not his real name) frequented our church gatherings when he was in town. He is a good friend of some of our members, and his faith is a constant encouragement to me. The day after Christmas in 2010, everything changed for Bashir when the police dragged him and sixty other Christians out of their homes. Husbands and wives were separated; moms from their nursing babies. Our church helped Bashir’s wife and two children flee their country as refugees, but Bashir is still in prison. According to the latest court ruling, he will remain in jail until the end of 2017 (and perhaps indefinitely). Recently, he had a year added to his sentence when he was falsely accused of possessing alcohol. Bashir is enduring emotional and physical abuse. In April 2014, his foot and toes were broken when a guard smashed his boot down on Bashir’s bare foot. Several days passed before he received medical care.
Sadly, Bashir’s story is not an isolated one. The headline of one news article I saw recently read: “200,000 Christians at risk of massacre in Nigeria.” In February, news circulated around the world of twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians who were beheaded in Libya. A family who is new to our church had to leave their home in Central Asia after a bomb exploded across the street and destroyed their house. Three Christians who worked in that same country were recently martyred—they had prayed and sung with us just a few days before their deaths. One woman in our church asked for prayer after her nieces and nephews were killed in an attack in a Pakistani school where more than one hundred children were massacred.
In the West, we notice a subtly increasing form of persecution creeping into the workplace, political square, and even churches. Believers have seen increased restrictions placed upon them as they seek to be faithful to live out what they believe. Christians are losing their livelihoods and reputations.
How should we think about the persecution around us?
The Reality of Persecution
Persecution shouldn’t catch Christians off guard. Jesus told us to expect that difficult days would come because we are not of this world. Jesus says, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Christians are new creations in Christ—we are fundamentally different from the world, so the world detests us. Paul speaks to this same fate for faithful Christians. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). Deliberately, Paul doesn’t say that believers might be persecuted or that godly Christians could very well endure some persecution on occasion. It’s a done deal. A faithful, godly Christian will be persecuted.
The Apostle Peter adds to this symphony of biblical writing on persecution, saying, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). Peter is preparing us for the normative Christian life. Persecution is not for just a few Christians—the Bible tells us persecution will happen to all Christians.
George Whitefield, the great evangelist in the First Great Awakening, knew that trials would be part of his experience, and they came in abundance. He wrote upon graduating from Oxford:
I am now about to take Orders and my degree, and go into the world. What will become of me I know not. All I can say is I look for perpetual conflicts and struggles in that life and hope for no other peace, but only a cross, while on this side of eternity.
Whitefield clearly understood what awaited him—a life of difficulty and opposition.
Our Hope in Persecution
Persecution is neither strange nor surprising. It is also not meaningless. The Apostle Peter goes on to write these words: “Let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator” (1 Peter 4:19). Suffering persecution is not outside the will of God. God is sovereign over all things, including our pain, suffering, and Satan’s attacks. We have every reason to hope in God because He is not surprised, He does not take risks, and He is able to overcome anything. Psalm 135:6 says, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.”
An oft-noted result of persecution is that through the Lord’s sovereignty, great movements of the gospel spread across the land. In the book of Acts, Stephen was martyred and the church scattered, preaching the gospel as they went throughout Judea, Samaria, and the outermost parts of the earth.
God’s blessing comes to those who are persecuted. Jesus preached these words: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). Peter takes up the same theme:
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (1 Peter 4:13–14)
There is blessing for the persecuted and there is cause for rejoicing.
We have hope in persecution because we are made for another place. We are “citizens” of heaven (Phil. 3:20). We are by nature strangers, foreigners, and even exiles in this world (1 Peter 1:1). Our eternal passport is not Kenyan, Indian, Filipino, or Canadian. In God’s kingdom, we no longer receive our identities from the place we were born, but from the place into which we were born again for all eternity. This is why the world doesn’t feel like home. This is why we face persecution: we’re of another place.
Fellow Christian, a day is coming when there will be no more sickness and death. No more imprisonments and slander. We will not suffer the anxiety of car bombs or kidnappings. The downtrodden and depressed will sing of their never-ending gladness in Jesus. God will dwell among us forever.
The gospel is good news for the persecuted because there is nothing we can do to lose God’s grip on our lives. Peter says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). The gospel is not about getting you to heaven—it’s about getting you to God. The good news of the gospel is that we get God. I’ve often heard R.C. Sproul say that a better way to describe the doctrine of perseverance of the saints is to say the “preservation of the saints.” God won’t stop short of bringing us home. Even though our bodies might be destroyed on this earth, God will keep us to the end. We can entrust our souls to the living God of the universe (1 Peter 4:19). Our inheritance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us by God Himself. It is guarded through God’s power (1:3–4).
Thankfully, Bashir has stood strong in prison over the past four years. In fact, he is a shining light in a dark place, so much so that a son of one of the country’s leaders (who shared a cell with Bashir) commented on his sweet nature and remarked on video how beloved Bashir is among the inmates. He continues to proclaim the gospel with hope that Jesus is in control and will come back to make all things right. Bashir wrote these words in a letter to his father:
The narrow way that I am passing through I see as a cup that my Beloved has given me, and I will drink it to the end, whatever that end might be. What really matters is that I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. This possibly is the sweetest truth of my life that I am His and He is mine.
Let us press on in the same way, understanding that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17–18). As a result, “we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (v. 16). Blessed are those who are persecuted.