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Faithful Martyr or Evangelical Weenie? A Practical Guide to Handling Persecution, Suffering and Adversity

Adversity is a tool in God's hand to train us for dominion in a sin-cursed world. And while it is a great blessing to live in a land where the blessings of the covenant are evident, with that great blessing also comes a greater responsibility.

  • Brian M. Abshire,
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Adversity is a tool in God's hand to train us for dominion in a sin-cursed world. And while it is a great blessing to live in a land where the blessings of the covenant are evident, with that great blessing also comes a greater responsibility. Affluence often makes us soft, not only around the waistline, but in the head as well. American evangelicals have had it so easy for so long, that they have lost their edge. They fear affliction, persecution and suffering and therefore often do not have the moral fiber to take a stand. Can anyone deny that the psychological reason behind the almost fanatical devotion some Christians have to the "pre-trib rapture" is that they fear persecution and suffering? Again and again, pre-trib Christians have stated to me that God loves them too much to let them go through "The Great Tribulation." Their fear of suffering leads them to a defeatist theology and an abandonment of the cultural mandate. They are willing to give up because they fear the pain from standing up to a hostile world. It is interesting that in nations where the church has suffered the most horrendous persecution, almost no Christians look to the rapture for relief. They know what suffering is by experience; and while they are not romantic about it, at least they are schooled to handle adversity.

Modern American Christians need to re-discover a theology of suffering. The bill is now coming due for a hundred years of cultural retreat. The God-haters control our nation and may continue to control it for the foreseeable future. Like the martyrs in the early church, Christians today face a hostile culture and a state all too willing to persecute those who will not burn incense to Caesar. Think I am paranoid? Well, a lot of people died at Waco because the Federal government didn't like their theology. But they were just a bunch of heretics and cranks, weren't they? Surely it couldn't happen to us? (But are you so sure YOUR church is BATF approved?)

Therefore, with the idea that evangelical weenies will never advance the kingdom, and that we need men who can persevere despite adversity, the following truths from 1 Peter 3 are offered for consideration. This is not intended to be the last word on how to handle difficult times, just some practical suggestions on how to develop the right mindset.

"And who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good?" (1 Peter 3:13)

Let's put the issue of persecution into perspective. Essentially Peter is saying that if we are zealous for doing good, people will not harm us. The best way to deal with persecution is that insofar as it depends on us, never give them an excuse. To the contrary, we need to be as "wise as serpents" and as "gentle as doves." Let us develop a reputation for charity and good deeds. Even wicked men can recognize and approve good things, despite their moral bankruptcy. For example, even unregenerate men will throw themselves on hand grenades to save the lives of their friends (a stupid and foolish practice: if you have enough time to throw yourself on a grenade, you have enough time to pick it up and throw it back at the enemy). Even unrighteous men, because they are created in the image of God, can respect, admire, and approve of deeds of mercy, grace, charity, etc.

Thus even when they hate us, they can still approve of our righteous acts. In fact, it disarms them, confuses them and undercuts their own persecution of us. Early Christians were marched into the arena to be eaten by voracious wild animals. Rather than cower in fear or plead for mercy or agree to sacrifice to the emperor and be freed, they met their fate singing psalms and hymns to the glory of God. The Romans were astounded, and to a certain degree, the people themselves demanded an end to the execution of Christians. In an age of cruelty beyond our imagination, the Romans saw the dignity, courage and faith of our fathers and were moved by it. Not all men are epistemologically self-consistent with their own rebellion. They want to live autonomously, but they cannot; consequently, they find themselves loving and approving our good deeds.

However, the key here is "good deeds." If Christians DO what is right, good, and proper with a humble attitude and servant's heart, they will be approved. But that's the problem, isn't it? What is the most common concept of a Christian today? A self-righteous, pompous, money-grabbing hypocrite interested only in fleecing poor, unsuspecting yokels while sleeping with their daughters. And let's be honest: that's not all that unfair a caricature of some segments of the Christian community. Christians are hated and ridiculed today not just because the world hates Christ, but because most Christians do NOT serve, minister, etc. Why was "Mother" Theresa held in such high esteem though she has such deviant theology? She put her faith into action. Even God-haters saw her good deeds and approved of them.

Sometimes, Christians elicit persecution, not because of their stand for truth, but because of their actions and demeanor. More than a few Southern Presbyterians have told me that the cause of Christian Reconstruction was destroyed in the PCA by the intemperate words of just a few people back in the late seventies and eighties. Reconstructionists were perceived as arrogant, obnoxious, insensitive and unkind. Since we are in the first stages of a great reform movement, the present battle has largely been one of words. And by getting in people's faces, we lost the propaganda war. If instead of just pointing out the errors, we had instead quietly built several successful charitable ministries, who knows how things might have been different? If nothing else, our critics would have left us alone, because we would have been doing good things and not seemed a threat to the status quo. Meanwhile, as we followed Christ's example, he would have brought others to us. But it is a whole lot easier to write witty tracts humiliating others than it is to quietly serve them.

Hence, diaconal work is not just something nice we ought to do; it may well be a central survival strategy and the salvation of the church during times of persecution. Caring for the poor; adopting unwanted babies; ministering to bums, schizophrenics and drug addicts (excuse me; I meant "the homeless") are not glamorous and not nearly as exciting as spitting in Caesar's face. But it is God's desire for his people.

"But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled. . . ." (1 Peter 3:14)

Doing what is right, because it is right, will generally in God's providence inhibit and even prevent persecution. Persecution in the Roman Empire was often intense, but of limited duration because, quite frankly, the Romans needed our forefathers. Roman Christians were the hardest workers, the most conscientious craftsmen, the most loyal slaves, the most honest businessmen and sometimes the only ones who paid their taxes. If they killed too many of us, the Empire would have collapsed of its own weight. Like the Jews in medieval Europe, we were a despised minority, but also an indispensable one.

However, if in his divine providence, God chooses to say "suffer," there is still no reason to lose hope: we are blessed! We are special! God uses suffering as a tool in his hands to do deep-heart surgery on his elect, preparing, molding, and reshaping us for the kingdom and his glory (cf. Rom. 8:28-29ff). And as others witness this work of grace in our lives, it moves them, warms them, softens them in ways we cannot understand, and thus our reward is eternal (cf. Rom. 8:18).

Therefore, while persecution should never be encouraged, Christianity is not masochism, it is not to be unduly feared. If it comes, it comes. Let us just make sure that we are persecuted for Christ's sake and not for being obnoxious.

"[B]ut sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. . . . " (1 Peter 3:15)

This is probably the most often used proof-text for apologetics, but seldom is it considered in its proper context — suffering. When we suffer for righteousness' sake (whether by persecution, sickness, or whatever) we are given a powerful moral platform on which to share our hope in Christ. Pagans see the adversity we suffer, but we do not whine, complain or break God's law through revolutionary acts. We are able to suffer with dignity and persevere, despite adversity, because we "sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts" i. e., Christ is actually Lord of our lives; we are submitted to him, not just in words, but in reality. Persecution and affliction are often ways of testing our faith to demonstrate to ourselves and the world what we really believe.

Hence we have to be ready. We have not only to understand the hope, but to be able to explain it to others, to articulate the gospel. It has gone out of style among many Christians, but we are called here to be able to testify of our trust and dependence in the saving work of Christ and of his generous provision. When pagans ask, "How can you still believe, even when you suffer such horrible things," we must be able to tell them why.

The word "defense" here is the Greek word apologia, which means "a word for." This was a legal term referring to a formal speech given in a courtroom for the defense. We get our theological term "apologetics" from this word. But sadly, most Christians, if they know what apologetics is, think of it in purely academic and philosophical terms. This does us a great disservice. The great spiritual battles will not be won in the academic classroom; this is the Greek heresy of neutrality. Instead, it is the spiritual power of a faithful servant who will not deny his master even to the point of death that has the power to transform the world.

An "apology" is not an excuse, but a reason for why we do whatever we do. In this sense it means being able to demonstrate from the Scriptures why we believe what we believe, and why non-Christians ought to believe it as well! It means that we trust in the providence of God and his great and precious promises and that the worst that men can do to us is simply inconsequential to the life herein to come.

"[A]nd keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame." (1 Peter 3:16)

God places the responsibility on us to do what is right regardless of what others may do. Yes, there is injustice, ungodliness and evil in the world. We have lived in a Christian culture for so long that we take certain things for granted and get grossly outraged when we find some new example of corruption and tyranny in Washington. Some Christians seem to act as if their perfidy justifies our rebellion. But, regardless of what other men may do, our responsibility is to obey God. He expects us to be a light on a hill and to live a life above the moral cesspool of contemporary culture.

To have a clear conscience does not mean perfection, but rather dealing with our sin in an open and Biblical manner. If Christians had disciplined the tele-evangelists 15 years ago, the media would not have had to. Instead, we turned a blind eye to their wickedness, continued sending money to their "ministries" and refused to hold these men to account for their immorality. Eventually God exposed their wickedness to the entire world, and the church suffered a black eye from which she has not yet recovered. Every Christian organization since the Eighties has suffered hard times financially, partially due to cynicism stemming from the exposé of the scam artists a decade ago.

Furthermore, not only are we to have a clear conscience; we are to "keep" it; i.e., to treasure it, to maintain it. A clear conscience is a precious thing and must not be squandered for the sake of expediency.

The "thing in which we are slandered" could and does apply to whatever issues are current at the time. But in context, I would argue that it most likely refers to rebellion, either to king, master, parent, husband, etc. The entire book of 1 Peter keeps going over the same two themes, the reality of persecution and the necessity of submission to lawful authority. It is not unreasonable to think that Christians were already getting a reputation for being a danger to the social order. The freedom that comes from Christ is a mystery to the world; the world cannot understand how Christians transcend man's rules, and yet do it effectively and successfully.

Yet it was not autonomy on their part, but a regenerated heart, submission to God's Law, and a full-orbed Faith, that freed men from the darkness, superstition, fear and tyranny of the godless life. True freedom comes through being freed from the penalties of the Law, so that we might then embrace the Law as an expression of love and service to God. Hence, the world was rightly concerned that the Christian commitment to freedom might lead to anarchy in the home and state. They feared those who were outside the established order. Christians needed to demonstrate to fathers, masters and yes, even those pointy-headed civil bureaucrats, that we were responsible citizens; that we lived sober, self-disciplined lives. Therefore, our forebears were not a danger to them (at least in the way they thought of danger).

Similarly, we need to keep a low profile while we disarm the enemy's fears. Our victory will not come about by rebellion, revolution or violence; and we must constantly stress this aspect to whoever is in power. Our victory will come over time, gradually, as Christians love and serve (Mk. 10:45ff). Submissive wives, obedient children, respectful workers, diligent citizens who render "honor to whom honor and custom to whom custom" lessens the likelihood of persecution. Why do you think Paul commands Christians to pay their taxes (illegal taxes, ungodly taxes!), to a pagan and idolatrous state (Rom. 13:5ff)? Because though Caesar is often destructive, he is not stupid. He wants people who pay their taxes and will often turn a blind eye to a great many things as long as those revenues keep rolling in.

"[I]t is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong." (1 Peter 3:17)

Let's get something straight: suffering will happen; bad things do happen to good people and sometimes for no reason that we can see. God is sovereign; he knows what he is doing and why he is doing it. If he allows us some pain in this life, he will remember us in the life to come. Therefore, we need to make sure we are suffering for doing what is right, rather than suffering for being obnoxious, rebellious, sinful, etc. This is something that some well-intentioned brothers do not seem to understand. If the FBI is outside your house threatening to burn out your family, it is too late. Granted, there may be times when that will happen and there is nothing we can do (right now) except trust in the sovereignty of God. But sadly, sometimes, perhaps even often, the FBI is there because we did something stupid. We aroused their fears when we could have just laid low. We got involved in some sort of shady monetary deal, hid money from the tax man, wrote newsletters advocating violent overthrow of the government, and so forth. In short, we made ourselves a target (that's not always the case, but it has happened too many times to be ignored).

Look, sometimes you have to have an Alamo to give a General Houston time to gather and train the troops. But the men at the Alamo sacrificed themselves for a greater good. Sometimes, we get sacrificed because we are too stubborn and too stupid to shut our mouths. This is no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are living in a post-Christian nation that is already under God's judgment. Our goal ought to be to live our lives in submission to King Jesus despite the circumstances we find around us (2 Thes. 3:12, Rom. 12:18, etc.). We don't run in fear of the bad guys; we just bide our time until God gives us the victory. We don't have to launch suicidal frontal assaults against the citadels of the enemies; we can just work quietly and steadily, knowing that, eventually, God will destroy his enemies and we will inherit the earth.

Conclusions and Applications
Suffering is an opportunity to glorify God, witness to men, and demonstrate that our faith is more than empty sentiment and pious platitudes. Suffering sharpens our focus and helps us keep our priorities straight. To get through it, we must constantly remember the sovereignty of God. There is always a reason, even if it is beyond human understanding. Our God is not vicious, arbitrary, etc. If we only trust him when things go the way we want them to, how are we any different from pagans in the world? Let's just make sure we are suffering for the right things, in the right way.

  • Brian M. Abshire

Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.

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