From the safety of our homes in the US, being persecuted for our faith sounds like something that only happens in outlandish countries or ancient biblical stories. To be interrogated, threatened, beaten and jailed for our faith in Jesus is just something that doesn’t typically happen in America. When suffering does occur in other places we don’t think much about it and when we do hear about it we might feel a little sympathy and say a little prayer but it doesn’t change how we live. Truth is, many of us who claim to live for Christ are not doing anything DIFFERENT from the world around us to warrant any attention…let alone persecution.
The apostles we read about in the book of Acts went against the status-quo and lived for a DIFFERENT Kingdom. They were labeled as rebels and outcasts. The friends that I have in closed countries in Southeast Asia are going against the social norm by living for a DIFFERENT Kingdom. They are labeled as criminals and spies. There is a lot that we can learn from the book of Acts and from the people who have suffered before and are suffering today. Here are 3 reasons why suffering is essential in God’s Kingdom.
1. THE GOSPEL HAS NEVER ADVANCED WITHOUT SUFFERING
Recently my friends were sitting around a meal when local police and village leaders raided their home and confiscated all their Bibles and “foreign propaganda”. They were told to appear before the district police to answer questions about the growing Jesus problem. My friends live in a valley occupied by thousands of people who worship ancestor spirits. Just over a year ago they were the first to go against the social norm and follow a different WAY.
At the police station my friends were grilled for several hours and ask repeatedly to sign a document recanting their faith. My brothers, who are all new believers, stood their ground, shared their testimonies and refused to sign the document. As a result of their steadfastness and outside advocacy they were released and allowed to believe in their Jesus as long as they DO NOT share it. My friends left that police station with more joy and boldness than before. Currently there are more than 50 followers of Jesus in the valley and it continues to grow despite hardship.
The entire book of Acts shows us that suffering is the plot by which the Gospel advances and the Holy Spirit is the main character by which it’s revealed. In Acts 8:1 the Holy Spirit allows Stephen to die and the church to scatter leading to the greatest leap forward in the mission of the church. The explicit command in Acts 1:8 was to go into all the world as witness of the WAY – you can say that persecution was required to force them to obey. When the Gospel moves forward it does so with pain.
2. THE CHURCH CANNOT BECOME BEAUTIFUL WITHOUT FIRE
The beauty of the universal Church, the Bride of Christ, is that we are made up of broken people. There are ugly things that assault us from within and without. We steal God’s money, have sex with people outside holy relationships, don’t share the Gospel, sue one another, harbor anger, hatred, unforgiveness, etc., etc. It doesn’t matter if we’re a church in the states or a church overseas we are no different from the world when it comes to our struggle with power, pride and lust. And the world gives us no quarter. It bombards us with materialism, relativism and theological arguments. The world puts pressure on us to conform to its standards and we do so willingly – to the point where Jesus doesn’t even recognize us anymore.
The early church needed to be refined by fire just as we need it today. The book of Acts shows us that the Holy Spirit will not tolerate sin (Acts 5:1-11). Death and suffering takes the attention off our own problems and places it on Jesus and his mission, to which the whole church is called. Suffering not only brings us together but sends us out. Obstacles become God-inspired opportunities to promote the Gospel. Living on mission with God becomes synonymous with living sacrificially for God – and not just a catch phrase.
On that day, the Bride of Christ will NOT be presented to Jesus in a tattered gown with tear-stained makeup on downcast faces. But the Church will be absolutely beautiful. She’ll be perfect in every way. Presented to Jesus with blood soaked hands and feet by which she bore witness to Christ and made up of worshipers from every nation, tribe and language on the earth.
3. THE GLORY OF GOD CANNOT BE SEEN WITHOUT DEATH
Often times I think about the real possibility of one of my close friends dying for Christ. I can’t imagine how terrible and sad that news would be for everyone. I can’t imagine what would happen to the believers in the valley and the ministry at large. The only thing I know for sure is that death is the way of Jesus. Jesus died so we can be reconnected to God and bring Him glory – God’s glory is simply his all-consuming goodness and worthiness to be worshiped and adored. I know that death is what Jesus expects of his followers but I don’t think I’ll ever be prepared for it.
There will always be those who seek to kill Jesus and all who follow after Him. Suffering won’t be going away soon. That doesn’t mean we intentionally seek out persecution for the sake of expanding our ministries. What that means is that we accept it and trust God for wisdom to navigate through it. What that means is that we look at suffering with Kingdom perspectives. These trials are not just “setbacks” or “annoyances” but essential ingredients to seeing the glory and worship of God among every people on earth.
The greatest defense for the Gospel is that it is worth dying for. The early church paid a high cost and lost its best people. The apostles had their hopes set on a future reward and chose to suffer for a spiritual Kingdom…not a physical one. That made them dangerous and worth killing. Their life and death speaks to us today as a testimony of Kingdom triumph. The apostles of the past, and the saints who suffer today, show us how to prepare a beautiful bride for a glorious God.
Are we willing to let our lives speak loudly in how we LIVE and DIE?