"In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33; NIV).
"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt. 5:11; NIV)
In 1997, while in Hong Kong to write about the British handover of that city to the mainland government, I visited the pastor of one of the largest house churches in China with a missionary friend who knew him. Pastor Lamb, as he was called, was in his 70s at the time. He told me he had spent half his life in prison for preaching the gospel. I asked him if the Public Security Bureau still came around to observe his activities.
"Not so much now," he replied.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because," he said, "every time they threw me in prison, the church grew."
We Americans know nothing about such persecution. We think we are being persecuted when a newspaper editorial criticizes us, or someone uses the Lord's name in vain in our presence, or calls us religious fanatics. Most of the world understands persecution in terms of jail, torture, beheadings, and ostracism from family and friends.
Jesus said, "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20).
In effect, this means that if you are being persecuted, it isn't you they are persecuting; rather, it is Jesus in you who is their target. Jesus exposes sin. He is the "smell of death" (2 Cor. 2:16) to those who are perishing, as my pastor, Dr. Robert Norris, once preached in a sermon. People don't like the smell of death, which, it might be argued is their smell, not ours, because we are alive in Christ and they are dead in their sins. Some try to get rid of the "smell" by persecuting believers.
The small price I have paid for my faith—angry letters to the editor, some cancellations of my column by a few newspapers (though many more retain it), the social cost of not being invited places because as one person admitted to me, "I was afraid you would start quoting Bible verses"—is nothing compared to my fellow believers in the rest of the world today and throughout history.
If one seeks to live a life pleasing to God, one will be persecuted, according to no less an authority than Jesus. It is not something to be avoided; it is something to be accepted if the persecution is for the right reason. It validates our life in Christ and His life in us.
Note that Jesus said in Matthew 5 that we are blessed if we are persecuted by those who "falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." If we are persecuted because of a judgmental attitude, a condemning spirit, or just because we behave in a boorish fashion towards unbelievers, then we get no "credit" from Jesus.
Suffering is a companion to persecution. Only masochists enjoy suffering, but if one is a follower of Jesus, it comes with the territory. If we seek to avoid persecution and suffering, we are denying Christ because He said we will be persecuted. By seeking to accommodate ourselves to the world in order to avoid persecution and suffering, we are keeping Jesus bottled-up inside and not allowing Him to get out where He can turn our suffering into a powerful witness.
We live in a relativistic age that says to all of us: you have your "truth," I have my "truth," and whatever makes you feel good ought to be fine with everyone else. That this philosophy has produced a social train wreck has not deterred those who believe and behave this way to change their minds.
If you presume to speak of the truth, as in "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6), you will be called all sorts of things. I have been. So was Jesus.
The price one pays for public criticism in my business is nothing compared to the rewards that are to come. I have not won many prizes or awards and don't expect to. My rewards are not denied; they are just deferred. The rewards Jesus gives are far more valuable than any framed document, gold statue, or large check the world can offer.
Deferring rewards and gratification is the antithesis of the spirit of our age, or any age. Believing there is something better ahead is viewed as fanaticism and "pie in the sky" by those who are perishing. To the rest of us, it's called faith.
Only Jesus could claim to have overcome the world, and because He did, we can accept persecution, suffering and criticism, knowing He will wipe away every tear and make all things new. Great will be the reward of those who think, believe and act this way, not in spite of persecution, but because of it.