Just over two years ago I wrote a couple of posts on the persecution of Christians. I said then, and I’ve thought for a long time, that for American Christians to speak of being “persecuted” was unbecoming. Americans haven’t suffered anything close to what saints in history have—read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs sometime—and there are plenty of Christians on the planet today who are suffering things that Americans can’t even imagine. Numerous times I’ve said something to the effect that “If you want to talk about suffering, I can take you places and show you suffering. You are not suffering. Stop whining; it’s a flesh wound.” Sticks and stones, and all that.
Yeah, I’ve got that whole bedside manner thing down just fine. Mr. Sympathy.
My thinking on this issue is changing.
First, because lack of sympathy is just wrong, because it’s not Christlike. There’s certainly a place for encouraging fellow believers to get back into the fight (Ep 6.10-18; 2Ti 2.3-4), but words—my words—should be filled with grace. Regardless of the issue being addressed, slapping people around is just uncalled for.
Well, maybe not completely regardless. TV “evangelist” shysters and child sexual abusers deserve whatever they get.
But that’s off the point here. 🙂
Sympathy. Words of grace. Needed.
There’s a second, issue-related reason my thinking is changing. One of the books I’ve read over this longest-ever Christmas break is Paul Grimmond’s Suffering Well, from Matthias Media, an Australian publisher perhaps best known for its “Two Ways to Live” tract.
Grimmond has given me a lot to think about. He’s done the hard work of gathering and thinking carefully about pretty much all the biblical data on suffering. He’s not the first to have done that, but he has pointed out something that I’ve never noticed before.
On the question of persecution, which is just one type of suffering, Grimmond notes (in his Chapter 6) that the biblical passages on persecution focus more on verbal and attitudinal than physical assault—the very kinds of things that my thinking had been discounting.
- Jesus emphasizes verbal abuse in the Beatitudes (Mt 5.11-12) and in his later teaching (Mt 10.24-25; Mk 8.34-38). Grimmond notes, “Jesus knew from the beginning that his followers would struggle as much with what we might now call mental and emotional abuse as they would with physical abuse.”
- Paul does the same in Php 1.27-30; 1Th 1.4-7; 2Co 4.16-18.
- As does Peter, in 1P 4.12-14.
Grimmond continues, “The great danger for Christians living in the West is not physical death at the hands of persecutors, but the slow, spiritual death of a thousand tiny compromises crouched at our door, waiting to devour our hearts. … At the moment we need it most, we have let go of a robust theology of belonging to Christ and suffering for him. … As a result, we fail to teach each other to live without shame in the face of the more subtle pressures in our culture.”
I’d recommend that you buy the book and read it thoughtfully.
What does the biblical emphasis mean to us in these days?
- Persecution comes with the territory. It’s an unavoidable consequence of following Christ publicly. Don’t be surprised, and don’t assume that God’s not watching.
- Lots of persecution comes in subtle forms, what Grimmond calls “a thousand tiny compromises.” We need to pay attention and live thoughtfully—or as Paul puts it, “walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise” (Ep 5.15).
- Verbal abuse and exclusion offer opportunities to represent Christ well by displaying calmness under pressure and grace toward the adversaries, who genuinely think that they’re doing the right thing (Jn 16.2). When the whole world is reactionary, easily offended, and chaotic, grace stands out like a meteor trail in the night.
- Every opportunity for compromise gives us a chance to exercise our spiritual muscles and thereby get stronger. It’s a joy to run up the stairs two at a time after years of getting winded at every exertion.
May I encourage you—graciously and sympathetically—to welcome these little oppositions without seeking them, and to use them calmly and graciously as opportunities to be more like your Master?
Happy new year.