Some persecutions that come to Christians are rather intense. Saints in years past—and increasing numbers in this century—have been sawed in two, burned at the stake, hanged, cast into dungeons, tortured, stoned, and stabbed. My own grandfather faced the firing squad during the revolution in Russia, but he miraculously escaped. (The number one religion news story of 1996, as ranked by Christianity Today editors, was the worldwide increase of persecution of Christians.)
More often, however, persecution for the North American Christian is less extreme. A Christian may be taunted when refusing to join fellow workers at a bar on Friday afternoon for happy hour; when treated as naïve for not believing in evolution; when looked upon as backwards for preferring wholesome entertainment to sexually explicit sitcoms; when verbally attacked for taking a stand on abortion; when boycotted in business by those with opposing views on gay rights; when out of favor with a supervisor for refusing to “juggle” the books; when losing a boyfriend by choosing to remain pure.
The Book of 1 Peter tells us how to live with this kind of persecution. As far as we know, when 1 Peter was written no major persecution was being suffered by Christians—just minor, everyday irritations common to Christians who are living out their faith.
Some years ago my wife and I befriended a young lady whose husband kicked her out of their home after she trusted Christ. She remained faithful to her husband, refused to date anyone else, and refused to file for divorce—but was alone in her apartment night after night. This is the kind of persecution Peter addresses—not facing a firing squad but facing daily hardship because we are believers.
Holidays can be particularly hard times because our faith puts us out of sync with unsaved family members. They celebrate Halloween with witches and goblins. They do not see Thanksgiving as a special day of giving thanks to God. They make Santa Claus the central figure at Christmas. With these differing worldviews, it seems the tension can be cut with a knife at some family gatherings.
My wife’s father became a Christian as an adult. Sundays were hard because the family would often gather at his parents’ home for dinner. They were accustomed to eating promptly at 11:30 A.M., but church didn’t let out until noon, upsetting the family’s routine.
The Inevitability of Persecution
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Pet. 4:12).
Everyday persecutions should be expected by Christians who are living out their faith. The only way to avoid them is to be a jack-in-the-box Christian—the kind who keeps his faith hidden all week but pops out singing choruses in church on Sunday. Otherwise we shouldn’t be surprised if we get some flack at work because we are Christians, or have turmoil in our family, or find ourselves at odds with our government. Christ said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33, italics added). It will be a normal part of life.
A teen should not be surprised if she takes some heat at school because of her faith. I can remember a painful lunch hour as a junior high school student. I don’t recall exactly what happened, but I do remember refusing to go along with something my friends were doing on the playground because I thought it was wrong. Today, nearly 30 years later, I could take you to the exact spot where I sat against a chain link fence eating lunch by myself. The pain couldn’t have been worse if someone had stabbed me with a knife.
During my college years I was a clerk in a hardware store. Other workers noticed that I didn’t use vulgar language like they did or laugh at their dirty jokes. Although for the most part we had a good relationship, there were moments when they jeered me because I was “too good” for them.
Peter says we shouldn’t be surprised when we face normal, everyday persecution. Knowing this kind of persecution is inevitable, he shares four guidelines that will help us.
1. Rejoice when persecuted
But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (1 Pet. 4:13).
Doesn’t this seem like a strange reaction to persecution? Should we not cry when we feel pain? Put on a plastic smile? Peter is not suggesting we suppress our emotions or, as a masochist would do, go out and beg people to hurt us so we can be happy. Rather, underlying the hurt created by persecution should be an inner joy, because if we suffer for Christ we will someday be rewarded when He returns. In another text Christ said we should “rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted, “because great is your reward in heaven” (Matt. 5:12). From eternity’s perspective, persecution and blessing go together like hand in glove.
We are prone to react to persecution in any number of ways—doubt, questioning, anger, fear, sulking, seeking pity, to name a few. Instead, we should gladly suffer for Christ, knowing that pain often precedes blessing. Again, Christ Himself said, “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born” (John 16:21).
2. Suffer for right reasons
If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name (1 Pet. 4:14–16).
Some bring on persecution unnecessarily. They suffer because they are lawbreakers or meddlers. They may say, “My neighbor shuns me because I am a Christian,” when in reality being a Christian has nothing to do with it—they are gossips or busybodies. When persecuted we should evaluate the cause.
Being jailed for bombing abortion clinics or for throwing rocks at store windows during a march down Main Street doesn’t mean we are suffering persecution; we are paying the consequences of breaking the law. Let us be sure we are suffering because we are Christians, not because we are criminals.
Sometimes we are unduly persecuted because of our demeanor. For instance, when a teacher at school does something that violates our Christian principles we can respond with criticism or tact—which will in turn color how she responds to us. One father who wanted his daughter excused from part of a science class wrote the following letter to her teacher:
Thank you for taking the time to inform us of the upcoming “Get Better Acquainted with Yourself” program. While we agree that our children need to be prepared for changes their bodies will be going through soon, it is our desire to teach this at home. Along with helping our daughter understand physical details, we also want to teach her the importance of keeping her body sacred and set apart for the honor of God.
For this reason we would like to request that our daughter be excused from the class. My wife attended last year’s presentation and took careful notes which we plan to discuss with our daughter.
Let me take this opportunity to thank you for the great job you are doing. Our daughter is having a good year in your classroom.
When we take a stand for Christ, we must be careful to do so in a way that will not bring shame or disrespect; it should honor God.
3. Leave justice to God
For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Pet. 4:17–18).
The persecution I am facing may not be fair, but someday God will right all inequities. I should willingly leave this in His hands. Peter points out that God disciplines His own family for their sin; imagine what will happen to the ungodly. Believers often face consequences for sin, but they are nothing compared to what pagans will someday receive for persecuting God’s people. Peter tells us this not so we will gloat, but so that we will leave justice to God.
4. Let greater persecution mean greater commitment
So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good (1 Pet. 4:19).
In New Testament times there were no banks so, before going on a journey, a person of means would often “commit” his money to the safekeeping of a trusted friend. When persecuted we need to trust ourselves to God’s safekeeping. Not vacillating, thinking, “If I lower my standards a bit my persecution will stop.” Not doubting, wondering, “Why is God letting this happen to me?” Not questioning, asking, “Why does he get away with this?”
Instead we should put our faith in God. Persecution should deepen our commitment.
It has been said, “Sometimes the Lord calms the storm; sometimes He lets the storm rage and He calms His child.” God didn’t calm the storm for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were thrown into the furnace, but He did calm these teenage boys. He didn’t calm the storm for Stephen who was martyred, but He did calm Stephen. He didn’t calm the storm for the Apostle Paul when he was whipped and imprisoned, but He calmed Paul. When persecuted, let’s calmly trust God. Suffering should only deepen our commitment.
Alan Redpath writes, “I may not understand [my persecution] at the moment, but I refuse to become panicky….No sorrow will ever disturb me, no trial will ever alarm me, no circumstance will cause me to fret, for I shall rest in the joy of…my Lord.” That’s the essence of commitment and trust in the midst of persecution. Such commitment honors God.
As a teenager I watched on February 11, 1973, as Captain Jeremiah Denton (later Senator Denton) appeared at the door of a plane. He was home after years of captivity in North Vietnam. He saluted smartly, then carefully made his way down the steps. Stopping in front of a microphone, his rugged face haggard, he calmly said, “We are honored to have served our country under difficult circumstances.”
Christians in the U.S. do not face the threat of death or torture because of their beliefs. However, believers do face plenty of everyday kinds of persecution. Someday I hope to stand without shame before God, having been faithful in the heat of suffering, and say, “I am honored to have served You under difficult circumstances.”