Pity. Outrage. Sadness. Confusion. Impotence. Fear. Hopelessness. When we hear of the persecutions of Christians in places like Northern Nigeria or Iraq, or ISIS’ murders of Egyptians in Libya, we, as followers of Christ, feel these emotions deeply. And we should. We are one Body. When one part suffers, we all suffer. This concern for our afflicted brothers and sisters serves as the foundation for our prayers. In our appeal to God for His involvement to prevent this persecution, harrowing reports of injustice and slaughter may cause us to doubt whether God is concerned for His Church at all. As Christians, we believe that God abounds in loving-kindness (unequivocally desiring mankind’s highest good) and is all-powerful (unlimited in his ability to do justice). But when we learn that Boko Haram has burned down an entire village of Christians, this belief is tested. We may even find ourselves beset with questions about God’s character and intentions for His people.
Perhaps, in feeling these emotions, you have formed the question this way at some point: “If God is so loving and powerful, why would He allow His people to experience abject suffering at the hands of evil men?”
Historically, the answers are varied across the theological-philosophical spectrum. But rather than respond to this complex question by diving into a discussion of God’s sovereignty, mankind’s volition, and their dynamic interplay as others have–and such efforts are appreciated–I believe the Scriptures provide us with a simpler explanation in the Cross of Christ.
In looking at Christ’s death, we see that God’s love and allowance of persecution are not contradictory. Christ was the complete expression of God’s image. He said what God said. He did what God did. He showed amazing grace under pressure. He was kind to the broken. He championed the cause of the poor. He was and is perfection incarnate. The Father loved His Son entirely. On two occasions in Scripture, the Father, who is so exuberant about his affection for Christ, declared audibly: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5). Importantly, Christ Himself, who lived a morally perfect life, was convinced of the Father’s love for Him. He often testified of this fact in His earthly ministry (cf. John 3:5; 5:20; 15:9; 17: 23-25). And yet, Christ was tortured and died a gruesome death while Heaven stood silent. If the account of the Cross ended here, then the doubts we often have about God’s love in the midst of persecution would be without response–but thankfully, it doesn’t.
As we affirm, three days later, the Son rose from the realm of the dead and ascended into Heaven, seated at the Father’s right-hand. The once Suffering Servant had now become the Lord of All Creation forever. This triumphant finish demonstrates that the God-ordained humiliation, suffering, and death of Christ was not senseless. Although Christ experienced great persecution, it was unto a greater glory, a grand eternal purpose, and a promotion that would never be taken away again. Being Christ’s disciples, we follow His example—and the path to glory ahead of us is well-worn. As Christ suffered and was persecuted, so too, we, His followers, will experience some level of suffering and persecution in this life.
Jesus told us that persecution would come for His Name (cf. Matthew 10:16-24; 24), but He also called us blessed if we endured it: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” (Matthew 5:10-12).
The Early Church wholeheartedly bought into this message of joyful sacrifice and martyrdom. For these believers, an earthly life of pleasure and comfort was not their chief ambition—never-ending life with Christ was. Recall when the Apostles were drug before the Sanhedrin for preaching the Gospel. They were detained, beaten, and threatened. Upon their release, Scripture reports that “they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for [Christ’s] name.” (Acts 5:40-41). An uncanny response? Not so much for the first Christians. In his second letter to Timothy, The Apostle Paul explains the motivation for rejoicing in persecution aphoristically: “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him [i.e., with Christ].” (2 Timothy 2:12). And to the Church in Rome, Paul, persuaded of a much-better existence with the Lord in the age to come, goes so far as to write: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). The Apostle Peter shared the same conviction: “[R]ejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”(1 Peter 4:13).
With these Gospel promises and the Early Church’s example before us, we are reminded of something important: that although the assaults on our Christian brothers and sisters around the globe are unjust and sorrowful, our response should not be to weep like those who have no hope. On the contrary, we are also called to learn from them…to venerate them…to celebrate them (cf. Hebrews 11-12), because one day they will rise to an eternal reward that can never be taken away.
And, in the end, isn’t this really the heart of the Gospel? That is, in letting go of our temporal life and daily dying to our desires for the sake of Christ, we position ourselves to inherit true life?
Christ has called us, fittingly, to lose our lives–relationships, possessions, experiences, opportunities– for the sake of the Gospel. As Christians, we have voluntarily chosen to surrender all of our rights. As His betrothed people, we have pledged to Him our dearest affections, indeed, our every breath. Why? Because the Word became flesh for us–God gave us His Son. It is only appropriate that we reciprocate in kind with a holy and radical devotion. Anything less is unworthy of Him. (cf. Matthew 10:37-39).
Our God–Father, Son, and Spirit–is not a sadist. He is intentional and just, and has the reward of rewards awaiting His fallen. Let us remember these things as we lift up our prayers for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, and as we read in the news about the latest atrocity against the Church. Let us not look upon their plight with a singular pity, but with a deep appreciation, with the highest esteem. After all, that is how Heaven sees it: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.” (Psalm 116:15).
Daniel DeVougas lives in Washington D.C.and attends Church of the Resurrection.