Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Levels of Persecution

One of the things I’ve often heard about the Christian Faith is that God never promised us a "bed of roses.” Meaning, when you give your life to Christ one isn’t automatically protected from life’s difficulties. In fact, many new Christians often find that life gets “harder” rather than easier for a couple reasons:

1) Suddenly we are faced with making changes in our lives, like giving up self-destructive activities and patterns (yes, I’m talking about sin) as we allow Christ to reshape us; and as we take on new patterns of discipline: Church attendance, daily prayer, daily Bible reading, and service to others. All of this is hard work.

2) Satan is not happy about your giving your life to Christ and will do anything to thwart it. Suddenly we find out there is “Spiritual Warfare” going on – and we are the battlefield. When we “were safely in Satan’s camp” he could ignore us (for the most part), but now that we’ve infiltrated his territory (as a Child of God) he starts to step up the attack!

We need to understand that “persecution” is part of the Christian life experience – Jesus even tells us we are to expect it! He tells us that we will be called upon to witness our faith in various ways. In Mt. 24:9 Jesus tells us the world will hate us because of Him. In Mk. 13:9-13 Jesus tells us that we will be brought before “councils” as a testimony or witness of Him. We may even be betrayed by our own family members! (And there are numerous other passages, too.)

Yet, even so, Jesus promises to be with us, to send the Holy Spirit to speak for us, and most of all to bless us! From the Sermon on the Mount we hear:

“Blessed are you when people 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, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt. 5:11-12)

None of this is surprising to those of us who’ve been Christians for a while; however, the fact is that all of us are going to face persecution. So if we are to expect persecution what can we expect? As I see it there are four levels of persecution:

Level 1: Personal Witness:
When we proclaim Jesus we face the fact that there are those who won’t like it. At this level we can risk losing friends and relationships and even jobs when we stand up for Christ! We may be called “intolerant bigots” or religious fanatics. We risk being made fun of and isolated because of our beliefs. The risks here are real and personal. When they occur they indeed hurt our feelings, and can cost us financially (like being fired) – but rarely at this stage do we risk our personal safety.

Level 2: Judicial Persecution:
This next level turns from personal inconvenience to actual legal and official retribution. This is where we may be sued or taken to court because of our Christian convictions. The risks here are possible loss of personal freedoms. Gag-orders, jail time, loss of property, loss of professional reputation and the like are the next risks. Again, this is more serious and costly than Level 1, but rarely life-threatening.

Level 3: Life Risking Persecution:
This is the kind of persecution we begin to associate with the early church and in other countries even in our day and age. This level involves prison and torture. This is the kind of persecution where we might be beaten, deprived of food, and begin to really fear for our lives. Real suffering becomes reality – indeed we become “prisoners of war” in a Spiritual battle.

Level 4: Martyrdom:
This highest level means the loss of life as a testament of the Gospel. We remember those early Christians who were butchered in the forums of Rome; and we remember that even today in numerous places in the world, real people are killed on a daily basis (with or without due process of law). As this is the highest form of persecution, so too is it the highest form of witness to Christ. Martyrdom almost always backfires upon those responsible. Cases in point: the greatest time of growth in the Christian Church was when it was persecuted; and, examples like the Ugandan Martyrs who refused the sinful advances of the king, were put to death horribly, and yet influenced many to become a Christian testimony – whereas today the Christian Faith is incredibly strong there.

Most of us here in America – the land of freedom of speech and religion – know only of levels 1 and perhaps 2. That at least is good news – for the moment. But let’s be honest – we are undergoing persecution – yet, even so let’s not forget to pray for others in the world who have it worse off than we do! As we remember our own Christian witness may we all remember that persecution is indeed expected and part of our Christian lives. But also, let us remember that persecution finds us – the Holy Spirit will indeed place us in locations and situations where we may give our testimonies – nevertheless, we shouldn’t seek out persecution or tempt it in others. As St. Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15-16:

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”

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