Christianity Promises Suffering and Persecution: Here’s How to Prepare

No one enjoys suffering. No one. Most people across the globe recognize, however, that suffering is normal in this fallen world. Western culture, on the other hand, has so glorified the values of safety, comfort, and convenience that anything less is now regarded as something akin to human rights violation.

The idea that people have a right to a secure, healthy life is an attitude that has, unfortunately, bled over into the church. The extreme example of this is Prosperity Teaching, which communicates that God wants Christians to be wealthy, healthy, and happy all the time. Even among more biblically orthodox Christians, however, there is an unspoken idea that God somehow promises to protect them from suffering. The result is an absence of teaching on the presence and role of suffering in the Christian life, and the crises of faith that accompany that suffering.

Suffering Is Normal in a Fallen World

The Bible regards suffering as normal. Part of this suffering comes from the fact that we live in a fallen world, and this kind of suffering falls on Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Bible regards suffering as normal. Part of this suffering comes from the fact that we live in a fallen world, and this kind of suffering falls on Christians and non-Christians alike.

Because of the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God, the physical world itself was subject to corruption and decay (Rom. 8:18–22). As a result, things like disease and natural disasters happen to everyone. Certainly, modern science and technology have developed to the point that we can shield ourselves from some of the consequences of this corruption and decay. However, we cannot eliminate them entirely. Hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes occur all over the world without discriminating between Christians and non-Christians, and we are completely powerless to stop them.

How to Endure Suffering: When God Takes Away

We can now cure or prevent many diseases, but that doesn’t stop both Christians and non-Christians from developing cancer or having heart attacks. The sinfulness of men and women adds human violence and oppression to this dark picture, so that crime, war, and oppression are also part of life everywhere on earth. Eventually, all of us die—sometimes slowly and painfully—as a result of the rebellion of our first parents.

It is true that God, in his incredible mercy, undoubtedly does protect us from many of these consequences of the Fall in our world. However, he does not ever promise in his Word that he will protect us from physical injury or illness, and he allows all of us to die. This kind of suffering is a normal part of normal life in a fallen world.

Suffering Is Promised for Christians

For followers of Jesus, however, the picture is even more sobering. The Bible actually promises us persecution and suffering for our faith. The world is in rebellion against God. It hates God, and when he came as a man in the person of Jesus Christ, the world responded by murdering him. Jesus promised us that the world would treat us the way it treated him(John 15:20, ESV).

The first followers of Jesus consistently experienced suffering for the sake of Jesus, in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1), Galatia (Gal. 3:4), Philippi (Phil. 1:29), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:14), and Asia Minor (1 Peter 4:12), along with the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 10:32). Paul went through horrible suffering (2 Cor. 11:23–29), as did the other apostles (Acts 5–8). Paul was quite explicit in saying this was to be expected by everyone who follows Jesus (2 Tim. 3:12, ESV). In the Bible, suffering and opposition are a normal part of the normal Christian life.

The comfortable experience of Christians in the West has actually been an anomaly in this regard. Because of the Christian heritage of Western civilization, combined with democratic freedoms and historic rule of law, Western Christians have largely been left alone for their faith. Even today, as Western nations become increasingly post-Christian (and even anti-Christian), the opposition experienced by most Christians goes little beyond mockery. However, there are signs that this protected status may be changing. If it continues to do so, it will simply put Western Christians in the same boat as their brothers and sisters all over the world.

Today, in Islamic, Hindu, and Communist parts of the world, being a follower of Jesus means, at best, losing your job and being rejected by your family. At worst, it can mean imprisonment, beating, and even death. These things are being experienced all over the world right now by our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

People who have been given a realistic sense of what it means to follow Jesus, and who have counted the cost, will make much steadier disciples.

How to Prepare for the Reality of Suffering as a Christian

Here are three points that can prepare you for such a fate:

  1. First, Christian workers need to examine their own hearts, searching for any sense of entitlement. As Paul advised Timothy, they need to be prepared to “share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8, ESV). They will do this, not by cultivating stoicism or asceticism, but by concentrating long and hard on “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8, ESV), who is better, more valuable, and more delightful than anything we lose by following him.
  2. We need to share the gospel the way Jesus did, by making the cost of discipleship clear (Luke 9:57–62). People who have been given a realistic sense of what it means to follow Jesus, and who have counted the cost, will make much steadier disciples. And lest we fear that such a sobering presentation of the gospel will keep people from being saved, we need to realize two things. First, we are offering Jesus, not a cozy life, and Jesus really is better than all of the good things of this world combined. Second, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that draws people to Jesus, not our attractive packaging of the message.
  3. We need to include the subject of suffering well in our immediate follow-up with new believers.
    • Followers of Jesus should not be surprised or caught off guard by suffering (1 Peter 4:12).
    • They need to endure suffering without compromising their integrity (2 Tim. 4:5; 1 Peter 2:19).
    • They must love their persecutors and pray for their welfare (Matt. 5:43–47).
    • They are to renounce any intention to take revenge (Rom. 12:14–21).
    • They are to trust God in the middle of their suffering and respond by proactively doing good (1 Peter 4:19).
    • They are to use their experiences of suffering as a basis for comforting others who suffer (2 Cor. 1:3–7).
    • They are to fix their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:1–3).
    • And they are commanded to rejoice. “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13).

As followers of Jesus, we do not rejoice in suffering because we enjoy pain, but because Jesus is so worthy in our eyes and hearts that we delight in being identified with him. All suffering is temporary. It isn’t worth comparing with the glory that awaits us (2 Cor. 4:16). In that place of glory, all pain and suffering will be gone forever (Rev. 21:4).

Zane Pratt serves as the VP of Training for the IMB.