Yesterday was the annual Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We participated in a special prayer service last evening at Northfield, lifting our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ before the Lord. Yet, because this kind of persecution is not happening right in front of us, we can find it difficult to relate to its realities, because it is not part of our daily lives. Christians do face opposition in America, but it is rare to hear of a believer in our nation being killed for following Jesus.
Yet what is at stake for Christians facing persecution today is the same as what is at stake for every believer who wants to follow Christ. We must resist the urge to place persecuted believers in an elite, unattainable category. These ordinary men and women who believe in Jesus have made important faith decisions. But anyone who wants to faithfully follow Jesus, whether living in Northfield or North Korea, must answer the same two critical yet personal questions.
Question #1: Do I believe the Gospel is true? I am not going to suffer loss or die for something I do not believe is true. Neither are you. So we need to examine this question closely. The believers in Thessalonica were commended by the Apostle Paul for their acceptance of God’s Word, “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (I Thess. 2:13). They accepted the gospel as God’s revelation, not man’s intervention. And they honored the gospel by turning away from their idols to serve the living and true God (2 Thess. 3:1).
If we do believe the Gospel, that we are sinners in need of God’s provision of salvation through Jesus Christ as our only way to Heaven, then we must also settle the matter of our obedience to the Gospel. Will I reject pressure to deny or be silent because I honor the gospel? Will I refuse to follow false teachings or altered and distorted versions of the gospel because I honor the gospel? If you and I won’t speak up for Christ when our lives are easy and there is little to lose, we certainly will not stand up for the Gospel when faced with the hardship of persecution.
Question #2: Do I believe the Gospel is worth my personal sacrifice? If I believe the Gospel but I do not value the Gospel, then I will not be willing to count the cost for the sake of the Gospel. This question causes us to examine what we truly value in life. The believers in Thessalonica were encouraged by the Apostle Paul when he said “do not be moved by your afflictions because you know that we are destined to this” (I Thess. 3:3). Persecution is part of God’s plan. We must accept this truth. Persecution has been woven throughout the tapestry of the Church’s story from its beginning and will continue to be there until its end.
If we believe that persecution is part of God’s plan, then we must also settle the matter of our willingness to believe that God will meet our needs even if we lose everything because of persecution. One thing that gives persecution power is the fear it generates. Persecution threatens to take away from us what we value most: the closeness of family, the comforts of home, the security of a job, the blessings of freedom. Maybe even life itself. Are we willing to lose these things for the sake of Christ?
Believers around the world-in places like Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, and more-face the reality of these devastating losses. Don’t think for a moment this is easy for them or that they have no fear. They do have fears. It’s just that they have settled this question and have declared that the gospel is worth their personal sacrifice, believing God will sustain them even if they lose everything.
Kyle Idleman, in his book Not a Fan, makes this statement: There is no comfortable way to carry a cross. So as we remember and pray for our fellow believers around the world who are facing persecution, let us also reaffirm our belief in the true Gospel and our willingness to make personal sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel if we are asked to do so. This call of Jesus requires just such a response:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26)