V ery early in His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus began preparing His disciples to face persecution (Matthew 5:10-12). Right at the end He was doing the same (John 15:20-21).
The Apostle Peter tells believers to prepare themselves for persecution by practising self-discipline and focusing on the Christian hope (1 Peter 1:13).
Suffering for Christ is not only a service we give to God but also a gift from God to us (Philippians 1:29). It can have many benefits. Like any suffering, it can teach us to be humble and heavenly minded. Our suffering can bear fruit in others’ lives. The Apostle Paul understood his suffering as intrinsic to his mission, not impeding it. His sufferings had positive missiological benefits, bringing salvation and life (2 Corinthians 1:6; 4:10-12) and he saw them as an extension of the sufferings of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10; 13:4). Suffering not only purifies individuals but also purifies the Church as some fall away from the faith, but those who remain are encouraged in their walk with the Lord and grow in love for each other.
Forewarned and prepared so that we can stand firm
God often forewarns His people of coming suffering, whether in public messages through the prophets or one-to-one as He warned Noah (Genesis 6:13) and Abraham (Genesis 18:17).
Jesus forewarned of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple that took place some 40 years later as well as of the terrible events at the beginning of the end of the age, such as wars, earthquakes, famine and pestilence (Luke 19:41-44; 21:6-27; Matthew 24; Mark 13). Before these catastrophes will come the persecution of His followers (Luke 21:12).
Jesus helps us prepare for this by warning of false prophets and even false Messiahs who will preach false messages (Matthew 24:11,24-25; Mark 13:22; Luke 21:8). Some will offer ungrounded hope and some will create unjustified fear.
Jesus, however, wants us to have realism and resilience. If we are prepared by Jesus’ words, painful persecution should not undermine our faith but should strengthen it (John 16:1,4). He tells us not to be troubled or alarmed (Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9), that the time of distress will be shortened (Matthew 24:22) and that “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13, ESV). We should note that the promise of being saved is a promise about our souls, not our bodies, for he also says that some of us will be persecuted to death (Matthew 24:9; Luke 21:16-19).
Even if no specific Divine warning is given, we can expect calamity if, for example, we see in our nation arrogant godlessness, materialism, immorality, neglect of the poor or other sins for which God has previously punished other nations.
John Flavel, a Presbyterian minister in 17th-century England, suffered persecution, sickness and bereavement. He was convinced that Christians must proactively prepare for suffering if they are not to be overwhelmed when it comes. This matches the findings of modern psychologists. “Prepare for a storm,” wrote Flavel, “and provide for yourself an ark, a hiding-place in Christ and the promises.”
Paul had evidently been pondering the persecution he might encounter in Jerusalem (Acts 21:13) and could face it more calmly than could the Christians of Caesarea.
None of us knows how we would react to severe persecution unless we have already experienced it. If we are inexperienced at being persecuted we must prepare ourselves so that, if put to the test, our faith will not fail.
Loving Him enough to stand firm
Willingness to suffer for Christ is a sign of our love for Him. Sometimes the willingness itself is enough and God does not bring us to the point of actually suffering. Abraham did not have to kill his son Isaac (Genesis 22:12). But Christians who are ill-prepared for suffering may sin or fall away when adversity comes, as did many of Jesus’ early followers (John 6:66. Compare Matthew 24:9-10).
If we are to stand firm when suffering comes we must be true disciples, born again (John 3:3), fully committed to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will cling to Him no matter what happens. A Christian at peace with their Saviour can suffer for Him with joy (Romans 5:3). This joy and the strength it brings are a powerful witness to unbelievers.
“and provide for yourself an ark, a hiding-place in Christ and the promises.”
Faith that enables us to stand firm
The shield of faith (Ephesians 6:16) is one of our greatest protections when the evil one sends suffering upon us. Faith assures us of God’s presence with us as we suffer (Psalm 23:4; Isaiah 43:2; John 14:18; Hebrews 13:5). Faith helps us to turn our eyes upon Jesus so that “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace”. Faith enables us to wait confidently for His deliverance (Micah 7:7; Psalm 34:4; Isaiah 28:16) drawing on the strength of almighty God (Psalm 61:2). By faith, we can endure persecution with unwavering obedience, resisting temptation (Hebrews 11:24-26).
Faith enables us to compare our sufferings with those of others, which may show ours to be less than we had thought. For sure, if we compare them with Christ’s sufferings, as He carried the sins of the world, our own will seem a trifle.
Through the eye of faith, we can “count our blessings” and find good things in the midst of our difficulties. We can give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We can be grateful that the Lord loves us enough to discipline us so that we can grow in holiness (Hebrews 12:7-11).
Faith enables us to view our afflictions, no matter how grave or prolonged, as “light and momentary”, leading to eternal glory (2 Corinthians 4:17). We know that “in a very little while” our suffering will come to an end, either through our death or through the Lord’s return (Hebrews 10:32-37).
What can we do to build up our faith in preparation for persecution? We should be diligent in gathering for worship and hearing the Word preached, taking the Lord’s Supper if possible. We should pray fervently for more faith (Mark 9:24) and remind ourselves of what God has done in our lives already. We should resolve not to worry about how we will defend ourselves if we are arrested (Matthew 10:19-20; Luke 21:14-15).
Developing holy courage and fortitude
Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). We may think this is a command we cannot obey, because it is about feelings. But feelings can be trained and Jesus tells how: by trusting Him (John 14:1-2). As we build up our faith, we will also develop “holy courage” and fortitude – an inner strength enabling us to endure prolonged danger or suffering ― and we receive His peace (John 14:27).
Holy courage, flowing from faith, is the antidote to the fear that can lead us to fail the Lord in times of danger or hardship. It will enable us to bring Him glory and keep our own hearts at peace. Courage is catching: other Christians will be emboldened if they see us facing difficulties bravely. How can we develop fortitude and holy courage?
1. Make sure we are right with God. Unconfessed sin and a guilty conscience are hindrances to persevering in times of suffering. We must be at peace with God in order to reap the harvest of blessings that suffering can bring (Romans 5:1-5). Confidence that we are in the place and ministry where God wants us to be also gives “staying power”.
2. Wean our hearts from worldly pleasures and comforts. Many Christians live today in luxury in societies that prize physical wellbeing. We do not necessarily need to give these things up ahead of time, but we need to prepare our hearts to be ready to do so without it being too painful a wrench. We must wean our hearts even from the love of liberty, so that we can face unperturbed the possibility of imprisonment.
3. Understand our enemy. He is not as powerful as our God. He wants to damage us spiritually more than he wants to damage us physically. His principal method is temptation. Especially in the context of persecution, he may present us with new temptations we have not encountered before, or temptation from new and unexpected sources such as a beloved spouse (Genesis 3:6; Job 2:9), Christian friends (Acts 21:13) or even a Christian preacher or pastor. Persecution may also create the subtle temptation to spiritual pride. From what God has revealed to us of the battles in the heavenly realms, it seems that Satan’s priority is to bring down those who are closest to the Lord. So any of us under severe attack can draw comfort from the thought that perhaps Satan has targeted us because we are such a challenge to him.
4. Develop a habit of remembering the presence of God in every situation. We should pray as much as we can. Not only is it an outlet for our feelings of distress but also spending time with Jesus makes people brave (Acts 4:13). We can cry to God for deliverance but we cannot demand that He answers with miracles. He may deliver us or He may not. If He does, He may do it supernaturally or naturally. Our heavenly Father knows best. We can also pray that our faith will not fail and that we may respond to all our trials in a Christ-like way: this we can be sure is praying according to His will.
5. Be careful not to use “prudence” as an excuse for cowardice. Distinguishing prudence from cowardice can be very difficult. It requires great discernment, Christian maturity, an understanding of our own hearts and a sensitivity to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Equally we must beware the temptation to seek personal glory or the thrill of adventure by “courting danger” unnecessarily; we must not put God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16; Luke 4:12). May God guide each one of us.
6. Appreciate the inner effects of suffering, especially suffering for Christ. Some Christians have found their time in prison or laid aside with sickness to be filled with blessing and joy as they were able to focus on the Lord more than when they were free and busy, or healthy and busy, even if they were busy in His service. We could emerge from a time of testing with our characters like gold (Job 23:10).
7. Think of the example of other brave, persevering believers. Jesus encouraged His disciples that they would be following in the footsteps of the prophets of old when they later faced persecution (Matthew 5:12. See also James 5:10 and Hebrews 12:1).
8. Remember the heavenly reward that we are promised, better than anything in this life (Hebrews 10:34) and far more glorious (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). This can help us to accept and even embrace suffering more readily. We know that we will have to die one day, so how much does it really matter if our earthly life is cut short a little? We have desired so long to gaze on His beauty (Psalm 27:4) but can see only a dim reflection (1 Corinthians 13:12). The sooner we pass from this life to the next the sooner we shall see God’s face (Revelation 22:4).
10. Nurture our love for the Lord Jesus so that it will inspire us to endure for His sake. We could read the Gospels, meditate on the cross, sing Christ-centred hymns and songs, or simply rest in His presence.
We must be at peace with God in order to reap the harvest of blessings that suffering can bring (Romans 5:1-5).
Standing firm when God seems far away
Typically, Christians experience the presence of the Lord in a deeper way when they are suffering, especially if they are suffering for Him. This is very precious and helps to sustain them. But sometimes He seems – for a while – to stand aloof and leave us struggling alone, even if we are following Him faithfully. We must be ready even for this form of suffering.
Be alert for angels, but depend on Christ alone
When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was in mental agony, struck with terror, almost dying of sorrow (Luke 22:44; Mark 14:33; Matthew 26:38, Amplified Bible) but God sent an angel from heaven to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43).
Scripture also records other times God has sent angels to the aid of His people in their times of greatest distress (Daniel 6:22-23; 1 Kings 19:1-7; Acts 5:19; 12:6-11). Early Church traditions record many other supernatural interventions to help faithful Christians, especially those facing torture or painful martyrdom. We cannot demand that God sends angels to help us, but He might.
Ultimately, we should depend on Christ ― not on ourselves; not on our own strength or abilities; not on other Christians around us; not on the preparation we may have undertaken to face persecution; not on the hope of angels; not even on whatever gifts or other blessings the Holy Spirit has given us. We must depend on Christ alone.