"The Joy of...SUFFERING?!"

Nov 20, 2005 Int'l Day of Prayer - Persecuted Church

1Peter 3:14-17; 4:12-19

Prepared for the Worst

[slides idop.org] It's difficult for us in peaceful North America to relate to the predicament of the 200 million Christians who are estimated to live under threat of persecution in the world today. To be dragged away and murdered for taking part in a Bible study? To be beaten and tortured simply for teaching Christianity to children, at the parents' request? To be locked in metal shipping containers because you're unwilling to recant your faith? That's just not part of our everyday reality. Yet. But Peter reminds us that "your brothers throughout the world are undergoing ...sufferings" (1Pe 5:9). He allocates a good deal of his letter to the topic of suffering.

Peter was well qualified to talk about suffering. Since his leadership on the day of Pentecost and healing the lame man (Ac 2,3), as spokesman he became a natural target of the enemies of Christianity. He was put in jail in Acts 4(3,21) and threatened. He was flogged and narrowly escaped death in Acts 5(33,40). He is arrested and imprisoned with intention of being killed by King Herod in Acts 12(4,11), miraculously escaping with the help of an angel (note the church "prayed very earnestly for him"). Tradition maintains he was crucified upside down, not counting himself worthy to die in the same manner as the Lord Jesus. So Peter is an expert on the subject when he talks about enduring persecution as a follower of Christ.

In chapters 3 and 4 he describes 5 ways we can be prepared for suffering, and 3 results or benefits for those who endure. The first Preparation is a PRIOR ENGAGEMENT, being "already spoken for". 3:14-15 says, "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened. But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord." The word for "set apart" means to acknowledge, treat as holy, venerate. As long as we consider we have any right to ourselves, to protection and preservation, then threats or persecution will make us afraid. But faithful Christians in difficult regimes have learned to acknowledge Christ's ownership: because He died for us, we no longer have "rights" to our existence, we belong to Him. He is totally Lord. We're 'taken' or 'spoken for' to use the words of human courtship. We're engaged to Him; the church is the bride of Christ. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me..." (Gal 2:20) So when hardship comes, we entrust ourselves into His sovereign care. 4:19 says, "those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator..." Bought by Jesus, we relinquish our rights and pray with acceptance, "Thy will be done..."

Western Christians, raised in an environment of "rights" and "freedom", have a lot to learn about what it means to set apart Jesus as Lord. Samuel Wilberforce said that lordship could be defined in 4 words: admit, submit, commit, transmit. We must admit our win and need of a saviour; we must forsake sin and submit our lives to Christ as Lord; we must commit our way to the Lord day by day; and we must transmit or share His love and goodness with others.

A second preparation for suffering involves INCARNATIONAL IDENTITY; "my fate is bound up with His [Christ's]". We are not only engaged or belong to Christ, we are already "in Him", crucified and raised with Him, identified with Him in good times and bad. 4:13 says, "Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed." 4:16, "However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name;" that is, that you're wearing His label, you're identified with Jesus. The early church viewed its hardships and pain as part and parcel of Jesus' own suffering. Paul wrote, "I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (Col 1:24) So in a mysterious way, persecution for Christ's sake becomes sort of sacramental, we're privileged to share in a little taste of what Jesus had to endure.

Alex Puerta is a Christian living in the most dangerous country in the world, Colombia, whose life models this total surrender and union with Jesus. Abductions and violent crimes are common in Colombia. Even though Alex had heard many stories of violence, he would never have anticipated how violence would personally affect him. He was riding a bus with his evangelistic youth group when they were stopped by paramilitary soldiers. The youth complied with soldiers' orders to exit the bus. Once they were forced to the ground with their hands and feet tied-up, the soldiers began shooting them. All appeared dead, but one voice rose from underneath the pile of bodies. Alex, severely wounded, was compelled by the Spirit of the Lord to tell the soldiers, "Jesus loves you." Though he lay there bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head, he followed God's leading. The soldiers were enraged. They ran over to Alex. Only his head was exposed. They tried to cut off his head with their machetes, but fled in fear when they could not. Alex's life was spared. He is now a living testimony to God's love and forgiveness as he ministers amongst the same groups of people responsible for killing his friends and wounding him, causing loss of sight in one eye and legal blindness in the other. When asked why he isn't afraid, Alex answered, "What else can they do to me?" One with Christ, He's experiencing Incarnational Identity.

A third preparation for suffering is UNASSAILABLE INNOCENCE: "don't give 'em a leg to stand on". Peter tells believers to treat outsiders "with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." (3:15f) We're to do good and "continue to do good" rather than retaliate with evil (3:17; 4:19). Peter's very definite that "If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler." (4:15) Our conduct is to be holy, reflecting our Saviour's; good behaviour undercuts any basis for false accusations, and this will eventually become evident to all around.

In Sri Lanka, more than 160 churches have been attacked by angry Buddhists in the last 2 years; Yet, remarkably, as the church has ministered to those ravaged by the tsunami, the reality of Christ, and the integrity of His church is being dramatically displayed. In the past, persecution came in the form of verbal threats, arson, assault, and even murder. But now Buddhist villagers are asking the Christians to help them. Christians are now entering villages and earning the goodwill of the people through their humility and Christ-like love. Through acts of service and the extension of love, hearts are changing. In village after village the response of the people is the same: "If we chase the Christians out of the village, who will look after us?" In an environment of persecution, the loving response of the believers is honouring Christ and opening doors through Unassailable Innocence.

A fourth way to prepare for suffering is to have REALISTIC EXPECTATION. You're "announced to the enemy" so some darts are going to be headed your way. Sometimes it seems the most effective Christians wind up undergoing the toughest tests. Peter writes in 4:12, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you." In other words, "What did you expect? Of course you're going to experience hardship! Look what happened to your Master." The moment you make a serious commitment to follow Jesus, the enemy's going to have you in his gun-sights; he wants to take you out, he's the Destroyer who steals and kills (Jn 10:10). Later, in 5:8 Peter warns, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (1Pe 5:8) This isn't going to be a cake-walk! So we need to have a Realistic Expectation that trials await.

Fifth, our preparation for suffering involves a PUZZLING HOPE: "make 'em ask". 3:15 says, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." There should be something different about the way we respond to hardships. It's normal for fallen humans to react to trouble by becoming upset, angry, then resentful and bitter. Anger and disappointment themselves aren't sinful, but unless we take them to the cross, they degenerate into bitterness, hate, and longing for revenge, which ARE wrong. By turning to Jesus, we find His comfort, peace, and grace to adjust and respond with truth and love instead of nastiness. That's unusual - that gets people's attention! "How come you aren't reacting like everybody else would?"

A recent Focus on the Family broadcast (Nov 9) told about a brave pastor from Seoul, Chun Kei-wun, who runs an underground railroad helping Christians escape from North Korea. He was arrested helping people get into Mongolia. The Chinese assigned 3 of the toughest interrogators. They asked why he was doing it; "Because of my faith as a Christian." They said, "You're a CIA agent and we're going to do you in." Now, the States were beginning to apply political pressure to protect church leaders. The Chinese told Pastor Chun he could be released if he signed a confession and paid a little fine, but he wouldn't. They said, "What do you mean? You'll be in jail 12 years, hard labour!" He said, "I put my faith in the Lord." The interrogations continued. The toughest interrogator, a young Chinese official, hung back after a while and started asking Chun Kei-wun what made him the man he was. Chun Kei-wun said, "I take it from the Bible." The young man asked, "What's in the Bible?" Pastor Chun said, "Read it for yourself."

Through outside political pressure, Chun Kei-wun was freed. But that's not all. If you visit his church in Seoul you'll see a handsome young man, studying for the ministry: that's the Chinese interrogator! And he's even engaged to be married to Pastor Chun's daughter. Chun Kei-wun's Puzzling Hope got the tough interrogator asking the eternally important questions.

Results of Resistance

Peter tells suffering Christians to resist the prowling lion, "standing firm in the faith" (5:9). Three benefits result.

First, UNQUENCHABLE BLESSING: "Jesus' joy is my jump-starter." Peter insists "even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed" (3:14) and in 4:13f, "rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you." One of the most surprising characteristics of the persecuted church is the joy believers display at sharing in Christ's sufferings, and a sense of blessing beyond their physical conditions. Deprived of what we consider 'basic necessities', they come to value even more the companionship of the Holy Spirit.

Gulnaz (20) lives in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. She was harassed on account of her Christian faith by the Muslim males in her workplace. In July 2002, two of the men attacked her with acid in revenge after she resisted a sexual assault. Gulnaz suffered severe burns to 40 percent of her body. In spite of her suffering, Gulnaz glorifies God and radiates her delight in him who was 'persecuted with nails'. [picture] Doesn't she have a beautiful smile? Horribly burned, yet that outer trauma can't squelch the inner joy.

A second result is ALMIGHTY REINFORCEMENT. Peter promises in 5:10, "And the God of all grace...after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."

You may have heard of Brother Andrew, "God's Smuggler", who took Bibles into many countries and founded the organization Open Doors. On a recent broadcast this 20th-century Christian hero told how he came to faith. He was a soldier with the Dutch army in Indonesia, where he was shot in the ankle. He convalesced at a hospital run by Catholic nuns, who were wonderful, pious, loving ladies. One day he approached his favourite nun, Sister Patricia. The soldiers were "a bad bunch", drinking and swearing, but that didn't seem to bother her. Andrew asked her, "Sister, what makes you do all this? You seem to be on duty 24 hours a day, you never complain, you always smile as you serve..." Her face became even more like an angel as she replied, "Andrew, it's the love of Christ living inside us." That was the first personal testimony Andrew had ever heard: that the presence of Jesus inside you makes a difference which will be visible on the outside. He began reading the Word and found Jesus as his Saviour. For the nun, the Almighty's Reinforcement kept her strong and steadfast.

And a third result of suffering in faith is ULTIMATE VINDICATION. "Truth will out", eventually. Peter says "those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may [or, will] be ashamed of their slander" (3:16); and, in 4:17, "For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?" At the great white throne judgment described in Revelation 20(11ff), books will be opened, and each person will be judged according to what they have done - in truth. Persecutors will finally realize Jesus is Lord, as the church has maintained all along. Those who are mistreated for the sake of Christ now will be vindicated and rewarded. Jesus says to those who suffer persecution and are tested in prison, "Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Rev 2:10)

From Persecutor to Praising Christ

In closing, here's a testimony from Nigeria (via the idop.org website). Listen for how the Lord shows Himself to be real right in the situation where persecution is happening.

I hated Christians. I was an imam in a mosque in northern Nigeria's Kano state, a predominantly Muslim area. I was a very, very devout Muslim. I wanted to get rid of all Christians. I reasoned that if I killed a Christian, it helped the jihad. Once I burned a church. Another time, I tried to kill a man when I heard him listening to a Christian tape on the street. I used to hit Christian children with sticks. Everything changed for me one night when I had decided to lead my cows to ruin a Christian's farm. On that very night, Jesus came to me in a dream. I saw a white light. Jesus talked to me and said, "If you don't stop, you're going to die." I was very afraid. The following morning, I still wanted to go to the Christian farm to spoil it. But when I got to that farm, my eyes started spinning. I fell down and my body started convulsing. My family found me and took me home. After that night, God led me to a pastor's house, the same pastor whose church I had burned down. They were afraid at first, thinking that I wanted to kill them, but the Holy Spirit spoke to the pastor's wife. "Pray for him because he came for prayer," she said. "Let him enter." She allowed me into their house. The pastor started to pray for me. God gave me a new heart and a new spirit that day. God replaced my heart of stone with a heart of flesh. Weeping, I told the pastor, "I'm very sorry. God has showed me I'm a dirty person. The Lord has showed me the useless things I've done are no good, for many years past. I'm very sorry." And I begged the pastor to forgive me. "God has showed me right things. Jesus said, 'Come to me.' He removed the bad heart. I used to do so many bad things. Now I understand what I used to do. I used to fight because I was so angry." The pastor told me, "Don't worry. Today you are free. Accept Jesus as your saviour." So I accepted Jesus.

That was 13 years ago. Now, I'm 35 years old and I am a Fulani missionary. God wants me to preach in Fulani camps, to go to the bush and teach adults and children the word of God, to tell them how much Jesus loves them. I even share the gospel with imams who are like how I once was. Many are receptive. I tell them I was a Muslim like them. I explain that Jesus is Saviour. He is good. Without him, there is no life. So I want all those people to have Jesus. I pray God continues to give me materials for spreading the gospel.

The Lord responds to the prayers and need of His people, turning sinners around just as He did with Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Let's join now in prayer for our suffering sisters and brothers in Christ around the world, trusting Him to step in and save.