Oftentimes, we hear about and/or talk about “suffering for being a Christian.” And many of those times, I think our minds jump to a picture of someone being physically persecuted in an Asian country. While this is most certainly true, it is also not exhaustive. Peter in 1 Peter 3 and 4, and Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount, sheds some light at what is perhaps more of a basic understanding of “suffering for Christ’s sake.”
In 1 Peter 3, Peter asks the question, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?” What does “what is good” mean? He continues, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” What does “for righteousness’ sake” mean? I think we can get a better understanding for what this means if we look at the source Peter pulled this teaching from: Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew 5, in wrapping up the beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt. 5:9-12) Perhaps we can summarize Jesus’ description of sufferings in the last beatitude as mockery, harm, and slander. It seems that what Jesus is doing is filling up, in some measure at least, what he meant in the last statement by “persecuted.” Being persecuted involves the words and actions of others that attack us. But attack us for what?
It is no coincidence that Jesus’ beatitudes of persecution come right after the beatitudes that describe a citizen of God’s kingdom (Mt. 5:2-9). Those who are apart of God’s kingdom, who are constantly demonstrating that by their lifestyles and choices, will be mocked, harmed, or slandered (or any combination of the three) for living as God’s kingdom citizen. So being persecuted involves the words and actions of others that attack us as we are living as a faithful citizen of God’s kingdom.
Going back to 1 Peter, we see in chapter 4, a practical application of what it means to live as Christ’s people amid old friends that now hate us. Peter describes the old friends’ actions and attitudes, not so much in terms of physical harm, but rather as ridicule and maliciousness:
- “With respect to this, they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (4:4)
- “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (4:14)
- “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian [a derogatory name given to Christ-followers; meaning “little Christ”], let him glorify God in that name [that is, in that derogatory name given].”
I think an understanding of “Christian suffering” as only physical harm causes us to miss opportunities of spiritual growth and gospel proclamation. There are many opportunities to suffer for his name. Many of them, we do not take because we are afraid of the ridicule that we know will come. We are afraid of current friends distancing themselves from us. We are afraid of being less liked, less sought after, less consulted, less complemented, less popular, and less loved. And it’s okay to be afraid of those things. It hurts when friends turn to hate you because your choices are now more in line with following Christ instead of pursuing sinful or unwise things.
But as Peter also says, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” The very existence of our fears of disunity are neon lights that point us to the need to share our faith even more – they need the gospel! This means that we will have to make personal sacrifices in order to ensure the gospel goes where it must. After all, why do we have the relationships we have in the first place? Is it not so that we can spread the good news so that damned might be rescued?
Let us rethink and reapply what is truly relevant to all our relationships: a wholesome understanding of suffering for the purpose of showing off and sharing the gospel of Christ.