In Acts, Peter and John are found rejoicing over their beatings, as they deemed it a noble thing to have been found worthy to suffer for the name. Jesus warned us that, as his followers, we will suffer persecution and be hated “without cause”, just as he was. Yet he also advised us to pray for our persecutors and for those who treat us badly. This loving of our enemies is only possible through the power of God’s spirit, as our usual first response is to give back what we get, an eye for an eye, or at the very least demand an apology and perhaps some financial restitution. Only by operating in God’s spirit can we have compassion on those who are hurting us, understanding that only those souls in pain can inflict pain on others. Souls in pain need help, not curses.
Loving our enemies by praying for those who are persecuting us is the way of God’s Kingdom, not of the world. As followers of Jesus, we will be persecuted and hated, but that should not affect our inner peace and joy, nor must that deter us from persevering in God’s will to the end and preaching the Good News. Persecution is part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus. We’re not to fight back against it or oppose it, but rather to rejoice that, like the early followers, we’ve been deemed worthy to suffer for the name.
Chastisement and correction are also part and parcel of being a follower of Jesus. How, then, are we to distinguish between persecution and punishment so that we can respond accordingly? When we are persecuted for our beliefs – that is, treated unfairly, mocked, reviled, or even imprisoned or sentenced to death, as Jesus was – we know in our hearts that we have done nothing wrong. Far from being separated from God at these times, we feel even closer to him, even more suffused with his peace and joy. Thus fortified, disciples through the ages have been able to go to their deaths singing glory and praise to God, blessing their executioners and praying to God to forgive those who know not what they are doing, as Jesus taught by his example.
Chastisement and correction, on the other hand, evoke a deep-seated sense of remorse, of something being wrong, of a separation between us and God. This feeling of separation is by far the worst pain, as there is no life, joy or peace outside of living in God’s grace. Followers of Jesus learn (some of us taking longer than others!) to distinguish chastisement from persecution and to take the appropriate steps.
The first thing you do when you sense separation is to ask God what you did wrong, and he will unhesitatingly tell you. It is your responsibility to repent and to make restitution as counseled by God. However, if you ignore the sense of separation or refuse to repent, you will remain separated and in danger of worse chastisement. Most if not all followers of Jesus cannot bear to live without the constant companionship of God’s spirit, so they’ll do whatever it takes to be close to God again.
Persecution, then, brings us a sense of being closer to God and strengthened by him, while chastisement brings us a sense of separation. This is how we can distinguish between persecution and punishment (chastisement). However, as followers of Jesus, we are not to try to avoid either persecution or chastisement, as both are permitted by God for the edification and perfection of our souls.
Tellingly, many self-proclaimed Christian organizations, in union with other religious organizations, condemn persecution and consider it something to be eradicated rather than celebrated. Their persecution watchdogs have chapters and informants the world over, technology ever at the ready to receive reports of the slightest slur that could be construed as an attack against their organization. When, to their barely constrained delight, one appears, the anti-persecution machinery rumbles into action, with tremulous cries of moral outrage and calls for immediate public apology, retraction, and monetary restitution.
But Christians are not the only religious organization to respond this way to perceived “persecution”, which is often not persecution at all but simply an astute pointing out of the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of the organization, including their own culpability in matters of persecution. Contrast this response to perceived persecution to Jesus’ silent endurance of the real thing – the trumped trial, the beatings, the mockery, the public execution by excruciating crucifixion, through all of which Jesus’ only words were of comfort to his followers and prayers of forgiveness for his tormentors. This is the “patience of saints” in action, and we, as Jesus’ followers, are called to respond to persecution as he did.
Jesus was an outcast and an outlaw who died the most ignominious of deaths. Before dying, he informed us that we, as his followers, should expect to be treated the same at the hands of unbelievers. Jesus prayed for us to be protected in the world, not to be removed from it. But when our hour has come, as it will for each one of us, death may hold sway over our bodies but not over our souls.
Unbelievers fear to be dishonored almost as much as they fear death. Their reputation in the world is of utmost importance to them, as is dying a “dignified” or “peaceful” death. Being crucified naked as a criminal would not be top on their list of ways to go, and yet we as followers of Jesus must anticipate that our deaths will be as ignoble as his was, and our reputation among unbelievers as maligned.
The Jewish religious establishment considered Jesus a dangerous madman and a blasphemer against all things sacred. That he was believed in by the masses mattered little to them, as they considered the masses ignorant and of no account. It was with members of the religious establishment that Judas Iscariot made his infamous deal to betray Jesus.
Keep in mind that the religious establishment was also the ruling class. They made and enforced the laws, as there was no ‘separation of church and state’.
Nothing has changed since Jesus’ day. His true followers are still persecuted by the religious and political establishment, most especially by those who masquerade as “Christians”. Sometimes the persecution is made public, as it was for the three centuries following Jesus’ crucifixion, and during the Inquisition, which spanned the years from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries. Most often, though, the persecution is more subtle and closer to home (again, as Jesus promised it would be).
We are to anticipate nothing but problems from unbelievers in the world, yet we are nevertheless to pray for those who mean us harm. This is a directive straight from God. As a former unbeliever myself, I can attest that I persecuted followers of Jesus by mocking and tormenting them emotionally. One such believer was my maternal grandmother, who looked after my sister and I during our school years while both of my parents were at work. I loathed my grandmother inexplicably. Even as a child as young as seven, I yelled at her, disobeyed her, mocked her, cursed at her, stole from her, and made her cry almost daily from the cruel things I’d say to her. But not once did she ever raise her voice at me or treat me badly. Neither, as I found out after her death, did she ever “tell on” me to my parents or to anyone else. She suffered silently, finding comfort in God alone.
In retrospect, I believe my grandmother knew that my behaviour towards her was demon-inspired, and all those times she retreated to her bedroom in tears after one of my horrendous verbal assaults, only to emerge a few minutes later, sniffling, to face yet another barrage from me – all those times, in the privacy of her bedroom, she was praying for me. I was raised an atheist and considered myself to be an atheist up until the moment of my rebirth. Whether or not she would have articulated it that way, my grandmother knew my problems were spiritual, and so she did what she knew she should do: she prayed for me.
At the reception for her held at the funeral home, I found out from some of my cousins that they had likewise treated my grandmother abominably. This surprised me, because she always spoke so glowingly of them, proudly displaying each of their successive school photos on her bedroom dresser and seeming to genuinely look forward to her visits with them. Yet there they were, miserably confessing how rude and disrespectful they’d always treated her, and yet how kindly she had always treated them in return.
Now, being a believer myself, I see my grandmother as the true spiritual matriarch of our family. A humble and poor widow though she was, always deferring to others, she showed us by her actions and by the way she treated others, how to live life as a disciple of Jesus. What she had to learn on earth – her soulwork – is not my soulwork, yet I can still learn from her the most important lesson of all: how to patiently and cheerfully endure in faith whatever comes my way. I have faith that my grandmother has gone to the rest that Jesus promised his followers, and that all her good works have gone with her. I have faith that she will rise on Judgement Day and take her place among the saints who will become, as Jesus promised us, “like the angels”. And while I miss her, I’m happy for her. More than anyone else in my family, she inspires me to be kind, to be cheerful, to be humble, to endure, and to fearlessly stand my ground as a follower of Jesus, no matter how badly anyone treats me because of it.
If she knew I had written this, she’d get flustered and lower her head, shaking it a bit, smiling, not really sure what to say. But her eyes would shine brightly, as they always did. Was she perfect? No, none of us are. Did she make mistakes? Of course, we all do (even Jesus did!). She used to say: Mistakes keep us humble. Did she consciously sin? Only God knows the answer to that. But if she did sin, I believe she worked it out with God well before her death, and that she died the happiest and wealthiest of women, rich in God’s wealth, not the world’s. Having put up with me as her grand-daughter, she’s earned her reward.
I believe that God puts a person of faith into every family as an example of how to live, and these believers are always treated badly by their relatives. This comprises the most common type of persecution nowadays, just as Jesus warned us would happen. Do not be offended by the attacks, but take strength from the persecution by leaning all the more heavily on God.