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Handle hard times

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:10-12

In a recent interview, General Norman Schwartzkopf was asked if he thought we should forgive those who helped perpetrate the atrocities of September 11. His answer: “I believe that forgiving them is God’s function. Our job is simply to arrange the meeting.”

Many Americans resonate with his sentiments. Terrorism has come home to our country. New York City is planning now its memorial to those who were murdered nearly a year ago. The most recent defense budget request includes a $48 billion increase with an additional $14 billion supplement to the 2002 budget, both to fight terrorism. Americans know how persecution feels.

Christians always have. Our Lord assumes that his followers will take risks for their faith. This morning he will teach us what to do when Christianity costs us, and when it does not.

Expect persecution

Jesus’ words are literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and now are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his followers would suffer for their commitment to him. And they did.

They were “insulted” (v. 11), the objects of gossip, slander, and ridicule. Enemies of Christ said “all kinds of evil” against them.

Because they shared a meal which symbolized the body and blood of Christ, they were accused of cannibalism.

Because they called this meal the “love feast” and welcomed prostitutes into their churches, they were accused of sexual perversion.

Because they would not bow before a bust of the emperor and say “Caesar is Lord,” they were accused of atheism and sedition.

Persecution was a daily fact of life for them.

Before he was crucified upside down, the apostle Peter wrote: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Jesus warned his disciples, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).

William Barclay: “All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the most tender parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to lengthen the agony. These things are not pleasant to think about, but these are the things a man had to be prepared for, if he took his stand with Christ” (Matthew 1.112).

Persecution has remained a fact accompanying the Christian faith across all the centuries from their day to ours.

70 million believers have been murdered across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Jesus. More believers were martyred in the 20th century than the previous 19 combined.

Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate our commitment to Christ as Lord. Secular culture does not understand our convictions.

And Satan hates us. Jesus called him “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Peter warned us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

600 years ago Thomas a Kempis observed, “The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead, therefore cease not to prepare thyself for the battle, for on thy right hand and on thy left are enemies who never rest.” He is still right.

Evaluate your courage

If you’re like most of us, you may be a bit uncomfortable right now. It is a biblical fact that Christians should experience persecution for their faith, but many of us in this room do not.

We read about Heather Mercer and Dana Curry and rejoice in their safe return from Afghanistan imprisonment.

We mourn the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall at Columbine, the believers who died at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Martin Burnham’s death this summer while serving as a missionary in the Philippines.

But few of us have ever faced such suffering for our commitment to Jesus. People at school may make fun of us if they learn that we are believers. Co-workers or clients may shun us if we won’t join ungodly activities. We may lose money or status when we refuse dishonesty or immorality. But by and large, we live in a community which expects us to be nominally Christian. Nothing extreme or intolerant, of course. But religion in moderation is accepted and even welcomed.

So I’ve asked myself a hard question this week: why don’t I face more suffering for my faith? If indeed my fallen world is opposed to my commitment to Christ, and if Satan is my mortal enemy, why doesn’t my faith cost me more? In the spiritual battle being waged for the souls of humanity, why don’t we suffer more? Here are the reasons which seem clear to me.

Some of us have withdrawn from the battle. We don’t know many non-Christians. We spend so much of our time in the huddle that we have little contact with the other team. At a previous pastorate, our church was preparing “Friend Day,” each member bringing a guest. But the chairman of our deacons objected: “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go to church.” And the other deacons nodded. We’re no threat to Satan unless we get on his turf.

Some of us look like the enemy. Jesus called us the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). But if we lose our “saltiness” or hide our candle, the world doesn’t feel our salt sting or see our light. We can be one person at church but another at school, at work, at home, with friends. A foot in both worlds. Church language and world language. Church ethics and world ethics. Church masks and world masks. When we look like the enemy we cost Satan nothing. He’d rather leave us where we are.

And some of us are not willing to take a risk. We are engaged regularly with non-believers, and we are willing for them to know of our faith. But only to a point. Only if they won’t be offended if we share Christ with them or invite them to church. Only if they won’t think us strange for our spirituality. Only if we can still be included in the social group we value or still make the money we want or still achieve the social status to which we aspire. We don’t suffer in the battle because we won’t go to the front lines.

Choose to risk

Here’s the relevant question today: why change? What are those of us who don’t risk for our faith missing? Jesus’ last beatitude tells us.

First, suffering believers experience great joy.

We will be “blessed”—joy transcending our circumstances. Jesus told risk-taking Christians to “rejoice.” There is joy in facing persecution for Jesus.

He also told us to “be glad,” words which translate a Greek word which means to leap much with irrepressible joy.

He was right. There is great joy in suffering for Christ. The apostles felt it: “They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:40-41).

Early martyrs felt it. There is an ancient tradition which states that Nero would walk at night on the Coliseum floor, examining the bodies of slain Christians left there. And wherever a body had a face, the face was smiling.

Justin, one of the earliest martyrs, wrote to his accusers: “You can kill us but you cannot hurt us.” Martin Burnham told his wife Gracia the night he died: “The Bible says to serve the Lord with gladness. Let’s go out all the way. Let’s serve him all the way with gladness.” And he did.

Second, suffering believers receive great reward.

Paul was sure of it: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

Martyr Jim Elliott wrote in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Revelation promises those who suffer for Christ: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).

Third, suffering believers join a great fraternity: “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Hebrews described those who suffered for serving the one true God: they were “tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:35-38).

Every disciple but John was martyred, and he was exiled and imprisoned. And 70 million have died since for following Jesus. When we suffer for Christ, we join a great fraternity in the faith.

Last, suffering believers inherit a great kingdom: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The first beatitude made this promise; the last repeats it. When we suffer for Christ we prove that he is our king. And then we join him in his kingdom.

2 Timothy 2:12 promises: “If we endure, we will also reign with him.”

Revelation 20 describes those who stood faithful to Christ in the face of extreme persecution: “They came to life and reigned with Christ” (v. 4).

We will suffer for a short while, and then reign with Jesus in his kingdom forever.

Conclusion

Are you facing risk and suffering for following Jesus? Choose to be faithful, and you’ll forever be grateful. Are you refusing risk and suffering for your faith? It’s not too late to be faithful to the One who is faithful to you.

I learned this week the story of Sundar Singh, one of India’s most famous Christians. He lived from 1889 to 1929, enduring extreme persecution for his courageous faith. His own family tried to poison him when he became a Christian. He was stoned and arrested numerous times; roped to a tree as bait for wild animals; sewed into a wet animal skin and left to be crushed to death as it shrank in the hot sun. He disappeared while on a missionary journey. Indian Christians consider him their Francis of Assisi.

Here’s the statement by Sundar Singh which drew me to him this week: “From my many years experience I can unhesitatingly say that the cross bears those who bear the cross.”

Will you bear yours?