Preaching through First Peter, I have been thinking about how Christians face persecution. Peter is writing to believers in Jesus who are suffering because of their faith. And he is trying to encourage them to endure in holiness and in hope.
Millions of Christians around the world today face severe persecution, even to death. It is commonly said that there have been more Christian martyrs in the past 100 years than in the whole of Christian history before the 20th century. Such persecution is a reality today.
But not really for most of us, Christians in America today. We face what I think of as soft persecution; the persecution of exclusion and derision, not of physical or mortal harm. In a nation in which about 77% of the population says they are Christian (1), we don’t face persecution for calling ourselves Christian, but rather for the way we live out that faith. For Christians who don’t adopt the ways of our culture at large, who stand out in the midst of it, persecution is rising.
To take only one example, I am writing this on the day after same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania(2), the 13th state which has taken that step. For Christians like me, the pressure to approve of same-sex marriage, and of homosexuality in general, will be increasing. My understanding of homosexual acts as sins will no doubt get me in trouble at some point. I doubt I will be physically harmed, but I will probably be maligned, and my pastoral work called into question by some. It is this persecution of exclusion and derision that Peter’s readers faced too. What does he tell them?
Be holy, as God is holy. As Christians who seek to follow Jesus in everything in our lives, we are going to stick out. We won’t be able to agree with everything our culture does. We will find ourselves on the fringe a lot. Not in everything, of course. But our measure of what we should believe and do is God’s holiness, not the opinions of the world.
Endure suffering, whatever it is. Jesus was maligned. He was killed. Yet he endured. Why? Because God was up to something greater. Jesus’ goal was not his own life or reputation; it was to do the will of his Father. And oddly, that meant Jesus’ death of the cross. Our goal in our own lives is likewise that of the Father, not our own lives or reputations. We are to take the offensive in being faithful, not becoming defensive of ourselves.
Hope. Jesus died, but he also rose. And as he rose, we too shall rise. As Christians, our lives have opened up to eternity. We see far more ahead than behind. We live, even though we die. Yes, our faithfulness may bring us trouble in this life, but we do not need this life as do those who only have this life. Though we may suffer today, there is a vast tomorrow in which there will be no suffering, but only glory.
Enduring in holiness and hope. That is how we stand in persecution. Let’s begin practicing today, so we are ready for what is to come.