Over 300 people were killed on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, many of them while participating in Easter worship services. While the sheer number of people killed was tragic, Christians dying for their faith is far from unusual and in fact has been on the rise. According to Open Doors, a ministry serving persecuted Christians, an average of 11 believers are killed per day as a result of their faith. And this only includes the top 50 countries on the ministry’s “World Watch List.” The average may indeed be higher.
Christians in the States may face persecution of some degree, but martyrdom is practically non-existent. Americans rarely die for their faith on US soil. This fact may contribute to the relative weakness of the US church. There is little cost of being a follower of Jesus, particularly if the observance of one’s faith is mainly participating in the activities of a church. There is relatively little to push us to be “all-in” for Jesus because Christianity is accepted by the culture and, more importantly, the government. It is not illegal to own a Bible, to pray, or to gather together for worship. No one risks his/her life to go to church, except in those rare incidents where an unhinged gunman has targeted a place of worship. This is not true in other parts of the world.
I learned this first-hand when I interned with a mission organization serving in then-communist Eastern Europe. It assisted missionaries in delivering banned Christian books to spiritually hungry believers in communist-bloc countries. I traveled that summer from our base in Austria to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany where my naïve American eyes were opened to the realities of following Jesus in an atheistic and hostile spiritual environment. From that time, I recall meeting a young man who was no more than twenty years old. The Eastern Europeans were immensely interested in every aspect of American life and he was no exception. As we conversed, he asked me how the American church sought to reach young people. I half-jokingly mentioned food was one of the biggest draws. I will never forget his expression or his answer. He looked at me with a mixture of shock and disbelief, and then said,
You mean young people in America need to be offered pizza to get them to consider following Jesus or to participate in church? When I was thinking about following Jesus, I knew it was a decision that could cost me my life. I became involved with the church because I loved Jesus and would pay any cost to follow Him.
How many of today’s youth participate in churches and youth ministries solely for the reasons of that young man—they love Jesus and want to follow Him no matter what it costs them? How many of us? Or let us suppose that the Christian faith suddenly fell out of favor with our government and it became physically dangerous to associate with any church. How many of us would have the courage and conviction of that young man to identify as a follower of Jesus?
Jesus warned us this is what we could expect as his followers:
18If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.21 They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. (John 15:18-21 NIV)
Yet, we exist in a very unique time in history where our faith is not yet a threat to the point of imprisonment or death. That may be changing, and it may be a blessing to the American Church. Francis Chan spent several years among the persecuted in India and China and writes in his latest book, Letters to the Church, that he was deeply impacted by the depth of faith of those who met in secret and were constantly under threat of arrest or persecution by the government or people of other faiths. In fact, he writes that pastors in China originally were thrilled by an ease of government persecution and being allowed to construct buildings. Later, however, they became frustrated with the lack of passion they were seeing among their congregations. They were actually glad when the persecution resumed! It reignited the passion for Jesus.
It’s difficult to imagine in our Western minds that suffering is viewed biblically as something positive. Paul even boasted about how much he suffered for Jesus:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. (II Corinthians 11:23b-27 NIV)
The truth is suffering is a part of following Jesus and to be embraced because of its spiritual positives. We don’t go looking for it, but we are to be prepared when it comes to us. And by the looks of things culturally and politically, it is coming. Already we are seeing an erosion of tolerance for basic Christian doctrine, such as the reality of sin and its consequences. If you proclaim disagreement with certain behaviors or beliefs favored by the culture, there is now a price to pay. However, it still falls well short of imprisonment, beatings, and death. But for how long? And are we prepared spiritually for when it does come?
Jesus proclaimed that anyone wishing to follow him needed to pick up his cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24-25) meaning that following him came with a tremendous cost—the denial of self-interest and protection. Before it gets inevitably worse, we should consider if we are willing to pay the price.
© Jim Musser 2019