Suffering for Jesus

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

'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.'

(Matthew 5.10-12)

It’s possible to think that you’re suffering for being a Christian when in reality you’re suffering for being a moron or worse. In recent years there have been prominent examples of Christians fighting for apparently Christian values, when all they were doing was being pointlessly antagonistic. Nothing about this final beatitude indicates that Christians should 'suffer' for such trivial things as the right to wear Christian jewellery (a story from a few years back), or consider themselves a persecuted minority if they’re vilified for holding up obscene placards opposing things they dislike in society (see the Louis Theroux documentaries on America's most hated family).

Jesus is very specifically speaking about suffering ‘for righteousness’ sake’ or ‘on my account’.

However, the difficult reality is this: that anyone who truly embodies Christlikeness, and whose life is a living example of these beatitudes, will be truly counter-cultural and will be hated by some as a result. Why? First, because this is spiritual warfare, which means that resistance to Christ and Christians does not need to be rational; it often doesn’t make any sense! Second, because the more Christlike you become, the more people find their consciences are aggravated by you. That’s what Peter describes in his first letter. He says that since we no longer join in with all the stuff we used to do, ‘With respect to this they [non-Christians] are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you’ (1 Peter 4.4). Third, the gospel message that we tell people is downright offensive. Nobody wants to hear that God hates their sin, and that there’s nothing they can do about it except believe in Jesus, and that if they don’t they are in real danger.

Hence, Jesus very clearly promised that his followers would experience some hostility and even hatred. ‘If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’ (John 15.19). 

In the light of this, our danger is not so much that we’ll cause unnecessary offence by being stupid or nasty. It’s more likely that we’ll try and conform in order to avoid being disliked. This is motivated by three fears.

1. Fear of man. We’re hardwired for approval from others. And approval is big business, all the way from the shallow celebrity culture to the ‘peer-reviewed’ world of academia in which acceptance and praise is everything. No part of life is not touched by this need for approval. And this is heightened by the reality of the global village in which we now live. It is more and more the case that there is a range of behaviour and belief that is considered 'normal', and anything that strays outside of that range is eccentric or weird. Unfortunately, Christianity is weird.

2. Fear of rejection. Just as we’re hardwired for approval, we’re also hardwired for belonging. We long to belong. Nobody wants to be a social outcast.

3. Fear of loss. We all want certain things in life; comfort, success, advancement. That can cause us to curtail who we are in order to conform and get ahead. I know of very real examples of Christians who, after standing up for what they believed, experienced blocks in their career. 

And yet, Jesus is calling us to be people who are faithful to him and will accept suffering in his name. He also says that we’re blessed if we do. Why? Three reasons.

1. Suffering for Jesus proves your faith is real 

Jesus says, ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. It echoes the first beatitude, that the poor in spirit are blessed 'for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'. Why the repetition? Because, like two matching clasps at either end of a necklace, the beatitudes have come full circle in completing the description of the true believer. If being poor in spirit is the way in to the Christian faith, then suffering for Jesus is the true mark of a Christian.

Why is this such an important mark? Because it reveals whether you’ve truly seen it. You see, there are a number of reasons people are attracted to church that do not, in themselves, mean that they are genuine Christians. People are drawn to the community life. They are drawn to the sense of transcendence. They are drawn to the ordered religious life. But if none of this makes you a Christian, then how can you know if you truly believe? The answer must be that you are willing to suffer for Jesus. That shows that you’re not just in it for the convenience and surface benefits.

The Bible honours those whose faith has compelled them to accept suffering. In Hebrews 11.36-38 the author describes people who have been physically abused, poor, and homeless because of their faith. What could possibly motivate a person to accept such a lifestyle? The answer is in the same chapter: ‘But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city’ (Hebrews 11.16). In other words, they could endure any amount of suffering in this life because they had seen something better. 

Conversely, those who are not willing to suffer for Jesus only prove that they do not really believe in him or his promises.

2. If you suffer for Jesus you will receive a reward

Again, Jesus is very clear about this. ‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…’ (v.12). But as Christians we can be very uncomfortable about the idea of rewards. Why?

(i) We’re uncomfortable with rewards because they do not seem to be a godly motivation. If you were to ask a doctor why they do what they do, you expect some do-gooder answer like ‘I want to help people’. But if they turn and say ‘For the money’ your first thought might be, ‘Well better get out of the NHS then’ and your second thought might be, ‘You’re not as good a doctor as I thought! You’re motive is so low!’

People think the same way about rewards in the Christian life. They think, ‘Surely we should do right for its own sake!’

I would simply answer, let’s not try and be more godly than Jesus, shall we? The Bible is clear that it was the promise of his reward that compelled him to go to the cross (see Hebrews 12.2). If Jesus also promises us rewards then we need to pay attention.

(ii) The idea of rewards sounds like a denial of grace. If by grace we mean ‘unmerited favour’, then rewards seem to be the very opposite, something you earn from God. But that is a misunderstanding of grace and of rewards. The Bible never leads us to think that God is not interested in our lives or that the way we live makes no difference to him. And furthermore, whatever rewards God lavishes on us will be of grace since they will not be proportional to our good works.

(iii) Rewards are also hard to get our heads around because they seem so ethereal, so mystical, so difficult to imagine. This is because we’ve inherited a view of eternity in heaven that is so detached from the life we now live (think clouds and harps) so that rewards are incomprehensible to us. Do we get a gold-plated harp if we suffer for Jesus? No, we need to hear again the kinds of promises Jesus gives: treasure, ruling cities, and so on. In many ways, the rewards of heaven are the kinds of things we pursue on earth, but enhanced and made perfect. That is because Jesus is going to give us lives on this planet for eternity enjoying creation, working, ruling, leading, and generally experiencing life as it was meant to be.

And so, when Jesus says ‘Rejoice…’ in anticipation of future rewards, he really means just that: be happy when you suffer for him! Why? Because if we get miserable then we’re telling everyone around us that we don’t actually believe Jesus, that we don’t believe we’ll be rewarded.

3. In suffering you will get your name in the hall of fame

‘For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you’ (v.12). There is special honour in the Bible for those who suffer for Christ.

It seems that the more faithful we are, the more we suffer. Being faithful to Jesus brings suffering with it. This is clear in Scripture and in history.

But this is why in Hebrews the author, after describing the sufferings of those who were faithful to God, says that they were those ‘of whom the world was not worthy’ (Hebrews 11.38). This is God’s assessment of them! He looks on them as his greatest children! A couple of verses later they are described as ‘so great a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12.1). It seems to me that God bestows a special honour on those who suffer for him. The same will be true for us.

When we think of the fears that would cause us to conform — fear of man, fear of rejection, fear of loss — we should also think of Jesus who faced down these fears and experienced the full brunt of suffering. He was treated cruelly by men, rejected, despised, and lost everything, even his life. But as we look at Jesus suffering for us we know two things: (1) I can’t suffer more than Jesus has suffered for me. (2) I can’t lose in the end. Since God ultimately raised Jesus from the dead and thoroughly vindicated him, that is the guarantee that he will also be true to his word and save us through the trial.