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Suffering, endurance and hope

CMS worker M, with his wife L, work in SE Asia and have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties and sufferings of many believers there. Here M challenges us to see suffering in the light of future hope and the call for perseverance.

In our country, like many in South East Asia, Christians have experienced significant persecution and suffering for their faith. Countries like the one where we work seem to be ’open’ to many. It’s a great tourist destination, and part of the World Trade Organisation with its mandated charter of human and religious rights. Yet away from the prying eyes of the outside world new believers are still physically beaten, economically impoverished, physically restrained and may be forced to recant their faith. Often this is because of community pressure put on their family. Loss of face by the family of a new believer is significant. Describing their believing adult child as having a mental breakdown is more acceptable than they have become a believer in God and effectively, in their eyes, turning their back on their culture and family.

Most existing pastors here have suffered significantly and many older house church pastors remember their “prison seminary” where they learn the truths that would give them the courage to stand firm. They remember how times of revival helped the Christian community before significant crackdown. However, the heavy handed “smash” phase of persecution, through coercion and violence, is being superseded by a strategy of the slow squeeze of community opposition and containment of the church by the arbitrary and complicated control of the authorities. In the eyes of the state apparatus of many countries, a “peaceful revolution” is being staged by America and the West under the cover of human rights and democracy, in which the church in particular is being used to divide their community. So, with the looming curtailed freedoms and significantly increased surveillance on Christians by our large Northern neighbour, the older pastors wonder whether their younger counterparts will survive what may come in the future.

It is interesting how living and reading with another community clarifies some things in the word of God. A surprisingly large percentage of the Bible is written in contexts where God’s people are persecuted. In these contexts it is not simply the suffering that is endured by all humanity due to sin but suffering for righteousness and the gospel’s sake. In the New Testament, this was the normal expectation of the Christian life. Luke describes it in Acts. Peter calls on us to rejoice in it. Paul experienced it through out his experience of mission and he died clinging to the presence of the Lord Jesus in all likelihood in a cold empty dungeon.

Persecution and hope

 

The context of South East Asia in which we minister and read the scriptures with others has forced us to think about the relationship between persecution and our hope. As well as the link between suffering and mission. Although this may seem an academic discussion for a softly raised Westerner, maybe there is something for us to learn as even the heat of persecution in the West slowly rises.

Down through the centuries of Christian experience there have been three basic responses to Christians to suffering caused by our adherence to the gospel of Jesus: strategies of survival that are aimed at passively maintaining the core activities of our lives of faith, strategies of confrontationally bearing witness anyway, and lastly, strategies of leaving either physically or by living the life of a secret believer.[1] These are heart wrenching choices and in our context where persecution is real and often subtle and personal. Let us tell you a friend’s story.

A friend’s story

Our friend had been converted in a refugee camp after fleeing one of the many wars here. When he and his wife made the decision to come home rather than apply to be resettled elsewhere, they came back full of enthusiasm for the gospel. As is the custom, they moved in with his parents, who as business owners and were people of means. They purchased a home for them nearby, but it came with a catch. Recant your faith and you can have the house. Continue with this foreign faith and you are on your own.

They chose the latter and moved into what he described as a pauper’s house, with no running water and no toilet. They spent 6 months there with a young son until he found work. During that time the family tried to manipulate his wife to try to get her to persuade him to see sense.

Later they moved to a tourist area with others who had returned from the same refugee camp where they sold rice to survive. But their singing of praises came to the notice of the local authorities and they were arrested and paraded as criminals in front of the neighbourhood. When one of their group was arrested on another occasion, he died in police custody that night.

So, what kept them going through these dark times? He said that the prayers of God’s people and the fellowship of others going through the same trials helped them to stand firm. He said that keeping focused on Jesus helped and that John 15:18 became very important to him. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” He said it helped him keep perspective on what was happening to him and his young family.

Encouraging those who suffer

When we talk to people about how to encourage those suffering deeply from persecution from those they love, surprisingly they don’t initially talk about their eternal hope. Our friend says it is his privilege to stand beside others who are going through similar difficult times, to empathise with them and to pray. But, he does not explicitly speak of hope. Yet, if you get people to share the Scriptures that were helpful during that time they come back with passages like Matthew 5:11-12, 2 Timothy 2:11-12 and James 1:12 – all passages saturated with our end-of-time hope of reigning and being with Christ. The hope they hold onto enables and encourages them as they experience awful trials in this life. The experience of suffering fades away as their certain hope of being with Jesus grows. Or to see it from another angle: the glory of God and the hope of our future with him are made so much greater – because of our sufferings here.

The power of perspective cannot be underestimated when it comes to enduring persecution. In 2014 on a Libyan beach twenty one young Egyptian Christian men where given the choice to deny Jesus and live or die through a very public beheading. They chose faithfulness to Jesus and sang hymns up until the swords made their mark – no doubt because of an all encompassing perspective of the glory of Jesus and their eternal home with him.

The spiritual benefit of persecution

But, before we get to the role of mission and persecution, it is worth reflecting on a thing we sometimes miss in Australia – the spiritual benefit of persecution.  It is not just the eternal perspective that revolutionised those in persecution, but it is transformation that takes place in the journey. Our friend said as he looks back on his hard time of suffering, it was a time when he was more prayerful and more reliant on God and for that he is thankful. Not all pastors who went through the harrowing persecution of previous days came out triumphantly but many did, knowing the deep and all encompassing trust and prayerfulness that is often bred in suffering. For the faithful, the experience of suffering does not defeat them or deflate God’s goodness but on the contrary enables them to experience the strength and provision of God, which in turn transforms them.

In addition, the Scriptures teach that the road of mission is paved with suffering. The “secret of missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die. Suffering and service, passion and mission belong together, both in Jesus experience and in that of his disciples”.[2] A recent study of religious persecution in 26 countries around the world found that evangelicals, as is the case in our own area, were the ones in the bullseye of persecution. The study further showed that persecution has become an active tool used by those in power to try and limit the growth of churches and their outreach. Yet, in so many cases these very limitations have had the opposite effect. Churches have multiplied by a factor of 12 in the last four decades in our region through aggressive evangelism and gritty perseverance.

People report that faithfulness in persecution opens doors for the message of hope. Our friend above eventually saw his parents come to be believers. Some have said to us with tears in the their eyes that after coming to faith they love their families even more. They don’t talk of escaping suffering but wanting to endure it for the sake of sharing their hope. Prison stories abound of how captors have warmed to the persistence, compassion and hope of those they once bound and beat. After a significant crackdown in one location one man reported: “After many interrogations the officers got to know we were not dangerous people and sometimes became curious about our strong faith”.

A young church planter working with factory workers asked us recently – how can I tell people the gospel knowing that it will bring certain persecution? Our answer: what else can we do – our Lord Jesus alone has the words of eternal life? (John 6:68)

GO

Have you counted the cost? Go to https://www.cms.org.au/get-involved/become-a-missionary/ and begin a conversation with CMS about what mission will mean for you and for the kingdom.

Further reading

Be reminded of why CMS is committed to persevering in mission. CMS International Director Peter Rodgers speaks of bringing the never-changing gospel to an ever-changing world here: https://www.cms.org.au/2018/02/never-changing-gospel-ever-changing-world/

[1] Philpott, Daniel, and Timothy Samuel Shah. Under Caesar’s Sword How Christians Respond to Persecution. 2018.

[2] Taylor, William David, Antonia Van der Meer, and Reg Reimer. Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution, and Martyrdom. Pasadena, Calif: William Carey Library, 2012.