Many Christians in the West are concerned that our secular societies are becoming more inhospitable to Christian faith and practice. We often feel persecuted. In no way do I want to minimize the headwinds we’re now facing in the countries that formerly constituted Christendom. But to get desperately needed perspective, we must listen to the voices of believers in parts of the world where the opposition is much more pervasive and often takes the form of violence. This is the situation for Christians in large swaths of Asia—East, South, and West. They are indeed learning what the words of our Lord mean:
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11–12, NIV)
Christians in the West seldom have to test these important words of Jesus in the way our brothers and sisters in Asia have. Chinese Christians in particular have had reason in recent years to rely on this promise of Jesus.
There are at least four things to learn from these verses.
Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church
Hannah Nation & Simon Liu
“If we want revival in our communities, then let us learn from those being revived.”
For many Western Christians, the experience of suffering and persecution is remote. For Chinese Christians, on the other hand, persecution is a regular aspect of the Christian life. If a Christian from the West was transported to a Chinese house church, the topic of suffering would be ever–present in preaching and conversation. With decades of persecution under the thumb of the Chinese Communist Party and a rich theology of suffering, the Chinese house church movement has much to contribute theologically to the global church.
In Faith in the Wilderness, editors Hannah Nation and Simon Liu pull together the insights of the Chinese Church for the West. These sermonic letters from Chinese Christians will awaken readers to the reality of the gospel―the ground of our hope―in the midst of darkness. Readers will be convicted, encouraged, and edified by the testimony of these Chinese Christians.
1. ‘Blessed are you when people insult you.’
Not “Blessed are you if people insult you.” Every beatitude is a characteristic of a Christian. Every Christian must be poor in spirit, or you’re not a Christian; every Christian must hunger and thirst after righteousness, or you’re not a Christian. This is the last of the Beatitudes, which means Jesus assumes that if you’re a Christian, you will be persecuted. If you’re living consistently with Christianity, you will experience some kind of loss, some pushback, some opposition (see 2 Tim. 3:12 for confirmation of this interpretation: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted”).
2. We are only blessed if the persecution is ‘because of me [Jesus].’
Not “because of you.” Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 4:15: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler.” The word translated “meddler” is an amazing Greek word. It means to be a busybody or to be tactless. What Peter and Jesus are saying is, if you’re talking about your Christian faith in a feckless way, a tactless way, an abrasive way, an insensitive way, a culturally inappropriate way, and people oppose you, don’t say, “I am being persecuted for Jesus’s sake!” No, you are being persecuted for your sake. If you’re being obnoxious, the promise of blessedness doesn’t hold.
3. Persecution because of Jesus results in praise for the Father.
Here is one way to determine whether you’re being persecuted for Jesus’s sake or for your own sake:
You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:13–16, NIV)
Some people will look at your life and faith and persecute you; others will look at that same life and will “praise your Father in heaven.” Some non-Christians will respond with hostility, while others will be attracted by your life and persuaded by your testimony.
I propose that this is a great way to test ourselves. If we are only persecuted and few or no people are finding faith or being attracted to Jesus through us, then we’re likely being persecuted for our tactlessness.
If we are never persecuted, then we’re likely compromising or being too quiet about our faith. But if both of those things are happening—if you are persecuted and your testimony is bearing fruit—you’re in a sweet spot. Speaking the truth without love will only bring opposition; being loving without insisting on the truth is cowardice. One of the most worrisome things about the church in the West is that we are not seeing much persecution or attraction, and surely that is an indictment.
4. We can experience the promise of blessedness through meditating on Jesus.
Finally, how do we get the blessedness that Jesus says comes if you’re persecuted for his sake?
That blessedness is a fascinating promise. It means the Holy Spirit will rest on you in a special way. It means his character will come into your life and be created, and it will shape you in a special way. It likely also means that you will see some people attracted to Jesus because of, not in spite of, the persecution.
But I suggest you not be passive, that you actively go in prayer to God during times of persecution to seek the joy, love, and courage you need. One way to do that is to meditate on Jesus in the following way.
If we are only persecuted and few or no people are finding faith or being attracted to Jesus through us, then we’re likely being persecuted for our tactlessness.
Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus “emptied himself” of his glory. The King James Version translates these verses to say that Jesus, even though he was equal with the Father, “made himself of no reputation.” He had glory, and he had honor. He had the name, but he became rejected. He was shamed, humiliated—voluntarily. Crucifixion was not only a way to execute people. It was intentionally the most humiliating and ignominious death the Romans could come up with. Death on a cross was a dishonorable death. That means Jesus died in absolute shame so that you and I will not die in shame. We are going to have a name that lasts forever. Our names are written in heaven, inscribed in God’s book. We are going to live with honor and glory forever because Jesus experienced shame and humiliation.
Now if you take a little hit to your reputation, if you get persecuted a little bit, knowing what Jesus did for you, can you bear that shame, knowing that he took the ultimate shame so that you could have the ultimate honor? Yes—if you meditate on Jesus’s humiliation, the blessedness that comes will help you to endure your own humiliation.
This is a sobering message. But look—it ends in joy. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus says. Why? “Because great is your reward in heaven.” Look at that hope and know you have the name that will never perish. Know you have an honor and a glory that will never fade. There’s a note of this joy that runs throughout the testimonies and reflections in Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church.
In early 2020, I witnessed this joy firsthand as thousands of Chinese house church Christians met in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. While they gathered to encourage one another with gospel hope in the face of growing persecution, cases of COVID-19 broke out across their cities back home. They returned to China not in fear but with bold hope, knowing their home abides in the heavenly city, which cannot be destroyed.
Let us learn from the witness of our Chinese brothers and sisters so we can stand fast all the better as we face trials wherever we live.