Wednesday, July 18, 2007

How Should We Live When Suffering for Christ (Part 3 of 6)

Having defined what real persecution is, Peter commands his readers (and us) to “keep on rejoicing.” Again, Peter is affirming what His Lord and Savior taught him. Jesus said:

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” ~ Matthew 5:10-12

To be considered worthy of suffering persecution for the name and sake of the Lord Jesus Christ is a cause for rejoicing. The reason the persecuted Christian should rejoice in his or her suffering is not because joy is found in the suffering. The joy is in knowing that when Christ returns—and His return is imminent—all suffering will come to an end, for those who know Christ, and our joy will be fulfilled and it will last forever. And, like their reward in heaven, the Christian’s joy will be commensurate to the suffering they endured in this life.

Peter uses the word “exultation” to describe the kind of joy the Christian will experience in the presence of the Lord. The Greek word used here “is an intense, expressive term that means to be supremely and abundantly happy—a happiness that is not tentative nor based on circumstances or superficial feelings . . . In the New Testament, [this Greek word] always refers to spiritual rather than temporal joy.”[1]

So, how should we live as followers of Christ who experience suffering and persecution for the sake of His name? We should live as people who count it a privilege to suffer for Christ, knowing that to the extent we are persecuted because of His name we will likewise receive rewards in heaven. Furthermore, the joy that we truly can experience in the midst of persecution in this life is but a foretaste of the incomparable, never-ending joy we will experience when Christ returns and we spend eternity with Him in heaven.

Peter goes on to explain in verse 14 that even if we are reviled, even if we are publicly denounced, even if evil people continue to heap insults upon us because we dare to exult the name of Christ in our behavior and with our voices, we are blessed. Why? The reason is that the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon the hearts, minds, souls, and lives of His children—born again followers of Jesus Christ. And this rest, which settles upon the lives of God’s children, is not a fleeting thing. This rest, which is the kind of rest that provides the Christian relief from toil and refreshment of the soul, is not something that comes upon the believer from time to time, or in an extraordinary way. Rather, the Christian has access, at all times, to the rest found in glorious God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Examine Yourself for the Source of Suffering
Thus far, in determining how we should live when suffering for Christ, we have considered our obligations not to be surprised when persecution comes and to live with an attitude of joy at all times, including times of suffering. But it is also important that we continually examine ourselves to determine, to the extent that we are able, whether or not we are truly experiencing undeserved suffering for the name of Christ, or if we are suffering as a result of sin in our lives. Is our suffering a result of our faith in Christ? Or is our suffering a result of faithlessness in our lives?

In verses 15-18, Peter writes: “By no means let any of you suffer as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God. For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? AND IF IT IS WITH DIFFICULTY THAT THE RIGHTEOUS IS SAVED, WHAT WILL BECOME OF THE GODLESS MAN AND THE SINNER?”

In verse 15, Peter gives us an interesting list of criminal and immoral acts. Peter begins by mentioning two criminal acts, which, in ancient times, were punishable by death—murder and thievery. It’s not that Peter had any expectation that genuine followers of Jesus Christ would commit such crimes. He picked two of the most serious crimes in order to make the point that criminals should not be surprised if they face severe punishment, even death, as the just punishment for their crime. Nor should they attribute severe, judicial punishment to persecution for the name of Christ. Things are going bad in their lives because they are doing bad things. It’s just that simple.

And just to make sure his readers didn’t think too highly of themselves, or try to exempt themselves from what Peter is saying, Peter adds the term “evildoer” to his list. This word, “evildoer,” encompasses any and all criminal acts. Peter used this word earlier in his letter. Peter wrote:

“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” ~ 1 Peter 2:13-15

The apostle John had the same idea in mind when he wrote:

“Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. The one who does good is of God; the one who does evil had not seen God.” ~ 3 John 11

While we all continue to sin, from day to day, the goal of every Christian should be to live life with an attitude and determination that makes us want to flee from sin, not pursue it. Our heart’s desire should be to avoid suffering that comes as a result of our sinful behavior. Unfortunately, I think we all experience times in our lives when we are caught in sin and we try to attribute our suffering to our relationship with Christ, instead of taking responsibility for our sinful acts and accepting the fact that God is allowing us to face discipline and punishment because we have done something wrong and sinned against God.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about—and example that may seem silly at first; but if you give it some thought and are honest, then, like me, you will probably admit that you have done something like this.

You’re in a hurry. You’re heading down the road. You’re driving too fast to see the “Speed Enforced By Radar” sign along the side of the road. You’re not thinking about the fact that you are breaking the law. In fact, you don’t care that you are breaking the law. You’re in a hurry.

Your thoughts of getting to where you need to be are rudely interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a patrol car siren. Your heart skips a beat (because you know you are guilty of breaking the law) and your gaze becomes transfixed on the unsettling image in your rearview mirror. The car is black and white. Red, white, and blue flashing lights atop the car quickly dismiss the momentary delusion that car behind you is not a patrol car.

You pull your car to the right while holding on to the fleeting hope that the officer or deputy just wants you to get out of the way, because he or she is actually after someone else or is on his or her way to an important call. To your chagrin, as you pull to the right, so does the patrol car. You come to a stop and the patrol car stops behind you. Your heart is beating quickly, now.

You watch through your side mirror as the deputy approaches your car. Your mind is moving entirely too quickly as you try to come up with a plan to get out of the ticket you deserve. You’re about to blow it.

“Good afternoon, ma’am (sir).” The deputy politely says with a half-smile on his or her face. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“No.” You lie.

“Do you have any idea how fast you were driving?” The deputy asks.

“No.” You lie again.

The deputy returns to the patrol car. A few moments later the deputy returns with a citation book in hand. The deputy explains the ticket and tells you that by signing the ticket you are not making an admission of guilt (Even though the deputy knows you are guilty. That’s why you are getting a ticket.)

You sign the ticket. The deputy gives you your copy and says something like, “Please be careful.”

As the deputy walks back to the patrol car, your mood changes. The switch of unrighteous indignation is thrown. Your attitude changes from a fearful person who knows they are guilty of breaking the law, to an indignant person who convinces him or herself that you have just been subjected to persecution. How do you justify this way of thinking?

“You know, I have a Christian fish symbol on my rear bumper. In fact, I also have a ‘Caution: Christian on Board’ placard on the rear window and a ‘Know Jesus, Know Peace’ bumper sticker! That deputy pulled me over because I’m a Christian! I’m being persecuted for my faith! I’m going to call the sheriff’s station and complain, and then I’m going to write a letter to the editor of the local paper.”

You drive away having convinced yourself that you are no longer guilty of breaking the law and you can’t wait to tell all of your Christian friends how you suffered for your faith, and how you are willing to sacrifice a couple hundred dollars of your hard-earned money, in order to be persecuted for Christ.

The reality is, if the person in the scenario represents you at any time in your life, you were not persecuted for your faith in Christ. You were held accountable for driving 55 in a 35.

If you find this parable to be outrageous or unrealistic, then you’ve never worked patrol in Santa Clarita, or “Anytown, USA.” Oh, by the way. From one guilty motorist to another, the answer is not to remove the Christian emblems from your car. The answer is to slow down and obey the law.

One more thing: the deputy or officer who gave you the ticket after stopping your Christian billboard on wheels, might have climbed back into his or her patrol car mumbling the word “hypocrite.” Your actions may have just served to justify their unbelief. Granted the officer or deputy remains without excuse, but, in their mind, you may be the excuse they use for not repenting of their sin and trusting Christ for their salvation. Something to think about.

[1] Ibid. p. 41.

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