The Christian faith is counterintuitive in any number of ways, but perhaps none so much as in its perspective on suffering and, particularly, its perspective on suffering persecution. We may see this most clearly in the actions of the apostles who, after being imprisoned and beaten, “left the presence of the council rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
Of course they must not have been surprised to suffer persecution because, as I’ve pointed out in a couple of recent articles, Jesus had told them to expect it and evaluate it. But he did more than that, and he does more than that to us. Jesus tells us to embrace persecution—to embrace it as his will.
I thought of softening “embrace” to “endure.” It’s certainly true that we need to face persecution with patience and perseverance. But Jesus seems to calls us to even more than this. He says we should go so far as to embrace persecution. That’s not to say we should never pray for it to be lifted, or that we should never flee from it, or that we should never turn to the courts where we can appeal for justice, for these may all be good and honorable actions to take. But it does mean that as long as we face true persecution, we should rejoice in it. Jesus says “blessed (or happy) are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” He says even to “rejoice and be glad” in persecution. (Matthew 5:10-12).
Is this really possible? Is this really reasonable? It is! It is because we know that our God is sovereign and that nothing happens apart from his plan, which means that in some way our suffering is God’s will. It’s not a mistake. It’s not meaningless. It’s not nothing. It’s an opportunity to respond to God’s sovereignty with hope, with trust, and with godly character. It’s an opportunity to shine God’s light in the midst of darkness.
6 Reasons to Rejoice in Persecution
We need to consider: How is it possible to rejoice even during something as painful as persecution? Let me offer six reasons you can rejoice and be glad even when persecuted.
The first is this: persecution proves your citizenship. You are a follower of a Savior who was persecuted. Even though he lived a life that was perfect and unblemished, still the religious authorities, the civil authorities, and the common people all turned against him and put him to death. If that was his story, why wouldn’t it be yours? He told you it would be yours. He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” We should expect to suffer like our Savior suffered. In that way persecution is proof of your citizenship in his kingdom, proof of your alignment with Jesus.
And then there’s this: persecution displays your faith. Passing through the test of persecution proves the validity and the strength of your faith. You’ll never know how strong your arms are until you have to lift something heavy, and you’ll never know what your faith is made of until it is put to the test. James says “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life” (James 1:12). Many fall away when their faith is tested; but those who truly love the Lord will persevere and emerge with their faith tested, proven, strengthened. They can rejoice!
Also, persecution shapes your character. In Romans 5 Paul says, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). It takes tremendous heat and pressure to form a diamond deep in the ground and it takes suffering and even persecution to form Christian character deep in your heart. Persecution is a means God uses to conform you to the image of Christ.
There is another reason: persecution equips you for service. Through persecution God is equipping you for deeper service to him. As he writes 2 Corinthians Paul has suffered deeply and this is what he says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…” Why does God offer this comfort? He goes on, “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” He knows that in his suffering he has been comforted so that he can now extend that comfort to others. He has been made more useful to God’s purposes because of this persecution. And that’s true of you as well.
And then there’s a fifth reason: persecution produces communion. In your suffering you experience a deep fellowship with Christ because you are actually joining in his suffering. In the very next verse Paul says this: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). You are being persecuted because you are united to Christ. You are suffering in him and for him and with him. And God meets you in your sorrows, he draws close, and he ministers his comfort to you.
And then there’s still another reason you can rejoice in persecution: persecution provokes longing. It causes you to look forward, to elevate your gaze beyond this world. There is nothing that more clearly shows that this world is not your home than persecution. There is nothing that makes it more obvious that you don’t belong here. And so there is nothing more likely to shift your gaze from the kingdom of this world to the kingdom of heaven. When everything in your life is great, when everyone around you loves and affirms you, it’s easy to say “this world isn’t so bad.” But when you are hated and mocked, you understand: These are not my people. This is not my place.
And if this isn’t, then what is? The kingdom of heaven. Persecution makes you exercise your faith to believe that the kingdom is real and the kingdom is coming and the kingdom is your true and final home. You rejoice that your heart is being uprooted from this kingdom and planted in the kingdom still to come. You rejoice and are glad in all that God has promised and will very soon fulfill.
For these six reasons and many more you can rejoice even when you are being persecuted. God gives you your suffering in trust that you will embrace it and honor him through it—that you will steward it well, that you will pass through it in such a way that you hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
We have just come through a time of suffering that extended across almost the entire globe. Through the pandemic some lost their jobs or had to battle troubling matters of conscience; many got ill or lost loved ones; many had friends or family members turn on them for their decision to accept or reject a vaccine; many were forced into isolation for extended periods of time; some went to prison. We all suffered. I have spoken to some Christians from around the world who are convinced there was an element of persecution in this suffering and to others who are convinced there was not. But whatever your conviction, I think this is worth asking: Did you pass through that time of suffering with joy in your heart? Can you say “in my suffering” or even “in my persecution (if that’s your conviction) I rejoiced and was glad, just like Jesus said?” In this suffering or any other you’ve gone through, can you say you imitated Jesus who: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly?” Or did your joy go into a tailspin? Did you suffer with bitterness, with grumbling, with complaining?
It sure seems likely that there will be more suffering and even persecution in the years ahead. How will you meet it? I know how God tells you to meet it—you are to meet any suffering with confident submission and even the fiercest persecution with rejoicing and gladness. God means for you to emerge from it with your faith not only intact, but strengthened, your joy not only present but amplified. He means for you to marvel like the apostles that “I have been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.” And to rejoice.
Even in your worst suffering, even in your darkest valley, even in the most agonizing persecution, you can rejoice and be glad because God is with you, because God is accomplishing his purposes, because this light and momentary affliction—even if it leads all the way to death—is preparing you for an eternal weight of glory that is far beyond all comparison. And so expect to be persecuted; when it appears to have come, honestly evaluate your persecution; and if you are convinced this is, indeed, suffering for righteousness’ sake, then embrace your persecution as a means through which God is at work for the furthering of his kingdom, the good of his people, and the glory of his name. And rejoice that you have been counted worthy to suffer dishonor, or even death, for his sake.