One of the most intimidating things Jesus taught was that, as his followers, we should expect to be persecuted. And one of the most surprising things he taught was that, when we encounter such persecution, we should face it with joy. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12). In Dustin Benge’s book The Loveliest Place, I read a brief explanation of what Jesus means by these words, and in that explanation an interesting application: True persecution will lead to true rejoicing.
Benge says, “There is a paradoxical mystery within the words ‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.’ Rejoice while suffering? Be glad amid ridicule? How can this be? This mystery is unveiled in the depth of our unyielding assurance that being with Jesus in glory will far more than reward us for any suffering we have faced in this life.” This was what Paul meant to communicate to the church in Corinth when he wrote his famous words of assurance: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18).
It is our faith that sustains us in these times of persecution and our faith that gives us joy.
Our rejoicing and gladness proceed from faith in the unseen realm of eternity. The same faith that accepts Jesus Christ as Lord. The same faith that transforms us from one degree of glory to another. The same faith that stares our persecutors in the face and prays, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” These persecutions are “preparing for us” or “bringing about” an “eternal weight of glory.” The reward is out of this world, for Jesus is preparing it. To “be glad” is to enjoy a state of utter happiness and well-being. “Rejoice” is similar in meaning to being glad but is more intense. This denotes extreme gladness and extreme joy. Both these verbs in the Greek are present tense. Jesus is commanding his followers to be consistently and continually joyful and glad amid suffering and persecution.
We can rejoice even in terrible persecution because we have the faith to look ahead—to look ahead to see an eternity that, when compared to the minuscule amount of time we are called to suffer, is vast and boundless. We set our hearts and our hope on what is unseen yet completely certain.
Benge continues with an important application: “Jesus’s command to rejoice in the face of persecution leaves no room for the church to stagger into self-pity and dejection. Far too many of us are known more for our whining and complaining than for our rejoicing and gladness. Self-pity spoils the garments of Christ’s bride and defaces her beauty. The only acceptable responses to persecution are joy and celebration, with the firm assurance that our treasure resides in heaven, not in this temporal world.”
God never permits us to sink into self-pity or to shake our fists to the skies. He does not permit us to whine and complain when we face circumstances that have been decreed by his providence. Rather, he calls us to be joyful even in suffering. “Paul shows us that our joy, as believers yet in this world, is always mingled with sorrow. Believers should be ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing’ (2 Corinthians 6:10). We are sorrowful at the condition of the hearts of our persecutors while rejoicing that we are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
So working backward, here is what I think we ought to consider: If we are experiencing some kind of trial, we may be able to judge whether we are being persecuted for our Christian faith by our response. If we respond to our trial with whining and griping, we are either facing persecution wrongly or perhaps not actually facing persecution at all. It could be that we are suffering the consequences of sin or being punished because of our rebellion against authority. It could be that we are provoking unbelievers to anger because of our poor behavior. It could be that God is chastising us for our unrepentant sin. It could be that we are not being persecuted at all.
However, if we experience hardship at the hands of men—suffering, trials, injustices—and find our hearts rejoicing rather than embittered, thankful rather than spiteful, satisfied rather than grumbly, we may well take this as evidence that we are suffering persecution and being filled with God’s Spirit to endure it well, to endure it for his glory. In that way, we can know we are being persecuted by our joyful response.