My family would laugh right now if they heard me say that I don’t like bugs, spiders, snakes, or basically creatures of various kinds. They would laugh because that would be such an understatement. In our last house, we had a huge brown recluse problem. I mean, they were everywhere. We found them in drawers, in shoes, on pillows, and a few horrifying times, even crawling on our arms or bellies. After four years in that house, I thought there could be no spider I hated more than a brown recluse. However, my mind has recently been changed.
A couple of weeks ago, I was horrified as a friend told me about a creature of which I had never heard before. Apparently, there is a spider–the wolf spider–who carries its babies on its back. Many, many babies. If you see this spider and take the logical action of stomping on it, you’ll flatten the mama but all those dozens of babies will immediately scatter in every direction. I shudder just typing about it. I had never heard of such a horror, but I actually had two people in different situations mention it to me randomly during the same week. I’m still scared to go to sleep.
I was working as hard as I could to erase the images of wolf spiders from my memory when, during family Bible time, my husband was talking about the book of James and to whom it was written. We were explaining what “the Dispersion” in 1:1 meant, and how the twelve tribes came to be dispersed, when suddenly an image of giant wolf spider popped into my mind. I pictured the Jews in Jerusalem as the mama wolf spider, the persecution of Christians as the mighty stomp, and the surviving Christians fleeing in all directions just like those little wolf spider babies. The name of Christ was scattered far because of that mighty stomp. Though the persecution was fierce and countless believers lost their lives for the sake of Christ, many in gruesome and terrible ways, the kingdom of Christ grew and flourished in new places as a result. And the name of Christ was by no means stomped out.
My thoughts then traveled back home to America in 2016. We’ve heard much about religious liberty and the threat of persecution during this election season. I am so grateful for men like Russell Moore, and the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who spend their days speaking, fighting, and working for religious liberty in the United States. I pray for grace, and for mercy, from the Lord and that we are able to continue worshipping and evangelizing and living out our faith in freedom for generations to come, as long as the Lord tarries.
But I can’t help but ask myself if the church in America is too scared of persecution. If I am too scared of persecution. No one would enjoy being persecuted in one sense, but I recently finished reading The Church History, written by an early church father named Eusebius, and he told story after story of 1st and 2nd century martyrs who rejoiced in their fate. Rejoiced. In being burned at the stake, having limbs sawn off, watching their family members endure like suffering. Can you picture a typical American Christian using the word “rejoice” in relation to being teased for refusing to drink, much less for having their legs cut off?
I also recently finished reading The Insanity of God, by Nik Ripken. This book shook me to my core, and I strongly recommend it to every American Christian. Toward the end of the book, he reflects on all he has seen and written regarding persecution of believers in some of the most difficult environments. He presents the question, “Why are these believers persecuted in such extreme ways?” He then dismisses the most common answers, like ignorance, the need for democracy and civil rights, or the need for tolerance. Allow me to share a rather long quote from his book as he gives the real answer to this question, because I think it is one that every American Christian needs to hear:
None of these suggested answers even comes near the foundational cause of persecution as it relates to the Christian faith. After almost twenty years of walking through this world of persecution and talking to hundreds of believers who suffer for their faith, we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the primary cause of “religious persecution” in the world today is people surrendering their hearts and lives to Jesus.
Think about the implications of this truth. . .
For decades the western church has been taught to pray and work for an end to the persecution of fellow believers around the world. We enlist our congregations, our denominations, and even our governments to speak out and pressure oppressive regimes in hostile nations to end discrimination. Sometimes we even demand that the persectuors be punished.
We seem to forget that Jesus Himself promised that the world would reject and mistreat His faithful followers just as it rejected Him. Could it be that the only way that Almighty God could actually answer prayers asking Him to end the persecution of believers. . .would be to stop people from accepting Christ as their Lord and Savior? If people stopped accepting Christ as Lord and Savior. . .persecutio would end immediately. That would be the only way to completely end persecution. . .
Why is it that millions of the global followers of Jesus who actively practice their faith live in environments where persecution is the norm? The first and most basic answer is that these people have given their lives to Jesus. The second answer is that they have determined in their hearts that they will not keep Jesus to themselves. . .What that means is that, for most believers, persecution is completely avoidable. If someone simply leaves Jesus alone, doesn’t seek Him or follow Him, then persecution will simply not happen. Beyond that, even if someone becomes a follower of Jesus, persecution will likely not happen if the faith is kept private and personal. If a person is silent about their faith in Jesus, the chance of being persecuted is very small. The reason for persecution, then, is that people keep finding Jesus–and then, they refuse to keep Him to themselves. . .
They (and you and I) are just as free to share Jesus today in Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Communist countries as you and I are in America. It isn’t a matter of political freedom. It is simply a matter of obedience. The price for obedience might be different in different places–but it is always possible to obey Christ’s call to make disciples. Every believer–in every place–is always free to make that choice. . .
Believers in persecution would remind us that we are all equally free and equally responsible to share Jesus in every corner of the globe. The question is never, “Am I free to do that?” Rather, the questions is, “Will I be obedient?” Believers in the world of persecution have already decided their answer to that crucial question.
Perhaps some of us have not yet settled the matter. The question we must answer is whether or not we have the courage to bear the consequences of obediently exercising our freedom to be salt and light to all peoples, wherever they live. The consequences for our obedience may be suffering and persecution. Even then, we are free to obey.
These are powerful words. Powerful because they are simple, and they are true. Persecuted believers choose to be persecuted, because they choose to obey. They choose to stand. To not recant. To not hide their light in fear. To not be a hearer only, but to be active, bold doers of the Word. And we in America pity them. Oh, how blind we are.
American Christians rightly pray that our freedoms would continue. But, just as with any other prayer, we must pray this with an open hand, with no fear of what will happen if God says no. Let me share one more provocative passage from Insanity of God:
We are often asked if we believe that persecution is coming to America. My response is often rather pointed. I say, quite sincerely, “Why would Satan want to wake us up when he has already shut us up?” Why would Satan bother with us when we are already accomplishing his goal? His will likely conclude that is is better to let us sleep. . .
Perhaps the question should not be: “Why are others persecuted?” Perhaps the better question is: “Why are we not?”
I cannot forget the words of my friend, Stoyan. . .He said: “I took great joy that I was suffering in my country so that you could be free to witness in your country.” And then he raised his voice to say: “DON’T YOU EVER GIVE UP IN FREEDOM WHAT WE WOULD NEVER GIVE UP IN PERSECUTION–AND THAT IS OUR WITNESS TO THE POWER OF THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST!”
Stoyan had make his own decision long ago. It was settled for him. You and I make the decision each morning: will I exercise my freedom to witness for Jesus today or will I be silent?
American Christians, let’s enjoy our liberty but let’s not rest in it. And let’s not fear it’s removal. Remember what happened when the Christians fled Jerusalem: the church spread and the kingdom grew. Remember what is going on in countries across the globe where persecution is heaviest: the church is growing faster in many of those places than it is in America. The early church father, Tertullian, rightly said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Just like a mighty stomp cannot squash all those baby wolf spiders but instead spreads them until they are impossible to catch, persecution cannot begin to stomp out the kingdom of God. Instead, the flame only burns brighter.
Let’s shake off our apathy and our easy believism and our watered down gospel and start actually living lives of obedience here in America. Let’s let the gospel affect every tiny part of our lives. And if that scares Satan to the point of him aiming some persecution our way, let’s not fear, but rejoice that we were counted worthy to suffer for the sake of Christ.