For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
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Thursday, May 3, 2018

What I've Learned from the Suffering Church

I was a teenager and went to a special event at the Lutheran church I attended. The pastor introduced the guest speaker who came forward, took off his shoes, and immediately sat down in a chair on the platform. Picking up the microphone he said, "I hope you will excuse me for taking off my shoes and sitting down this evening. When I was in prison the guards would frequently beat my feet. Wearing shoes or standing for any length of time is very painful for me." With that, Richard Wurmbrand began describing his life as a pastor in Romania under Communist rule. I was sure that he was leaving out the most horrific details, but what he chose to include in his talk was more than enough to make an impression. I looked around the room and wondered how many people would have renounced their faith in order to escape what he went through.

It was my first experience with the suffering church. Before that moment, "suffering church" meant little to me. As an American living in the land of the free, suffering for the faith meant little more than enduring a sermon that ran five minutes too long or sitting in pews that lacked padding. The things this man spoke about were far beyond my understanding. It piqued an interest in me, not of morbid fascination with torture and suffering, but of what these believers learned and went through as a result of persecution.

In America, the "rock stars" of the faith are the mega-church pastors. They write books, speak at large conferences, and receive large incomes. Granted, some of these pastors choose to live relatively humbly, but others live flamboyant lifestyles proclaiming that their extravagance is a sign of the blessing of God.

In contrast, in the early church, the heroes were those who had suffered. Martyrdom, while not to be sought after, was considered to be a badge of honor. Discipleship was about learning to be faithful to Christ regardless of the circumstances. Loss of job, exclusion from social groups, jail, and beatings were the frequent schools by which endurance was learned.

In the years since my first exposure to the suffering church, I have had the opportunity to meet others who have been persecuted for their faith. I have read many books about the persecuted church. With every story I have grown in my relationship with Jesus and have been challenged to pray for my suffering brothers and sisters around the world.

Here are some of the most important things I have learned:

The Reality of Jesus and the Power of the Holy Spirit to Sustain Faith
Having been raised in a Christian context, there were moments when I wondered if the reason I believed the gospel was because everyone else around me did. What would happen if I were put in a position where following Christ meant imprisonment or death? The book of Acts tells us that Christ-followers were at times beaten (Acts 5:40-42) but that did not stop them from proclaiming the truth about Christ. Being thrown in prison did not intimidate them from continuing to witness (Acts ) and at times their imprisonment meant times of worship and witness (Acts 16:23-25) and the spread of the knowledge of Christ (Philippians 1:12-14). The martyrdom of others just seemed to embolden their witness (Acts 8:1-4). But that is in the Bible. One expects to find heroes in the Scriptures.
People who have experienced persecution like they did in Acts have been driven deeper into their relationship with Jesus. They testify of the presence of Christ in the midst of intense suffering. They were persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8). They are witnesses of the living Christ who sustained them in their time of greatest trials. They have shared in his sufferings and know the power of the resurrection (Philippians 3:10). Their experience strengthens my faith.

The Importance of the Scriptures
Paul writes that "faith come from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). The importance of the Bible in sustaining faith in times of persecution is affirmed again and again in the testimonies of those who have undergone persecution. Paul and Silas encouraged one another through the singing of psalms. Believers in the suffering church have a tremendous hunger for the Word. They copy it by hand if necessary. They memorize it. They will take great risks to obtain it. It is the bread they eat to give them endurance.

Of particular importance in the days of trial are the words of Scripture that have been hidden in the heart through memorization. The memorized Bible is a library that cannot be removed by the persecutors. With days and years of endless suffering in jail, the Word hidden in the heart becomes incredibly important. Of course, the time to memorize the Bible is before the hour of trial, not before!
The Scriptures give the persecuted Christian endurance and courage to remain faithful when denying Christ would make life easier. The enemy is trying to destroy them by offering them ease. Like Jesus in the wilderness, they battle him with the Word of God (Matthew 4:1-11). The Evil One does battle in different ways, sometimes with persecution but often with the allurements of this world if we simply deny or disobey Christ. Why do we often think that the Bible is relatively unimportant in our daily lives? Why do we neglect memorizng it? Our Lord has told us that being in the Word day and night is essential to success (Psalm 1).

The Ability to Forgive and Love
One of the most amazing things to learn from those who undergo suffering for the faith is that they find that they can forgive and love their enemies. The excruciating pain of torture is fertile ground for anger and resentment. Watching others die can lead to bitterness and rage. Yet Jesus commands his followers to forgive, love, and pray for those that persecute them (Matthew 5:43-48). Stories abound of captors who have been converted in large part because of the ability to forgive.

Corrie ten Boom tells of meeting one of the concentration camp guards after the war. As this man, who was in part responsible for her suffering and her sister's death came towards her, she was angry, but then made an amazing discovery. In her own words, "Even as the angry vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord, Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him...Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness...And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world's healing hinges, but on His. When he tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself." (The Hiding Place).

I have not suffered like Corrie ten Boom. But the testimony of those who have endured persecution and forgiven their enemies makes me pause and consider why I am holding petty grudges in my heart. If they can forgive so much, shouldn't I forgive the the little things that I "suffer"?

The Frivolity of Much of What is Considered Important
Persecution boils life down to the bare essentials: Praying for daily bread. Forgiving and loving others. Witnessing about Jesus. Humble serving. Meditating on the Word. These things are important. The suffering believer knows that real joy does not come from the things of this world, but from enjoying fellowship with Jesus. The result? Contentment and freedom to truly follow Christ.

One of the stories coming out of Syria is of a group of believers who prayed and fasted about whether they should flee or remain in Syria as witnesses of the gospel. They decided to stay. The seriousness of their decision led to an agreement to pool their money and buy a small plot of land for the days to come. It would be the graveyard where they would bury each other.

One of those believers writes, "There is remarkable freedom in having no expectations, no plans for tomorrow. The question I and many others start every day with is this: 'Jesus, what do you have planned for me and my family?' Only today matters. Only how I live for Jesus counts. Everything else is superficial. When I hand my life over to my Lord, knowing each day may be my last on earth, I am more at peace than ever before." (Killing Christians, Tom Doyle p. 42).

This is what Paul was talking about when he spoke of being content in all circumstances. (Philippians 4:11-12). He knew times of plenty and times of hunger. He stood in palaces and slept in prison cells. He was unafraid, even though he knew that suffering and imprisonment awaited him (Acts 20:19-24).
The reality of their physical lives is not one that we would choose, but the depth of their relationship with Jesus is something that we should all want. I am challenged to remember that this world is passing away and that true joy cannot be found on Amazon, but only in Christ (1 John 2:15-17).

The Importance of One Another
The suffering church also teaches us the importance of our relationships with other believers. Paul gives thanks for the encouragement that he received in prison (Philippians 4:10-20). He writes to the Corinthians about the persecution that he endured and asks for their support in prayer (2 Corinthians 1:8-11). In fact, one of the fundamental activities of the church in Acts is gathering to pray together, especially during seasons of persecution. When Peter and John were called before the Council and ordered not to talk about Jesus any more, the church gathered and prayed that they would speak all the more boldly and that God would confirm his message with miracles (Acts 4:23-31). When James is martyred and Peter is arrested, the church gathered together and prayed (Acts 12:12).

One cannot read the stories of persecution, both in history and currently, without noticing how persecution pushes believers towards one another. It strengthens their relationships and drives them to their needs in prayer. The intensity of their fellowship with God and one another is an example of what God intends for his people.

Our brothers and sisters in the suffering church need our prayer and practical support. But perhaps even more, those living "in freedom" need the wisdom that comes from intimacy with the Lord which those in the suffering church can share with us.

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