Suffering: Through The Lens of Acts

bt-suffering

Is suffering persecution normal for a Christian?

Suffering persecution should be expected for any believer who practices Christianity. Though it mainly occurs in areas outside of the United States, it still does occur in the US in forms other than imprisonment and death. For example, Christians are becoming more and more targeted for their stances on social issues. They are being ridiculed and mocked by those who believe science and religion are incompatible. And Christians are increasingly belittled by those who do not understand the Bible.

Is this normal?

The entire book of Acts was written from Luke’s account. In it, he gave the validation of the Christian church’s mission from Christ Himself and also detailed the shaky beginnings of the Christian church. Apostles are dying[1], questioned and imprisoned[2], and being persecuted[3]. Truth is, this was to be expected. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were still very much against the notion of Jesus and certainly had a very negative outlook on the early church. In Acts 23, Paul is being questioned by the Ananias when he says that he has served God’s will to which the high priest smacks him across his mouth[4]. This strike from Ananias was in line with a later tradition in which strikes could be used to defend God’s honor[5].

Suffering persecution is a mandate of the Christian faith. So much so that Christ foreshadows and expounds on it when He says: “God will bless you when others hate you and won’t have anything to do with you. God will bless you when people insult you and say cruel things about you, all because you are a follower of the Son of Man. Long ago your own people did these same things to the prophets. So when this happens to you, be happy and jump for joy! You will have a great reward in heaven.”[6] Not only was persecution to be expected according to Jesus, but it should considered a blessing to suffer for the sake of Christ. The apostles certainly demonstrated that time and time again throughout Acts. Because they endured and persevered, Christianity made it all the way to Rome itself for the leaders of the world (at that time) to hear.

About a year ago, American Pastor Saeed Abedini was imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith[7]. His wife Nahgmeh Abedini marks one year after his imprisonment with a letter while he still remains in jail. In her letter is a very passionate statement that I feel should resonate with Christians who are suffering persecution around the world for their faith. She states: “I did not know then, nor do I know now, where God would lead us in all of this. But one thing has become clear: no matter how difficult the journey, no matter what news comes, even in the face of eight years of beating and torture, we are called by God to embrace suffering gladly.”[8] We can be almost certain that Pastor Saeed expected to be persecuted for trying to reach the Iranians with the message of Christ. The very nature of their society and laws reflects hostility towards religions outside of Islam. Yet, Saeed preached to the Iranians anyway and his wife surely echoes the Luke 6 when she welcomes the suffering with joy.

One can argue that the term “normal” varies depending upon one’s location in the world. But one cannot deny that, for the majority of the world, it is still normal for Christians to suffer persecution.

Is God involved in the suffering of a Christian, both regular suffering and persecution?

Christians certainly do seem to struggle a lot. Financial setbacks, family issues, lost friendships, ridicule, mockery, slander, imprisonment, and even death are just a handful of the various degrees of suffering endured by Christians as a whole across the globe. The issue for most Christians is trying to find where God is in all of the suffering. Is He involved at any level or is it all a result of man’s actions?

On Persecution

One can argue that persecution is absolutely vital to the Christian life. The early church was persecuted as it worked to spread. Christians around the world are persecuted for trying to spread the Gospel. They are met with many negative reactions such as disdain, imprisonment, and death itself. All of this to reveal Christ to a world that desperately needs Him.

Is God involved in this? That question is a bit tricky to answer. Did He call Paul to Rome in Acts to stay in prison and soon face the reality of death? Sure. On the surface this looks like God called Paul to die. However, I contend that God is involved in a different manner. Whenever God calls Christians to go to hostile areas to spread the Gospel, His intent is not so much death as it is conversion. In my opinion, God calls Christians to these regions to test the hearts of those communities and offer the opportunity for repentance. The deaths themselves do bring a focus on the laws of these regions and they also show the dedication true faith requires. People do come to know Christ through martyrs, and that is a sad commentary on how lost the world truly is.

This issue comes down to God’s foreknowledge. Does it have a limit? If it does, God cannot be God.  Therefore, God does intend to test the hearts of these regions, but He knows they will reject Him. He knows the believer will face death, but He prepares their heart for the sacrifice.

On Regular/Personal Suffering

Are Christians called to suffer? The simple answer is “yes”. When one looks to the Cross and how it got to Calvary, they must acknowledge that Jesus was beaten, bloody, scarred, mocked, and ultimately died. Christ calls us to suffer for His name and for God’s glory.

One of Christ’s famous quotes occurs in Luke where He says: “Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”[9]

This quote is very profound. Christ calls the Christian to give up their life of comfort and ease with pursuing the dust that the world offers and follow Him, the only path to eternal life. What do I mean by “dust”? Money, material goods, fame, and personal ambitions. These things that the world offers bring comfort while here on earth, but they will not bring anyone into eternal life.

Christ is saying we must pick up the heavy cross and bear it with Him. He will help the Christian carry it, but we have to be willing to encounter the suffering with Him. To me, this is a special dynamic of the relationship Christians have with Christ. Christians welcome and embrace the suffering the world brings and the suffering that Christ promised (cf. Luke 6:22-23), and He prepares their hearts and minds for eternal glory.

Christians cannot expect to know God and focus entirely on God if they are not humbled and allowed to suffer. Read Job for a crash course on how God can use suffering to test and refine a believer’s faith in Him. His own Son was not above this call to suffer, neither should we be. The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides great insight for this topic when they state: “Christ died for all men because He loves all men; Christians must continue this loving suffering and mortification for those who are, either potentially or in fact, their brothers in Christ.”[10]

In Acts 5, Peter and the apostles are brought before the high priest and beaten with a whip for spreading the Gospel[11]. The leaders hoped that suffering this shame would stop them from preaching and turn others away from them[12]. But, the response of Peter and the apostles was jubilation as God considered them worthy to suffer for Christ’s name[13]. Darrell Bock states: “Here is the exemplary attitude of the church, willing to preach Jesus and suffer for the honor.”[14]

Do we consider it an honor to both preach and suffer for Christ? If we do, why are we so hesitant to embrace these elements of our faith? My friends, God is in the personal suffering of the Christian. He uses it to refine us, clear our hearts and our minds, and to reveal His glory through us. How lucky we are to be chosen to reveal Him to the world through temporary struggle that will never eclipse the glory of eternal life with the Father.


[1] Stephen stoned to death in Acts 7:54-60

[2] Acts 4:1-22, Acts 12, Acts 16:16-40, etc

[3] Saul (Acts 8) before his conversion and Herod in Acts 12.

[4] Acts 23:1-2.

[5] Bock, Darrell L.  Acts, From the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament.  1st ed.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2007. p. 669.

[6] Luke 6:22-23 CEV.

[7] Abedini, Nahgmeh. “Free Saeed: A Wife’s Plea to Iran’s President”. Desiring God. September 24, 2013. http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/free-saeed-a-wife-s-plea-to-iran-s-president.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Luke 9:23-25 NIV.

[10] Bukovsky, J. “Suffering”. New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol 13. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. p. 588.

[11] Acts 5:40 NIV.

[12] Bock, Darrell L. p. 252.

[13] Acts 5:41 NIV.

[14] Bock, Darrell L. p. 253.

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charlestinsley

My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. In particular, I post my thoughts, commentaries, and Bible Study teachings I have done. I hold a Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor. I am currently studying for a Masters In Divinity at Eastern Mennonite Seminary with PhD ambitions in the study of Theology. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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