The Blessing of Persecution: Reflections on the Recent Plight of Christians in Iraq

Over the last few weeks the world has stood in shock as we have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by ISIS (Islamic State) in Iraq. The shock has been so great that is seems the world community has been paralyzed to mount a response. Our present generation has never seen evil on such open display. We have no reference point by which to contextualize and understand the scope of their wave of death.

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As ISIS has raged across Iraq, one of their primary targets has been Christians. It is their aim to eliminate all Christian influence from their new caliphate. Many sources on the ground have called their campaign of terror a “Christian holocaust.” Their method of marking Christians using the Arabic letter “N”* is eerily similar to the yellow star of David used by the Nazi’s to identify Jews during World War II. Iraqi Christians are a marked people.

It is nothing new for Christians to be marked or targeted for death. In fact, Jesus gave a clear warning for his followers to expect persecution. In John 15:18-19 Jesus says, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” In Matthew 10:39 Jesus makes clear, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” The call to follow Christ is not a call to our best life now**, but it is a call to suffering and forsaking. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, German pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarizes the call to follow Jesus in this way, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Persecution, suffering and opposition is to be an expected part of the Christian life.

This is not suffering for the sake of suffering. Jesus tells us it is for “righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10). In Matthew 10:18 he clarifies for us the reason for suffering- “You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.” Again in John 15:26-27 Jesus says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” Our suffering for the sake of Christ is so that we might boldly testify of and identify with him.

However, Jesus went a step further by teaching that persecution was a blessing. In the final of the eight Beatitudes Jesus declares, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (‭Matthew‬ ‭5‬:‭10-12‬). After reading the gut wrenching stories and seeing the terror filled pictures that have emerged from Iraq over the last few days it is hard for me to imagine that what I am looking at is a blessing. But then I read again Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake….” What’s more, he says, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad….” How can we possibly consider persecution a blessing and a cause for rejoicing?

There are many reasons given in Scripture for why we can consider suffering a blessing. However, Jesus highlights two reasons in his Beatitude:

1. We are in good company. One of the reasons why Jesus says we should rejoice in our sufferings is because “so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” As it was said of Moses, so I believe it can be said of all the Old Testament prophets that they “[chose] rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches…” (‭Hebrews‬ ‭11‬:‭25-26‬). They were privileged to suffer for Christ’s sake just as we are also given the privilege to suffer with Christ. Again, in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains the privilege of partaking in Christ’s sufferings, “In the fellowship of the crucified and glorified body of Christ we participate in his suffering and glory. His cross is the burden which is laid on his Body, the Church. All its sufferings borne beneath this cross are the sufferings of Christ himself. This suffering first takes the form of the baptismal death…. But there is a far greater form of suffering than this, one which bears an ineffable promise. For while it is true that only the suffering of Christ himself can atone for sin, and that his suffering and triumph took place ‘for us,’ yet to come, who are not ashamed of their fellowship in his body, he vouchsafes the immeasurable grace and privilege of suffering ‘for him,’ as he did for them.” As we bear his cross we join a “great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before us, bearing the reproach of Christ, and we have the privilege to be named among them.

2. We will have great reward. Our heavenly Father does not allow his children to suffer without bearing them up in pity and securing for them a great reward in the life to come. Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Our suffering may be intense in this lifetime, but it is Christ in us which is our hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). And, he who “endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). The Apostle Paul held to this great assurance as he came to the end of his life, having endured many trials for Christ’s sake- “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (‭II Timothy‬ ‭4‬:‭6-8‬). To every believer who will confess the name of Christ before men (Matthew 10:32) he “will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). “Therefore…, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (‭Hebrews‬ ‭12‬:‭1-2‬).

What are some other reasons why persecution can be considered a blessing for Christians? Leave your comments below.

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All Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.

* The Arabic “N” stands for Nazarene in reference to Jesus of Nazareth. See picture above. Download the picture and set it as you profile picture on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #WeAreN to show support for Iraqi Christians.

** I know a lot of people pick on Joel Osteen, but the title and message of his book are absolutely antithetical to what the true call of Christ is when he calls us to follow him.

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