Persecution is defined by the Oxford Languages dictionary as “hostility and ill-treatment, especially because of…religious beliefs.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary says persecution is “the condition of being persecuted, harassed, or annoyed.” Wikipedia says “A martyr is someone who suffers persecution and death for advocating, renouncing, or refusing to renounce or advocate, a religious belief or cause.” This means persecution ranges from simply being annoyed to being killed because of, among other things, your religious beliefs. So, how do we pray about persecution?
Open Doors, the international non-governmental agency (NGO) advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians, released their annual World Watch List on January 13, 2021. It states that between October 2019 and September 2020, more than 340 million Christians were living in countries where they might suffer high to extreme levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith.
As Open Doors emphasizes, “That’s one in 8 worldwide, 1 in 6 in Africa, 2 out of 5 in Asia, and 1 in 12 in Latin America” that will suffer high to extreme levels of persecution.
During that same reporting period, 4761 Christians were killed for their faith, 4488 Churches or Christian buildings were attacked, 4277 Christians were unjustly arrested, detained, or imprisoned, and 1710 Christians were abducted for faith-related reasons. That means on average, every day, 13 Christians are killed for their faith, 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked, 12 Christians are unjustly arrested, detained, or imprisoned, and 5 Christians are abducted for faith-related reasons.
These facts about persecution are not unknown to God. He foretold it. God clearly warned us that persecution would exist when in John 15:20 Jesus says “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” The Apostle Paul similarly chimes in by saying in 2 Timothy 3:12 “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
God allows persecution
During Jesus’ ministry of healing and preaching, never once did He attempt to stop the persecution. What one does not do is sometimes just as telling as what they do. Understandably, during His lifetime there were not many Christians running around to persecute,, but there was John the Baptist. Not only was John a faithful follower of Jesus, but he was also His cousin. Yet Jesus did not stop him from being beheaded.
Before Jesus’s ministry, many Prophets were persecuted, yet God allowed it. Consider the prophets Elijah, Amos, Micaiah, Zechariah, Hanani, and Uriah to list a few by name.
After Jesus’ ministry, in his letters, Paul references the persecution of churches in Jerusalem, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Asia Minor. There is no mention of God stopping their persecution, and Paul did not suggest they escape it.
Paul, God’s man on the ground, went through sufferings, as did the other apostles. Not to mention the Great Persecutions in Rome, which brought on the great “diaspora” of the Jews and Christians mentioned in Acts 8:4. And who can forget about Nero blaming the Christians for burning Rome, which set up the persecutions to follow?
All these persecutions running from the pages of the Old Testament to Revelation, buy nowhere is there evidence of God stopping any of it. This is not to say that He hasn’t or can’t, but nothing in Scripture suggests otherwise. We have many examples in Scripture detailing God’s hidden hand, such as fighting many battles for Israel as Joshua clears the Promised Land of its inhabitants. So it’s not like scripture does not reveal the hidden works of God. If God has stopped persecution and wanted us to know about it, scripture could easily have told us so. But not a word.
Special rewards for the persecuted
God offers special rewards to those persecuted. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states in Matthew 5:10 that “Blessed are those who are persecuted…for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In scripture, white raiment is associated with being righteous. In Revelation 6:10-11, the persecuted are given a “white robe” signifying their righteousness. Additionally, at the white throne judgment, God offers crowns for various accomplishments of the saints.
In Revelation 2:10, the persecuted are given the “crown of life.” Finally, in Revelation 20:4, the martyred are promised they will reign with Christ for the millennium. While no one might choose to be persecuted to gain these rewards, they could, however, handily offset on that judgment day the persecution they endured in life. The persecuted may, on that day, say it was worth it. God has not forgotten them. He is waiting to mete out the special blessings reserved for the martyrs.
Not stated as a reward specifically for the persecuted,, but God promises His grace, peace, and comfort to all Christians. This certainly includes the persecuted. For example, the Apostle Paul prayed to have a thorn in the flesh removed from him. Speculation abounds as to what this thorn was,, but it was some form of persecution. God’s answer to Paul’s prayer for relief was, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
God offers a peace that surpasses our understanding. Any form or amount of peace in this world is elusive enough, but an incomprehensible peace is just that…incomprehensible. Especially in these times. Peace for those persecuted would certainly be incomprehensible by non-believers, even believers, as we wring our hands over the ongoing worldwide persecution. The persecuted may not have as much consternation over their plight as they experience God’s incomprehensible peace. Only those that have experienced it can understand.
In the 23rd Psalm, we are promised comfort when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Like the peace that surpasses all understanding, do you suppose comfort from God is any less incomprehensible than during times of persecution?
Persecution brings spiritual growth
In 2 Corinthians 12:10, Paul says that, among other things, he was content with persecution because in his weakness he was made strong. Paul should know, since he was no stranger to persecution. In 2 Corinthians 11:21-29, he lists the persecutions he experienced as being imprisoned, flogged, exposed to death, whipped, beaten with rods, pelted with stones, in danger from his fellow Jews and false believers, gone without sleep, been hungry, thirsty, cold, and naked. You can’t discount a guy’s position on being made strong through persecution when he has experienced so much.
James, Jesus’ half brother says in James 1:2-4, various trials test your faith but produces endurance which results in you being complete, lacking in nothing. You can’t get much more spiritual growth than that.
What to do when persecuted
We are not left without guidance on what to do when facing persecution. By way of example, we are told in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him. That joy was the completion of God’s plan. Remember that Jesus said on the cross “It is finished.” Keeping the end goal before Himself allowed Him to readily accept the persecution of the cross. What is our end goal? To be conformed to Christ? To grow in the knowledge of the scriptures? To serve the Lord with your talents? Jesus’ example shows us to not let persecution hinder us from our end goal.
While not specifically stated as persecution, we are urged in Ephesians 6:13 to take up the full armor of God and stand firm on that evil day. The evil day could be the day you experience persecution and the clear instruction is to stand firm…in your faith. To not let the pressure of persecution make you shrink away from God.
Besides specific examples and instructions for our actions, we are also told how to view the persecution. It seems contrary to normal thought but, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says when speaking of persecution we are to “rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great;” James agrees and says that when confronting various trials we are to “consider them all joy”, knowing that ultimately it will make us “complete, lacking in nothing.”
Persecution’s benefit to God’s kingdom
While God’s methods are not for us to necessarily understand and approve, objectively looking at individuals persecuted, and the Christian church in general, we can see some positive outcomes for God’s kingdom created by persecution.
The Romans tried to persecute Christianity out of existence. They were not only unsuccessful, but the persecution actually steeled people’s faith. Ultimately, the Christian church grew and Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity and, 10 years later, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Paul was able to speak to Roman leaders because of his imprisonment. After being arrested for causing an uproar in Jerusalem by sharing the gospel, he was taken to Governor Felix to whom Paul was able to present the gospel while presenting his case. Later, Felix’s replacement, Festus, heard Paul’s case in which Paul again took the opportunity to present Jesus as the living God. When King Agrippa came to visit Festus, Paul’s case was brought up and he was allowed to present his case to King Agrippa. Of course, Paul interjected the gospel. King Agrippa said that Paul wasn’t guilty, but because Paul had appealed to Caesar, he would now go to Rome where he could tell the Roman leadership about Jesus. Initial persecution by the Jews brought the gospel to Caesar himself, plus countless other Roman officials down the line who attended the hearings.
Should persecution increase
If so much good comes from persecution, should it increase? “May it never be,” Paul says of sin in Romans 6:1-2. The same can be said of persecution that’s like sin, in and of itself, is a bad thing. We don’t need to encourage it just because there are some good side benefits. It is a tool to be used by God to bring about His will. It’s too dangerous a thing for us to wield based on our non-existent knowledge of the outcome of its use. Besides, persecution, like sin, seems to be doing well enough on its own and does not need encouragement.
An example of persecution wrongly encouraged is when Satan encouraged the Jews to crucify Jesus. We can only speculate how giddy Satan must have felt when he heard the crowd chanting “Crucify Him.” Three days later, Satan was to find out things did not go as anticipated. We can learn even from satan not to play with things we don’t understand. That’s best left to God who is the only one who knows the intentions of men’s hearts and their future reactions and actions
Pray for the persecuted
So what do we know about praying for persecution and the persecuted? Jesus prayed for the cup of crucifixion to pass from Him. Crucifixion certainly was extreme persecution. But in the end, He prayed for God’s will be done. Maybe that’s the ticket. We pray for God’s will in all things persecution. We may stir in how we feel about persecutions, as Jesus did in His prayer when He said “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me.” But He left the decision squarely in God’s lap.
We could and should also pray that those persecuted will receive the benefits of persecution described earlier. Those things are also squarely from God, therefore in His will. So that’s the first ingredient in the recipe for how to pray for the persecuted. Pray that God’s will shall be accomplished and that the persecuted will receive God’s grace, peace, and comfort proportionate to their suffering. Pray that their faith will grow and that they will be strengthened so as not to fall away.
Pray for the persecutors
And what of the persecutors? Should we pray for hellfire to be brought down from heaven on them as James and John wanted to when they saw that the Samaritans did not receive Jesus before his crucifixion? Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” So hellfire is not the correct answer. Consider why Jesus came to earth and why was He willing to go to the cross. 1 Timothy 2:3-4 tells us it is because He “wants all people to be saved.” All, including persecutors. Remember that Paul was a persecutor of the Christians yet Jesus sought after him.
If we need something more to compel us to pray for the wretched persecutors, we have Matt. 5:44 and Romans 12:14 that give us direct commands to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
Our human side would like to see a just punishment go to those who persecute. Keep in mind that in Romans 12:19 there is that short but powerful statement that says “Vengeance is mine says the Lord.” You can bet that vengeance from God will be much more than anything we could even imagine. Benjamin Colman preached a message to convicted pirates in July of 1726 just before their execution. Quoting Hebrews 10:31 he said “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. The wrath and vengeance of the living God is eternal and everlasting, and why it renders it so fearful a thing to fall into His hand.
The living God lives forever to punish. He can and will inflict wrath forever and ever. He lives to uphold the Soul under everlasting Sufferings.” We may not see God’s vengeance or justice in our lifetime, but when these nasty fellows awaken from what they thought would be their eternal sleep, they will be shocked to be facing an angry God. We shouldn’t wish this on our worst enemy.
If we should always pray for God’s will, and it is God’s will that all should come to the saving knowledge of Him, then we should pray that the persecutors of this world would come to that same saving knowledge of God as the persecuted. What an example the persecuted can be to their persecutors. An illustration of this is when Paul and Silas were in prison for their faith. An earthquake opened the prison doors allowing everyone to escape, yet they didn’t. Because of this, the jailer and his family accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Pray about your potential persecution
Not all those persecuted or persecuted churches thrived under persecution. Sadly, some withered and died. The church in North Africa was not able to stand up against the Muslim invasions. The churches of Asia Minor slowly withered and died after the 14th century. Japan outlawed Christianityin the 17th century. Many Japanese stood up for Jesus only to be subjected to horrible persecutions. Others renounced Jesus to keep their lives. Interestingly, those that turned their back on God to save their lives were the same people who restarted the Christian church when Christianity was again made legal in Japan. We can understand these sad stories of people and churches falling away in the face of extreme persecution. What they faced may make you fearsome for your own life, if and when persecution comes your way. Pray that God will give you the faith and strength to stand up under persecution.
Thank God He has not forgotten the persecuted. Thank Him for the peace, grace, comfort, white robe of righteousness, and crown of life in heaven that he affords the persecuted.
Pray for God’s strength for the persecuted to not shrink back from their persecution. Pray for God’s peace to encompass them through their trials. Pray their faith increases in proportion to the persecution they are experiencing.
Pray for the persecutors that they would see Christ in the persecuted and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior before they awaken to God’s vengeance.
Pray that you will be able to withstand persecution when it comes your way. Pray that you will not shrink back from persecution, but on that evil day you will be able to stand firm.
Paul Johnson | BCWorldview.org