With less than 24 hours left until our nation elects a new president, there is much talk of election weariness. And no wonder, not only are we media-saturated, but our media is saturated with partisan bickering, accusations, and unthinkable rudeness. Statesmanship seems to have disappeared from the planet in the nastiest campaign season anyone can remember. More disturbing than the focus of American politics, however, is the focus of the American church, because the church is focused on politics. We seem to think our fate hangs in the balance of the presidential election of 2016, and our righteousness will be determined by how we cast our vote. Based on the number of diatribes on all forms of media, expounding why Christians must or mustn’t vote for a particular candidate, we seem to think we can determine our future by preserving our rights and controlling our circumstances. The church seems to have forgotten that God alone is the sovereign ruler of our times and circumstances, that we have surrendered our rights to Him, and now our responsibility is to trust and glorify Him in whatever circumstance He chooses for us. We are so bent on avoiding persecution and suffering that our hand-wringing rhetoric belies our declarations of faith in a loving, trustworthy, Almighty God.
Sadly, there is more to lose from a wrong perspective of suffering than our witness to the watching world. While we are working feverishly to protect our rights and reputations, influence our friends’ votes, get the “right” candidates in office, and control our uncertain future, we are failing to prepare for the one thing we know our future holds: suffering. Jesus was very clear in John 15 when He told His disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” And again in the next chapter, Jesus warns of the need for patient endurance in suffering, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Please do not interpret that to mean we shouldn’t discuss the issues, pray earnestly for God’s hand to be at work in our nation, and vote. Those aren’t just rights they are privileges, given by God, and should be stewarded with the utmost care. What I am saying is that elections and issues should not distract us from being prepared to suffer, and to suffer well. What does it mean to suffer well? Let’s look at some inspiring heroes of the Scriptures.
Jesus told the apostles that they would have opportunities to share the gospel with governors and kings, and their entrance into the halls of government would be by arrest and flogging. He reassured them that when they were arrested, they had no cause to worry about what they would say because they would be given the words to say when the time came, it would not be the apostles speaking, but the Holy Spirit speaking through them. Stop right there. Worry about what to say? Really? My ears would not have heard anything Jesus said after the word ‘flogged’. What I was going to say would be the furthest thing from my mind if I had just been informed that I was going to be flogged. But Jesus completely bypassed the issue of flogging and how much pain they would have to endure, because the main point was the opportunity to preach the gospel. Persecution and suffering don’t even get a mention. They’re just useful tools to get an audience.
Paul’s request for prayer from the believers in Ephesus never mentions relief from suffering. Instead, Paul asks for fearlessness and words from God that he may make known the gospel (Eph. 6:19-20). In his letter to the Philippian church Paul seeks to reassure his friends that though he is under house arrest in Rome, he is rejoicing because his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ. The entire palace guard has heard of Paul’s faith, and in spite of the obvious dangers of preaching Christ, other believers have become emboldened to fearlessly speak the Word of God. Paul seems to have no concern about his fate, only that he not fail to preach Christ with courage. Paul is also concerned for the well-being of the church. He does not once express hope that they will not suffer, rather his primary concern is how his beloved friends conduct themselves when suffering comes. He encourages them not to fear those who oppose them, but keep their focus on God’s saving hand. Paul wants them to imitate the humility of Christ in suffering while complaining about nothing, putting no confidence in human ability but looking forward to the resurrection of those who belong to Jesus Christ. He tells them they will find peace by fixing their thoughts on the truth of God, and sets the example of contentment in any and every situation.
That message is as shockingly counter-cultural, and contrary to human nature today as it was in Paul’s day. But by now, it shouldn’t be. At least not in the Church. We have had two thousand years to read, study, and digest the riches of God’s Word, and its inspiring accounts of those who were gladly willing to suffer for the advancement of the gospel and the glory of the God they so dearly loved. We have access to the biographies of countless saints who have gone before us, declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ while being tortured and martyred. The American Church should, by now, have a solid understanding of suffering to the glory of God, but we don’t.
What kind of response do you think you might receive from your Christian friends if you responded to their difficult circumstances with a promise that you would pray for them to suffer well? That’s not how we pray in America! We want suffering to end now, and that is the outcome for which we ask our friends to pray. The Church in America has such a reputation for praying to escape persecution, that our persecuted brothers and sisters in other countries sometimes fear asking Americans to pray for them. If they do ask, it is with the request that we please not pray that God would stop the persecution, but instead ask that He would give them faith, boldness, and courage to be His witnesses in the persecution. Their perspective is that the persecution is working perfectly to display the joy and peace and grace of Christ’s followers, to the glory of God. They just want to display Christ more clearly, pray for that.
The persecuted church today is gracefully following in the footsteps of the Apostles, who “went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame [and flogging!] for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-42). No fear, just trust in their Lord. Are you, am I ready to gracefully join them when the opportunity comes? Let’s back up several paces from the large-looming spectacle of our national elections, and consider our lives in the canvass of the even larger picture of redemption and restoration that God is now creating through His bride, the Church. I have been convicted to do less fretting and more preparing, both for myself and those to whom I have the responsibility of guiding, teaching, and shepherding. I have some work to do, and I pray you will do the same, because the opportunity to suffer for our Lord is coming sooner than we think.