“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:10)
This Beatitude feels like a heavy one, and in many ways it is. No-one wants to be persecuted; no-one actively seeks it out. Yet, we are told that when it happens (whatever form that might take), we’re blessed?! What?! It doesn’t really feel like a blessing!
It is important to note right at the beginning that Jesus is talking about being persecuted for “righteousness sake”, i.e. living a life that is uncompromisingly faithful to God, that is in line with the previous 7 Beatitudes; living God’s way in the midst of a world that does not respect and will even reject us. If we are persecuted for reasons unrelated to that, due to our own choices and failures, then that is punishment, not persecution. If someone went to jail and lost all they had for robbing a bank, you wouldn’t say that they were being persecuted, you would wholeheartedly agree they were being punished for their wrong-doing. As it says is 1 Peter 2:20: “Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong; but if you do right and suffer for it, and are patient beneath the blows, God is well pleased” (Living Bible translation).
Persecution is certainly not a new thing. Even in the Old Testament we see evidence of people being punished for choosing to live God’s way over man’s way: Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Malachi – all faced varying forms of persecution throughout their life. In more recent years, Mother Teresa, for example, was not praised by all her Calcutta neighbours for caring about those society had discarded. She was, instead, insulted for affecting their karma. Or Martin Luther King Jr – he was not admired by everyone for seeking the reconciliation of all humanity as brothers and sisters. He was imprisoned and shot dead!
According to Forbes.com, the World Watch List 2020 states that “260 million Christians live in the World Watch List Top 50 countries where Christians are at high, very high or extreme risk levels of persecution. In India, Christian minorities are subject to extreme persecution which manifested in at least 1445 physical attacks and death threats against Christians in 2019. In Nigeria, in 2019, approximately 1350 Christians were killed for their faith”.
Whilst persecution does take violent and extreme forms, for most of us in the modern Western world, persecution may manifest itself in subtler ways, such as ridicule, dismissiveness, marginalisation and exclusion. It’s more emotional persecution than physical – “e.g. when a believer is made to feel stupid in the classroom, or when a believer is made to feel like a bigot for lovingly explaining what the word of God teaches on sexuality, or when a believer is made to feel like an outcast for believing something out-of-date and ancient” (reachjax.com)
We have never been promised an easy life as Christians. In fact, we’re pretty much told that if we live a life after God’s heart, we’re going to be hated: “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19). Our belief in Jesus, and the way we chose to live our lives proves to be offensive to the world. Our unity with Christ means a share in all things that are Christ’s, including the rejection and persecution that was his. But as it promises in John 16:33: “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”. God is with us, walking through the troubles we face with us. We are not alone.
We are called to be bold and to take a stand for what is right. The previous 7 Beatitudes show us what our life should look like – humility, meekness, restoration of right relationships, mercy, purity of heart, and peace making. These are all positive qualities, but they are all counter-cultural responses to the way the world moves. Which, therefore, leads to us experiencing some form of persecution. As Jeff Cook puts it in ‘Seven’: “when a light-filled life bumps into a dark world, the result is not moderate acceptance. It’s like a collision of cold air with a warm front; the result is a storm”.
But to be happy about being persecuted is not the average person’s gut-reaction (it’s certainly not mine!). For many, persecution is avoided at all costs. I’m sure we can think of times where we chose to stay silent, or even watered down an answer for fear of the reaction of those we were speaking with. I think it’s a common, and possibly quite natural response (or maybe that’s just my introverted self talking) to compromise our principles in order to fit in, or to avoid causing a “scene”. But, that is not how we are being asked to live. Luke 6:26 warns us to be wary of ourselves when the world only has good things to say about us: “And what sadness is ahead for those praised by the crowds—for false prophets have always been praised”. If we are not experience any form of persecution, it may be because we are fitting in too well with the world. I love this quote from Paul Chappell – “the devil doesn’t persecute those who aren’t making a godly difference in the world”.
We can take comfort from the knowledge that if we are being persecuted for “righteousness sake” (i.e. the way we are living), then we are doing something right. James 1:2-3 says “Dear brothers, is your life full of difficulties and temptations? Then be happy, for when the way is rough, your patience has a chance to grow”. In Cook’s chapter on this beatitude, he mentions the story of the blind man outside the temple. Once the man had washed off the mud-spit concoction Jesus had put on his eyes, the man could see. Jesus had gone so he only knew of Jesus and his gift of sight through his faith. As the man’s faith and esteem for Jesus grew, the more his troubles grew. He was left to fend for himself by his parents, he was kicked out of the temple and excommunicated. He lost everything because he stood for Jesus. When Jesus heard about this, he sought out the man and asked if he believed in the Son of Man. The man said “tell me so I may believe in him”. Even after all the trials he faced, he was willing to surrender everything. When Jesus told him and said “Do you believe?”, the man replied “Lord, I believe”. The Greek word used was pisteuō which means unite or commit. We live in times of trials where we may be, and often are, forsaken by those we care about. But we also hear a distant, familiar voice asking “Do you believe? Do you commit?”. What are you united to? What will you give everything for?
Are you avoiding saying what you should in order to remain popular, so that you don’t lose that promotion, or just for ease and to avoid conflict? If we live a godly lifestyle, it will be impossible not to stand out from everyone living the way of the world. To live as the Beatitudes ask requires courage, but the reward in heaven is great!
“The world never burned a casual Christian at the stake” – John R. Rice