On Easter Sunday, as we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus at Pinewoods, bombs tore through three Christian churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka. Two of the churches were Roman Catholic (St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo and St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Negombo) and one of the churches was Protestant (Zion Church in Batticaloa). The six explosions have killed at least 350 people, according to the New York Times. On April 24, the BBC raise that number to 359. Another 500 people were injured. The death toll has been rising steadily since Sunday as more and more people have succumbed to their wounds. Most of the victims were Sri Lankan Christians, however four Americans died in the blast, as did people from India, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Bangladesh, Japan, China, and Portugal. The victims were men, women, and children.
The attack was carried out by seven suicide bombers. Sri Lankan officials told the BBC that the attackers were part of a “radical extremist Islamist group.” Since the attack, the terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility for the murders, but it’s difficult to know if they are telling the truth. (In 2017, they took credit for the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people, even though there’s no evidence that the killer had anything to do with ISIS.) Whether or not the Islamic State was directly involved, these attacks were clearly designed to murder Christians on Easter Sunday.
In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul writes, “If one member [of the church] suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Because we are one in Christ, members of his body, it is entirely appropriate for us to mourn the loss of our Christian brothers and sisters.
As part of my mourning, I’ve been thinking about persecution. According to Open Doors USA, an organization that tracks Christian persecution around the world, “Christians remain one of the most persecuted religious groups in the world. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is defined as any hostility experienced as a result of identification with Christ. Christian torture remains an issue for believers throughout the world including the risk of imprisonment, loss of home and assets, physical torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of their faith.”
Open Doors USA reports that “every month, on average, 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons, 105 Churches and Christian buildings are burned, and 219 Christians are detained without trial, arrested, and imprisoned.” Not every year … every month. The numbers are staggering.
So how should we think about persecution? While this is certainly not exhaustive, four thoughts come to mind.
One: Some Persecution is Inevitable.
In John 15:18-21, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”
In Philippians 1:29, the Apostle Paul writes, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” He echoes that thought even more strongly in 2 Timothy 3:12, writing, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
Satan is opposed to Jesus, as are his spiritual children (John 8:44). Jesus was persecuted. We are united to Jesus by faith. We will be persecuted too. The same world that persecuted Jesus personally, will persecute Jesus vicariously by persecuting the church (Acts 9:4).
Therefore, persecution should never catch us off-guard. It should never shake our faith in the sovereignty and goodness of God. On the contrary, persecution should confirm our union with Christ and the blessings that flow from our covenant relationship with him. Persecution also confirms the genuineness of our faith, and allows us to stand in solidarity with the generations of persecuted Christians who came before us. In Matthew 5:11-12, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Two: Some Persecution is Avoidable
Mistreatment isn’t the same thing as persecution. Sometimes Christians are genuinely persecuted for their Christian faith. Sometimes Christians are simply mistreated because they are rude, obnoxious, or antagonistic. Sometimes Christians are fired from jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with Christianity. Sometimes Christians are maligned because they have a reputation for corrupt, dishonest business practices. If you’re a Christian and you don’t pay your taxes, you might go to jail. That’s not persecution, that’s incurring an appropriate penalty for law-breaking.
The Apostle Peter makes this point in 1 Peter 2:20. He writes, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” In other words, if you suffer for doing sinful things, that’s not persecution. We should seek to avoid that type of “persecution” (which is not really persecution) by living godly lives.
The Apostle Paul makes a similar point in 1 Timothy 2:1-2. He writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” In other words, we shouldn’t seek out persecution. We should seek to avoid persecution by living peaceful, quiet, godly, dignified lives.
Three: All Persecution is Painful
In 1 Peter 4:12, Peter refers to persecution as “the fiery trial.” Persecution is hard. Persecution is painful. Persecution is exhausting. Persecution will stretch you to your breaking point.
According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, “Persecution in the Bible is primarily of a religious nature (although ethic persecution occurs, as in Esther). In this spiritual context it assumes a number of different forms: physical (beatings, Is. 50:6; stonings, Acts 14:19), verbal (mocking, Luke 23:11; insults, Psalm 69:9; slander, Rev. 2:9), social (excommunication or ostracism, John 9:22) or mental (intimidation, Luke 13:31; threats, Acts 4:21, 29). Prison can also lead to imprisonment (Mark 6:17), banishment (Rev. 1:9), even death (2 Chron. 24:21; Rev. 2:10).”
We shouldn’t lightly dismiss the pain of persecution, whether it’s physical, verbal, social, or mental. We shouldn’t say things like, “It’s no big deal. Move on. Suck it up.” Our brothers and sisters around the world need our sympathy. They need our support. They need our prayers. They don’t need our skepticism. They don’t need our apathy. They don’t need to be blamed for not living in a Western Democratic Republic where persecution is less common. We honor their suffering by acknowledging it and crying out to God for justice.
Four: All Persecution is Temporary
Both Jesus and Paul remind us that persecution is something that belongs to this world, but not to the world to come. In Matthew 5:12, Jesus reminds us that we can “rejoice and be glad” when we’re persecuted because our “reward is great in heaven.” In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul also attempts to contextualize our suffering, writing, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed …. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Therefore, we don’t need to fear persecution. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:14, “But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled.”
Because persecution is temporary, related to this world which is passing away, we don’t need to retaliate. As Paul wrote in Romans 12:17-21, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
On the contrary, the victory of Jesus over his enemies, give us all the resources we need to persevere (Hebrews 10:36) and even pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44; Luke 23:34).
May God forgive those who murdered our brothers and sisters … for they know not what they do. They have no idea that Jesus is the King. They do not know that they will have to answer for their crimes on judgment day. They have no idea that Jesus stands ready to forgive them and invite them to the feast.
May God grant relief to our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. May God grant the gift of repentance and faith to our oppressors. May Jesus come quickly, to make all things new.