In this excerpt from the foreword to Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church, Timothy Keller considers the lessons Christians can learn from the persecution experienced by the Chinese Church.
Many Christians in the West are concerned that our secular societies are becoming more inhospitable to Christian faith and practice. We often feel persecuted. In no way do I want to minimize the headwinds we are now facing in the countries that formerly constituted Christendom. But to get desperately needed perspective, we must listen to the voices of believers in parts of the world where the opposition is much more pervasive and often takes the form of violence. This is the situation for Christians in large swaths of Asia—East, South, and West. They are indeed learning what the words of our Lord mean:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12 NIV)
Christians in the West seldom have had to test these important words of Jesus in the way our brothers and sisters in Asia have. Chinese Christians in particular have had reason in recent years to rely on this promise of Jesus.
“Blessed are you when people insult you.”
Not, “Blessed are you if people insult you.” Every beatitude is a characteristic of a Christian. Every Christian must be poor in spirit, or you are not a Christian; every Christian must hunger and thirst after righteousness, or you are not a Christian. This is the last of the Beatitudes, which means Jesus assumes that if you are a Christian, you will be persecuted. If you are living in any way consistently with Christianity, you will experience some kind of losses, some pushback, some opposition.
We are only blessed if the persecution is “because of me [Jesus].”
Not “because of you.” Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 4:15: “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler” (ESV). The word translated “meddler” is an amazing Greek word. It means to be a busybody or to be tactless. What Peter and Jesus are saying is, if you are talking about your Christian faith in a feckless way, a tactless way, an abrasive way, an insensitive way, a culturally inappropriate way, and people oppose you, don’t say, “I am being persecuted for Jesus’s sake!” No, you are being persecuted for your sake. If you are being obnoxious, the promise of blessedness doesn’t hold.
Persecution because of Jesus results in praise for the Father.
Here is one way to determine whether you are being persecuted for Jesus’s sake or for your own sake:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16 NIV)
Some people will look at your life and faith and persecute you; others will look at that same life and will “praise your Father in heaven.” Some non-Christians will respond with hostility, while others will be attracted by your life and persuaded by your testimony.
I propose that this is a great way to test ourselves. If we are only persecuted and few or no people are finding faith or being attracted to Jesus through us, then we are likely being persecuted for our tactlessness. If we are never persecuted, then we are likely compromising or being too quiet about our faith. But if both of those things are happening—if you are persecuted and your testimony is bearing fruit—you are in a sweet spot. Speaking the truth without love will only bring opposition; being loving without insisting on the truth is cowardice. One of the most worrisome things about the church in the West is that we are not seeing much persecution or attraction, and surely that is an indictment.
This post was adapted from Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church edited by Hannah Nation and Simon Liu (Kirkdale Press, 2022).