Growing up in church I often heard a quote from the gospel of Luke that tells us Jesus said “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. Often this would be followed by an admonition that as Christians we would have crosses we must bear for Christ.
I wondered what my cross must be. Life seemed pretty good to me. Oh yes there were some heartaches and difficulties, but a cross? When I read about the death of Jesus and the sufferings of the Early Church, then looked at the American church, I found it hard to see that we were bearing crosses as they did.
We often had bible classes on bearing our cross for Christ. No doubt we have had difficult times that seem like crosses – death, accidents, sickness. But these are things that come to everyone – Christian and non-Christian and as far as I can see have little to do with suffering connected with sharing Christ. It is true that when we face these difficult times we can be a witness for Christ when we show faith and strength in the middle of these difficult times. It can be a chance to tell others of why we have hope and even joy in the midst of bad times. But I am not sure we can call these things crosses in the sense Jesus meant when He told us to take up our cross and follow Him.
Looking at the suffering Christians face in North Korea, China, Indonesia and many countries in Africa, I realize that cross-bearing is not a discipleship topic for them. They do not have the luxury of sitting in an air-conditioned classroom while viewing PDF slides on “How to Bear Your Cross.” Many of them could avoid suffering if they would simply stop talking about Jesus and/or agree to renounce their Christian faith. They face what Jesus called for – taking up a cross of suffering and danger daily.
Still, as our culture seems to becoming more anti-Christian, I realize the day is fast coming when we may begin to face real persecution. I mean beyond just being called a name or made fun of. I mean real persecution like losing your job, not being allowed to go to school or church or even having your life in danger. When I think about the possibility of the American church being called to “really” bear a cross, I wonder if we would be up to it.
According to World Watch List this past year:
- Over 340 million Christians are living in places where they experience high levels of persecution and discrimination
- 4,761 Christians were killed for their faith
- 4,488 churches and other Christian buildings were attacked
- 4,277 believers were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned
Open Doors tells us that
Looking in from the outside, we often want to pray for the trials of the persecuted church to cease. We hear about the decisions parents are forced to make to protect their children, or the prison sentences so many serve because of their beliefs. It’s only normal and seemingly right that we would want to pray for the persecution to end. Yet the reality is that believers in the persecuted church around the world often don’t wish or pray for their trials to end. The No. 1 request Open Doors receives from persecuted believers is prayer, but they don’t ask us to pray they will be removed from persecution. Time and again, persecuted believers tell us that persecution builds the church and their witness. In the midst of persecution, they still live out their calling to glorify God. Instead, persecuted believers ask us to pray with them that they will stand strong and witness with faithfulness. This “ask” is straight from Scripture. This “ask” is straight from Scripture. Throughout the Bible, we see God’s people and His Church persecuted, but Scripture never tells us to pray for persecution to stop or end. We’re even told that persecution will often accompany us on our journey as believers, with John 16:33 assuring us that “in this world, we will have trouble.” While Scripture tells us that God lavishly blesses and provides for His people, our idea of blessing differs from God’s perspective (the perspective of the first-century persecuted church leaders). Rather, in His Word God shows us that being blessed and having joy come not through our Western mindset of wealth, success, fame or even leisure–but rather through His presence and eternal salvation. In Scripture, we see how persecution is transformative: We are called to find joy in our trials, knowing what God is able to bring about through it: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). Knowing that whatever we face for God and His glory on this earth doesn’t compare to the eternal joy He has in store for us, which helps us persevere: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). As we are called to become more and more like Christ, facing trials for His Name helps to sanctify us: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
My prayer for the American church is that we will grow strong in His word and be found faithful as our culture moves to a non-Christian world.