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Grace Under Pressure

You’re dead to me 

When I was in college, our Christian student group invited a Jewish follower of Jesus, to come share his story. A Jewish student named Shelly came that day and asked Jesus to be her Messiah—in Hebrew, Yeshua ha Meshiach, Jesus the Messiah. 

Shelly was thrilled to connect personally with the Messiah so clearly prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Her family was not. They insisted she renounce her faith in Jesus, but she knew the Lord had personally met her. Her family pressured her, but Shelly graciously pressed on in believing. 

So they held a funeral—an actual funeral for their daughter, and informed her that she was, to them, dead. When I was back in the area a couple of years later I ran into Shelly. Her family still considered her dead, and she was still following Jesus. She knew that whatever persecution comes, it’s worth it to have Jesus in your life! 

Jesus, knowing in advance that this would happen, that his followers throughout history would face varying degrees of persecution, concluded the opening portion of his Sermon on the Mount with this assurance: 

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 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 5:10-12 

Here’s what he’s saying: When you suffer simply because you follow Jesus, when people insult you, when they tell lies about you or slander you, Jesus promises, reward awaits. When you go through the same kind of fire that the prophets of old faced, even though it’s far less intense in this nation than in many others, know that sticking with Jesus is worth it, fully worth it. And reward is on the way. 

The most pressured people on the planet 

If I asked you to name the most persecuted people on earth right now, you might name the Uyghurs in NW China. You might point to the tens of thousands of people imprisoned in North Korea’s labor camps. Those are horrific real-life evils taking place right now. 

But in fact without a shadow of a doubt, the single most oppressed group of people on the planet right now are Christians. You may not be aware of this because it’s largely unreported and largely overlooked, but it’s a fact. 

Persecution of Christians today 

During the past year alone: 

  • More than 300 million Christians live in places where they experience high levels of persecution and discrimination; that’s 1 in 8 Christians around the world 
  • Well over 4,000 Christians were killed for their faith last year 
  • Almost 5,000 churches and other Christian buildings were attacked 
  • More than 4,000 Christians were detained without trial, arrested, sentenced or imprisoned 
  • Seven years ago only one country, North Korea, was ranked as ‘extreme’ for the intensity with Christians experienced persecution. Last year, 11 countries fall into that category. 

In northern Nigeria, for example, members of the radical Islamic group Boko Haram terrorize communities and churches, killing those they consider to be “infidels,” raping and kidnapping women and burning down homes and churches. 

Jewish rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein puts a startling twist on things when he asks, “Are Christians the new Jews?” He points out that Christians have replaced Jews as (quote) “the numerically most persecuted people on the planet.” 

Rabbi Alderstein notes, “In a huge swath of territory from Nigeria east and north to Iran and Pakistan, millions of Christians live in fear of losing their property or their lives simply because they are Christians. In the Assyrian Triangle of Iraq, the campaign of church-burning, clergy-killing, and terror has all but decimated the historically oldest Christian communities.” 

Source: Yitzchok Adlerstein, “Are Christians the New Jews?” Patheos (2-20-13) 

The International Society for Human Rights, a secular non-governmental organization, estimates that worldwide, Christians are targets of about 80% of all acts of religious discrimination and persecution. Most people don’t know any of this, because it largely doesn’t get reported. 

This is nothing new. And Jesus knew it. And so knowing this would take place, Jesus gave a heads up in advance that persecution does not get the last word. Heavenly reward awaits those who faithfully persevere in following him, the one who himself suffered rejection. 

Pressure is part of following Jesus 

Pressure has always come with following Jesus. The apostle Paul, who himself was a persecutor of Christians before he became one, writes this to his younger protégé Timothy: 

“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be treated badly.”  – 1 Timothy 3:12 NIRV 

If you set your heart and mind on honoring Jesus in every area of your life, you are going to catch flack. Guaranteed. Resistance comes with the territory. It’s not a maybe. It’s not a might. It’s a given. If some hated Jesus, some will hate you for following Jesus, for believing what he says and doing what he commands. You will experience some level of rejection. So what I want to give you this week from the Scriptures are three ways to think about and act in the face of peer pressure or rejection—each of them precisely how Jesus responded to those who opposed him. Let’s jump right in with… 

What to do when resistance hits 

I won’t be surprised or ashamed. 

The apostles John and Peter, who both faced severe persecution—John ultimately exiled away from society and Peter ultimately crucified for his faith—leave us this counsel: 

“Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you… Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 3  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed… if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”  – 1 John 3:13; 1 Peter 4:12-13, 16 

Don’t be surprised and don’t be ashamed when doing the right thing (making right ethical decisions at work, refusing to cook the books) and believing what Jesus taught (like his radical claim that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that no one comes to the Father except through him)…when you do the right thing and believe what Jesus claims, don’t be surprised that some will resent you and resist you for it. Darkness does not like light. Never has, never will. So don’t be surprised. And never be ashamed to identify with Jesus as your Savior. He was unashamed to identify with you and me in our sin. We will not be ashamed when reviled for believing in him. 

The pressure you might experience in this nation is very, very mild compared to many other places, but it’s still real. You may get passed over for a promotion. You likely will at some point feel peer pressure to remain silent on moral issues. You likely will be pressured to agree with and endorse positions that go against your convictions. But it’s far more intense in many other nations. 

Malaysia, for example. I visited Malaysia during grad school, and learned a bit about the pressures Christians face there, especially if you are born into a Muslim family and want to change to the Christian faith. At a baptism service one summer when Jim Denison was visiting from the states, a teenage girl came forward to announce her decision to follow Jesus and be baptized. After she came up, Jim noticed worn-out luggage leaning against the wall and asked the pastor about it. The pastor pointed to the girl and explained, “Her father said that if she was baptized as a Christian she could never go home again. So she brought her luggage.” 

There’s someone who was neither surprised nor ashamed to identify with Jesus, who himself was rejected. She was ready to face the fire and stick with Jesus. So know this: everyone who wants to live a God-honoring life, in obedience to the teachings of Jesus, will be persecuted. Somewhere along the line, in some way, you are going to be pressured to back down, to disbelieve, to deny the claims of Christ, or to defy his commands. Don’t. Graciously stick with Jesus. And anticipate eternal reward. 

That very naturally leads us to the second thing to do when resistance hits. The temptation is to get angry against the person or group that’s pressuring you. God calls us to redirect our focus elsewhere. If you’re taking notes, the second way to deal with pressure against following Jesus is to decide now that when resistance hits: 

I’ll look beyond to where blame belongs. 

Look beyond that person or group or issues to the spiritual enemy who instigates antagonism against Christians. Paul and Peter explain, reminding us: 

“Our fight is not against human beings. It is against the rulers, the authorities and the powers of this dark world. It is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly world… Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. Remember that your family of believers all over the world 4 is going through the same kind of suffering you are.”  – Ephesians 6:12 NIRV; 1 Peter 5:8-9; NLT 

Our enemy is not people 

Our enemy is not people. Never was, isn’t now, never will be. We find ourselves in an enemy-making era in America. Reject that. People are not the enemy. 

All the way back in the 6th-century B.C., the Chinese military general and strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his book The Art of War, “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.” That’s the same spirit animating Paul and Peter as they penned this caution. The battle is lost if you see people as your enemy. So know your enemy. For the Christian, our enemy is God’s enemy, Satan, the one who is called the Accuser in the book of Revelation. That’s what he does. He whips up accusations against those who love Jesus. 

Now at yChurch, we don’t major on Satan. We don’t give the devil undue attention. But neither do we ignore or deny his reality nor his evil purpose—which is to deceive as many people as possible away from Jesus, to blind people away from seeing the beauty and power of what Jesus holds out: 

  • forgiveness of sin 
  • reconciliation with God 
  • the personal presence of God in your life (the indwelling of the Holy Spirit) 
  • the Holy Spirit’s illumination of the Word of God (how the Scriptures come alive once you trust in Jesus) 
  • purpose for everything you do in life 
  • and the promise of eternal life in the world to come. 

That is what the devil hates and conspires against. It’s why he hates Christians and whips up trouble against us around the world, throughout history. Stay alert to this, Peter warns. Don’t be surprised or ashamed, and don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Remember who the enemy is, and who our enemy is not. Our enemy is not people. 

Peter knew such things because he fell for the devil’s schemes when he insisted he had a better plan for Jesus—and Jesus saw beyond Peter to where the battle really was, commanding, “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter knew of the devil’s schemes because he fell for them on the night Jesus was betrayed when Peter, captured by fear, which is one of the devil’s weapons, thrice denied even knowing Jesus. 

Paul knew of these things because before being confronted by the risen Jesus, he was spiritually blind to the truth about Jesus. Paul had been fully convinced that faith in Jesus was blasphemy and fiction—until Jesus called from heaven to him and miraculously temporarily blinded him and then sent him to a Christian who prayed for Paul so that he was instantly and miraculously healed. Jesus knew that’s what it would take to open Paul’s eyes to the truth of who Jesus is—Lord and God. 

When resistance comes against you, look beyond the person or group causing you trouble, to the spiritual enemy who fans the flames of opposition. 

Don’t let the pressures of the moment rob you of the blessings that await you. 

These first two are about how we’re to think and see when resistance hits: don’t be surprised or ashamed, and look beyond the person to where blame belongs—God’s enemy the devil. The third response when the pressure is on is about what we are to do. When resistance hits: 5 

I’ll respond to mistreatment with blessing. 

Paul writes in Romans chapter 12: 

“Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them… Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge.”  – Romans 12:14, 17-19 NLT 

The only way to potentially change someone’s bad attitude toward Christ or you…is to be Christlike toward them: bless those who persecute you. 

And Jesus didn’t teach us to love our enemies only for their good. Loving our enemies is also for our own good—to keep us from becoming the enemy, turning hate into a cycle. 

Someone has said that a true Christian is a sign of contradiction—a living symbol of the Cross. He or she is a person who believes the unbelievable, bears the unbearable, forgives the unforgivable, loves the unlovable, is perfectly happy not to be perfect, is willing to give up his or her will, becomes weak to be strong … and finds love by giving it away. 

When someone is nasty toward you when all you’ve done is follow Jesus to the best of your understanding, your calling as a Christian is to love them regardless of whether they reciprocate; do good to them regardless of whether they ever say thank you; forgive them even when they show no remorse for what they said or did. You and I are called to take the high road of responding as Jesus did, independent of what the other person does. 

But let’s talk about what forgiveness is and is not. 

  • Forgiveness is not pretending nothing happened. 
  • Forgiveness is not pretending that what someone said or did didn’t hurt. 
  • Forgiveness is not forgetting what happened. 
  • What forgiveness is refusing to let what they did destroy the possibility of getting along as far as it depends on you? 

Former President Jimmy Carter tells a story about this in his book Sources of Strength, about his experience with Eloy Cruz, a Cuban pastor who developed a surprising rapport with very poor immigrants from Puerto Rico. President Carter asked Pastor Cruz for the secret of his success. Cruz was modest and embarrassed, but he finally explained, “Senor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in our lives. For God, and for the person who happens to be in front of us at any time.” 

That approach of consistently showing love to people who might not like him otherwise broke down barriers. It built trust over time. 

Jimmy Carter writes, “That simple yet profound theology has been a great help to me in understanding the Scriptures. In essence, the whole Bible is an explanation of those two loves.” Love God, and love the 6 person who happens to be in front of you at any time. Pray for them, none of this nonsense of praying against people. Bless those who give you grief. Do good to them. 

Our calling is to, like Jesus, always respond to unkindness with kindness; bless those who mistreat you, who tell lies about you, who make life more difficult for you. 

When someone comes against you simply for following Jesus and believing what he teaches, show them love. Bless them. Do good to them. Never give evil back for evil. Because in that person who gives you trouble…there just might be the next Paul; the next opponent of Christ and Christians who comes to their senses, comes to saving faith in Christ, and joins us in proclaiming his good news to others. That, my friend, is worth pursuing. Because Jesus thinks people are pursuing. To this, and nothing less, we are called. 

Would you pray with me?

Lord Jesus, we thank and praise you for the example you set. When reviled, you didn’t take revenge. When cursed, you blessed. We thank and praise you for willingly facing persecution in order to win our salvation. 

We thank you for the miracle that despite the enemy’s persecution of Christians throughout history, your church stands. People are coming to saving faith in you around the world, including in nations where persecution is guaranteed. You are building your church, and the gates of hell are not prevailing against it. So we join our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world in praising you that you are alive and well and you are Lord. 

We pray for the persecuted church: strengthen the weak, renew the weary, comfort the sorrowful, embolden the timid, we pray. 

We pray for one another: toughen our skin and keep our hearts tender when we’re spoken against, when it’s assumed that we’re haters or ignorant. Help us, Lord, to neither be surprised nor ashamed when trouble brews simply because we bear your name. 

When the pressure is on, remind us of the spiritual war taking place. Give us compassion for our detractors rather than rage. And show us how to bless those who give us grief. Lead us in those times, Lord, that your reality and power may be seen in our dealings with them. 

We dare to pray that those who right now can’t stand you or Christians will come to saving faith in you through our witness in word and deed. For your honor and our encouragement, we ask this, Lord. Be glorified in your people! Amen.