Have you ever felt attacked or persecuted? Perhaps you have been attacked for believing in God, or for refusing to have sex outside of marriage, to drink, to smoke, to try drugs, to cheat on an assignment, or to gossip about someone? Maybe people have used you as the scapegoat and falsely blamed you for problems you didn't create?
Well, you're in good company! Elijah and the prophets, Jesus and his disciples, and countless other individuals were persecuted for living a God-centered life -- for doing the right thing. Knowing this doesn't always make being persecuted any easier. Sometimes, the Beatitude that starts, "Blessed are they which are persecuted" (Matt. 5:10) can seem … well, annoying. We know that Jesus must have had a reason for telling us this, though, as he further explains, "Rejoice and be exceeding glad" (5:12).
When I've been in situations where I've been persecuted, I've often sarcastically announced, "Yippee! I'm being attacked! Goody! People are spreading false rumors about me! Yea! I'm being accused of something I haven't done!" Often my sarcasm makes me laugh and feel better. But the real comfort comes in the promise:
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:10)
Our reward for being persecuted is "the kingdom of heaven!" But if we don't have a good understanding of the kingdom of heaven, we may feel a bit thankless -- thinking that this reward does nothing to meet our immediate need because it is "out there" in some "future time." Jesus gave us two very important insights regarding the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, that often get overlooked. He said:
… the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt 3:2),
and … the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21)
Reasoning with these truths should make us glad because:
- Our reward is not set for some future date, since God's kingdom is "at hand" -- now, in the present, immediate, instant.
- Our reward is always with us, since God's kingdom is "within" us, among us, around us, always present wherever we go.
- Moreover, the kingdom of heaven is not just our reward for being persecuted but it is our protection from persecution.
If we forget that we live in God's kingdom every moment of every day, persecution -- all the outside pressure, name-calling, and stone-throwing -- can make us think that we live in a kingdom of hell. Why, if we're following God, loving and helping others, and doing what God tells us to do, should we be persecuted, attacked, hurt? It doesn't seem fair!
Eugene Peterson's translation of the text surrounding this Beatitude makes it clear what persecution does for us and why people persecute those who follow God:
"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom."
"Not only that -- count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens -- give a cheer, even! -- for though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble." (The Message, Matt. 5:10-12)
- Persecution brings us closer to God. Think of being driven "deeper" into the very heart of God's kingdom! In that sanctuary, no one can hurt us. Wow!
- People persecute others because "the truth is too close for comfort."
- We all know of people who do something wrong and try to defend their actions. They often bully other people who are doing good to make themselves feel better. That's all there is to it.
- People who are insecure about themselves and their choices often lash out at others, condemn them, hurt them, and beat them so they can feel justified in doing whatever wrong things they're doing.
Though persecution isn't fair, right, or good, it happens. We need to learn how to defend ourselves from the effects of persecution.
Persecution would try to take us out of the kingdom of heaven by making us:
- feel defeated and give up;
- lose our faith or trust in God.
In order to counteract these "tactics," we need to keep the kingdom of heaven within us and be:
- confidently humble;
- committed to maintaining our trust in God.
Let's look more closely at the tactics of persecution and the weapons we can use to protect ourselves against it:
- One of the primary goals of terrorists at home or around the world is to strike fear into our hearts so that we give up. Giving up sometimes feels like the easiest thing to do when verbal or physical violence are potential consequences for doing the right thing. Moral courage enables us to conquer fear and to stand up for what we know to be right. One of our greatest weapons is our love of God, good. If our love of good outweighs our fear of evil, evil has no power over us. Fear then cannot make us do what God would not have us do.
The prophet Elijah learned that fear could not stop God's power. He was being persecuted for believing in God rather than following a god named Baal (as many Israelites were doing, including the king and queen). He had to flee for his life into the desert (where he was for 40+ days and nights), since Queen Jezebel was out to kill him. Fearful, miserable, alone, exhausted, and defeated, he collapsed, asking God to let him die. He complained that he alone was doing God's work. He seems to have been a bit self-righteous, as God had found 7000 who had not bowed down to Baal (I Kings 19:18). But Elijah learned that the fear tactics of terror have no real power. God had him go up to the top of the mountain to feel His presence. Tremendous winds, then an earthquake, and then a fire passed through the mountains. God wasn't in any of those terror-filled elements, but "after the fire a still small voice" was present, and that was God (I Kings 19:12). God's gentle voice stilled the fear in Elijah, and Elijah was able to hear God telling him to go back to his people, anoint kings, and anoint Elisha to follow as a prophet in his footsteps. The "still small voice" defeated the effects of persecution. Elijah again felt empowered, courageous, and confident -- able to do God's will.
- Rejoicing and being happy in the midst of persecution deprive the persecutors of the thrill of victory: their attempts to make us suffer or feel miserable have been in vain. We have maintained our composure, our positive attitude, and our ability to make decisions, which will continue to promote happiness and harmony.
- Confident humility allows us to turn our lives over to God. Such humility is the ability to say, as Jesus said in the garden of Gethsemane, "nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matt. 26:39). "Nevertheless" is an interesting word here. Jesus was saying that he was going to do God's will regardless of the pain, torture, persecution, death that others had planned for him. It took great humility and great confidence for Jesus to lay down his own opinions. He was about to be crucified! It's obvious he didn't want to be nailed to the cross as he prayed, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me" (26:39). But Jesus's teachings were built on the premise of the strength of humility. When we confidently and humbly turn our lives over to God -- not to other people to allow them to destroy us or walk over us -- we come out stronger and achieve the victory. Jesus resurrected. He proved that their persecution could not destroy him, and so showed that persecution cannot destroy us.
- Jesus made an early commitment to trust in God. At the beginning of his ministry, the devil tried to tempt him three different ways -- to turn stones into food, to throw himself off the temple, and to worship the devil in return for kingdoms (Matt. 4). Jesus knew that his real protection was in following and obeying God. Our real safety is in knowing this, too. Others would try to make us feel that God is incapable of protecting, guiding, and directing us; that God really isn't loving and doesn't care about us; that God doesn't really exist. If they can take away our faith in God, then they truly have won. When we make the commitment to trust in God, we receive the full benefits of the best Guardian in the world.
Our spiritual ancestors endured much greater persecution -- intense hatred and violence -- than most of us will ever face. Yet, they weathered persecution with more grace, strength, and assurance than many of us show when others attack us or when something goes wrong in our daily routines. It's helpful to put our problems into perspective by taking a close look at what Elijah, Jesus, and the other spiritual pioneers faced as they worked to prove that God indeed takes care of every detail of our lives.
As we confront persecution in our lives, we can turn to one of the most comforting Psalms of all:
Say this: "God, you're my refuge.
I trust in you and I'm safe!"
That's right -- he rescues you from hidden traps,
shields you from deadly hazards.
His huge outstretched arms protect you --
Yes, because God's your refuge,
the High God your very own home,
Evil can't get close to you,
harm can't get through the door.
He ordered his angels
to guard you wherever you go.
The Message, Psalm 91: 2-4, 9-1