“I have found truly jubilant Christians only in the Bible, in the underground church and in prison.” ~ Rev. Richard Wurmbrand. This unrelenting question has consumed my thoughts… Is there a precedent for thanking God for persecution? After all, our reasons for expressing thanks tend toward the good things we receive, not something we regard as bad. For example, most of us wouldn’t say, “I’m most thankful for cancer,” if we were diagnosed with that terrible disease. But if all blessings are from God (James 1:17), do they only come in the form of things we perceive as good? Can blessings also stem from the suffering He permits? Even persecution?
I know I walk on tenuous ground, for who am I to claim that persecution is a basis for thanksgiving? Personally, I have not endured much suffering because of my Christian faith. How then, when reading the reports coming out of Afghanistan, could I possibly think Afghan Christians should pause to thank God for their dire circumstances?
I recently learned that the wife of a Ugandan pastor witnessed his brutal death. When this dear sister closes her eyes to sleep, she relives the terrible moments of her husband’s martyrdom and, in the midst of the pain, struggles to find hope. Am I honestly proposing that this grieving widow express thanks to God for the trauma she experienced?
I have no easy answers for these questions, and I’m not judging anyone for how they respond to their persecution. But Biblically and historically, I find many examples of Christians rejoicing in persecution and praising God for it.
In Trouble on the Way: Persecution in the Christian Life, I tell the story of some Ethiopian teenagers who, after converting to Christianity, had to flee from their families for fear of their lives. When I asked them how it felt to have family members seeking to kill them because of their conversion, the response of these teens astounded me. “We are happy,” they exclaimed. “Why?” I pressed. “Because,” they answered, “we have read in our Bibles how Jesus suffered; and He said all who follow Him would suffer as well. So, we are thankful for this persecution because it means we are following Him.”
Acts chapter five gives us a Biblical basis for thanking God when enduring suffering for the sake of Christ. The apostles had just been beaten by the Jewish religious leaders of their day and charged to never speak the name of Jesus again. As soon as they were dismissed, “…they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonour for the name” (Acts 5:41 ESV).
To live this out means each of us should joyfully take up our cross to follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24). It means rejoicing when we are ridiculed and mistreated because of our allegiance to Him (Matthew 5:11-12). It means gladly laying down our lives in service to our Lord and Saviour (John 15:13). And it means seeing persecution not as something to be scorned but rather embraced – with rejoicing – because we know our Lord is working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).
Not every persecuted Christian will say they enjoy the elements of suffering. My young Ethiopian brothers and sisters in Christ did not relish the troubles they endured while fleeing for their lives. Likewise, Afghan Christians do not like having their lives threatened by Taliban militants, nor do Nigerian believers appreciate brutal attacks from Islamic terrorists. Rev. Richard Wurmbrand testified that persecution is painful and something our physical bodies hate. Yet, though he endured considerable agony physically, he soared spiritually to new heights with Christ and, therefore, found his purpose for expressing thanks.
If we can praise God in the storm, doesn’t it stand to reason that we can also praise God for the storm? A.W. Tozer put it this way: “If we are called upon to suffer, we may be perfectly sure that we shall be rewarded for every pain and blessed for every tear. Underneath will be the everlasting arms, and within will be the deep assurance that all is well with our souls.”
I pray you’ll hear the song that arises in the night. It’s a song that offers to Jesus all the tears and sorrows produced in suffering as an act of thankful worship for His victory over death and hell. May you find a song to sing as you give thanks to Him in every circumstance and for every trial that leads you deeper into His abiding presence.