Suffering. This word has increasingly been used to describe the American Christian experience in a post-Christian world. There are campaigns, articles, movies, books, and social media groups built around highlighting the ways American Christians are “suffering” for their faith in more recent years.
After all, the Bible says we will suffer just because we are Christians, and you don’t have to look far to see the list of examples of how Christians are suffering in America in ways they never had before. Some are taking this message so far as to say American Christians are enduring a level of persecution.
Certainly, Christians suffering simply because of their belief in Christ is a present and historical reality. Jesus himself suffered because the people around him were threatened by the message he was preaching. Local governments and leaders were so threatened by Jesus that they ordered his death.
There are levels of persecution and suffering many Christians around the world are currently enduring. For the sake of our fellow brothers and sisters who are enduring radical degrees of persecution, American Christians need to be mindful of the way we describe what is happening culturally at home. When we characterize discomfort—and, in extreme circumstances, social ridicule—as suffering for the faith or being persecuted for Jesus, we make light of what is happening to Christians in other parts of the world today.
Flippantly describing a personal experience as suffering for the faith is often rooted in a misunderstanding of suffering theology and a lack of awareness of suffering within the church historically and globally.
A Biblical Understanding of Suffering for Christ
The Bible has a lot to say about suffering. It’s never a question of if Christians will suffer, but when.
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. (James 1:12)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. (James 1:2-3)
More than merely focusing on the suffering itself, New Testament writers encourage believers amid suffering by sharing how Christians ought to respond to it. They also point out that the trials we experience will be of “various kinds.” This means not every situation of suffering is a direct result of you being a Christian.
Suffering exists in the world for Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s not a twisted way of God training his people to be obedient. Yet, through trials and suffering, we have the opportunity to lean on our Savior all the more and discipline our hearts and minds to depend on him more fully.
Someone taking your parking spot is not a spiritual arrow thrown at you because you are a Christian.
Teachers being asked not to lead their public school classrooms in daily prayer is not necessarily a form of persecution against you specifically as a Christian. Is it a telling sign that our country is no longer guided by Christian morals and traditions? Yes. A direct form of persecution for followers of Jesus? Likely not.
The Bible spends little time identifying the types of suffering we will endure and certainly doesn’t view trials through the lens of Christians being victims. Instead, we read verse after verse about how these very difficult and real moments ought to shape our faith.
Our focus shouldn’t be on the source of the suffering or why we are suffering, but rather our response to that suffering.
Whether suffering is a direct cause of you sharing about your faith or simply a health crisis, our response should be the same—to depend on the Lord for strength, encouragement, and perseverance. These moments in our lives can be used by God to make us more like Christ. He himself suffered and is the greatest example of how we ought to carry ourselves during the worst moments of our lives.
You may be facing a very real spiritual battle that is rooted in you sharing your faith. You may find yourself face-to-face with a financial crisis or the emotional toll of losing a loved one. These are all forms of trials and suffering, but not all of them are persecution for your faith. Suffering is a direct result of our world being broken. What should be good is tainted and in great need of restoration.
Suffering must be put in its right place—something that should draw our hearts and minds closer to Jesus and not to the circumstance of suffering.
A Historical Understanding of Suffering for Christ
Suffering for the sake of Christ can be traced back to the very beginning. Again, Jesus was murdered because the religious leaders were threatened by the message he was preaching. Many of the disciples of Jesus were thrown in jail, tortured, and even killed because they shared his message.
Paul was beheaded under Emperor Nero. Peter was crucified upside down, also under the persecution of Emperor Nero. Andrew is said to have been crucified. Thomas is known to have died at the hands of four soldiers who pierced him with their spears until death. Philip was arrested and suffered a brutal death. There are conflicting accounts of how Bartholomew died, but all of them describe a form of persecution. James is reported to have been stoned and clubbed to death. Simon was killed after refusing to make a sacrifice to the sun god. Tradition says Matthew was burned to death in Syria. John is the only apostle who is thought to have died from old age—but not before he was boiled in oil and exiled.
From the foundation of the Church, Christians have been deliberately targeted as a group of people to wipe out. It wasn’t until 313 CE when Constantine legalized Christianity and promoted religious tolerance that the large scale persecution of the Church curtailed.
This impacted the daily lives of Christians significantly. They were no longer being hunted down and killed for identifying as followers of Jesus. From this moment on, Christians were viewed in a positive light in a certain part of the world, even becoming the mainstream way of life.
In many ways, this shift in the Roman Empire made way for Christians to no longer perpetually suffer physical harm and death for the sake of Christ. This change in affection for Christians was not a worldwide shift. As Christianity began to expand and missionaries began to travel all over the world they were met with waves of persecution and suffering.
Currently, in some countries like Afghanistan and Iran, it’s very difficult to follow Christ. Christians in other countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, and Egypt face violence on a regular basis. In countries like Nigeria and China, most churches are attacked and closed. Not only is it difficult to socially operate in many countries around the world as Christians, there are millions of Christians worried about their safety and lives on a regular basis. Death for Christ is a present reality and a cost Christians have to think about often.
For American Christians, we simply do not face what most other Christians around the world endure.
We are not being imprisoned or killed for attending church. We don’t have to gather for church underground out of fear of the government burning it to the ground, literally. We don’t have to worry about being surveilled because the government received an anonymous tip that we are Christians. We don’t have to worry about the women and children in our congregations being abducted at night because they are connected to a Christian church.
Sure, we are facing social ridicule in ways we didn’t necessarily in the past. That is uncomfortable, but it is not persecution.
We might feel like we are losing our Christian influence over our country. But the goal for Christians is not to turn the country Christian but to be the light of Christ in our communities. But what is so interesting is persecuted churches in countries like China and India are growing at significantly larger rates than in America.
The growth and flourishing of the Church has never been dependent upon acceptance and tolerance from the culture. The Holy Spirit empowers his people to be a reflection of Christ in the most adverse situations. This is a true testament to the power of the Spirit to mobilize the people of God to share Christ with the world.
As American Christians, we don’t have to fear the loss of influence and ease of moving about society. If anything, this should compel us to rely on Jesus more even as the culture is shifting. His Church will grow if we stop focusing on how uncomfortable we are and start showing the world what hope in Christ looks like.