Retaliate, or Bless? How to Respond to Persecution

Comfy, accommodating visions of the Christian life have been popular for some time now. Peddlers of such ideas speak as if Christ’s mission were to purchase us an oversized, fluffy armchair to lounge in until He tranquilly guides us to an even fluffier cloud in heaven. “If you become a Christian, all your difficulties will fly away,” they say. “Just have enough faith, and you will reap only blessings.”

Unfortunately for such illusions, the Bible doesn’t speak about the Christian life as all roses. In fact, the Scriptures teach us to expect persecution. What’s more, God expects us to respond to our persecutors as He has modeled for us: with graciousness and love. To recast a properly biblical vision of the Christian life as one that faces persecution, we will consider (1) the promise of persecution, (2) the process to work through when faced with persecution, and (3) the pattern the Bible sets for us to follow.

The Promise of Persecution

Christian discipleship inevitably brings us within reach of persecution. After all, it is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself who told us, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). This persecution may be subtle—perhaps more intellectual and emotional—or it may prove overt and dangerous.

The Scriptures teach us to expect persecution. What’s more, God expects us to respond to our persecutors as He has modeled for us: with graciousness and love.

Most of us are familiar with subtle forms of persecution, which we may have encountered in our families, schools, or workplaces. You volunteer a Christian perspective on a topic of discussion, and you are met with disapproving smirks: “He’s a nice guy, but when he starts this Christian nonsense, he drives me nuts.” “She’s a good nurse, but she just can’t let go of this Jesus stuff.” Snide comments may not break our bones, but they do hurt.

A few among us—like our brothers and sisters in places like Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, North Korea, and many other nations—know firsthand what it is like to suffer physical attack and devastation for Christ. For them, the kind of persecution the apostles faced is not a distant possibility but a present reality—perhaps even a daily concern.

However severe our persecution, though, it ought not surprise us. In fact, this is exactly what the apostle Peter tells us we should expect:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet. 4:12–13)

Paul adds that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12), and Luke summarizes some of Paul’s early teaching by writing that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

The Process to Work Through

If tribulation, suffering, and persecution are all par for the course of the Christian life, then how should we respond to them—especially when persecution is perpetrated by the people around us? Romans 12:14 gives us the answer: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Taken in reverse order, this text tells us both what we’re not to ask for and what we are to ask for.

What are we not to ask for? Simply put, we’re not to ask for our persecutors to be destroyed. In Luke 9:51–56, Jesus faces opposition from a Samaritan village, and the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), James and John, immediately want to call down fire to destroy the people. They, like us, were retaliators by nature. Jesus, however, rebukes James and John, and they move on. Imagine if Jesus treated people as they deserved for spurning or disobeying Him. We would all be mere piles of smoldering rubble! Instead, He says, This is what I want you to do: bless those who persecute you; bless them and don’t curse them.

What does it mean to bless one’s persecutors? It is the antithesis of asking God to curse them. It is the opposite of saying, May God destroy you people for what you have done and what you are doing. The renewed Christian mind doesn’t think like the world in terms of retaliation (see Rom. 12:2) or even “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt. 5:38). On the contrary, Jesus commands, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Instead of seeking retaliation, we pray for salvation, God’s ultimate blessing, for our persecutors: God, save these people. Save these people who persecute me with their words, with their deeds, by their opposition to goodness, by their opposition to the Gospel.

Still, even for the mature Christian, to bless persecutors is no easy task. How do we get ourselves into such a posture?

Remember God’s Blessing

We begin, first of all, by reminding ourselves of God’s response to us—we who were His enemies, we who were alienated from Him and hostile to Him.

In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32), when the wayward son returns, the father lavishes mercy on him and invites everyone to celebrate. But the elder son wants justice to be served. He only sees an opportunity for retaliation:

Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him! (vv. 29–30)

The elder brother doesn’t understand grace. He doesn’t understand the forgiveness of God. But grace and forgiveness are where we must begin. Those who are forgiven much learn to love much. (See Luke 7:47.)

Consider the Persecutor’s Predicament

However much persecution hurts, it shouldn’t necessarily catch us off guard. The natural person simply cannot please God. In fact, by nature, all people are hostile to Him (Rom. 8:7–8).

Say your spouse came home after an eye surgery, unable to see during the recovery period. If they knocked over an expensive porcelain ornament, you might be upset, but you could hardly blame them. Hopefully you’d think, Well, wait a minute, I can’t just treat them dismissively. After all, they can’t see! It’s not their fault! That’s their condition. Similarly, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” who persecute God’s people (2 Cor. 4:4). This doesn’t mean that we should excuse negligent or criminal behavior, but we must always remember that persecution is consistent with the fallenness of our world.

Respond with the Same Compassion God Offers

As we consider our persecutors’ blindness, we ought to respond with compassion, kindness, and tenderness.

This is precisely how the apostle Paul instructs Titus to teach his flock:

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1–2)

And why should we behave like this? What ought to motivate us?

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. (vv. 3–5)

God gave us kindness we don’t deserve and could never earn. And He is now inviting us to extend that same grace and mercy to others, even when they spurn us—or worse.

God gave us kindness we don’t deserve and could never earn. And He is now inviting us to extend that same grace and mercy to others, even when they spurn us—or worse.

The Pattern to Follow

Finally, the Bible gives us not only a process to work through but also a pattern to follow.

In Acts 7, Stephen responds to false accusations against him by preaching the Gospel. The Sanhedrin’s response results in the first of a long line of martyrs throughout church history:

They cast him out of the city and stoned him. … And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (vv. 58–60)

Stephen is not saying that persecution is trivial. He’s not saying that what’s taking place isn’t sin. But with his dying breath, he follows the pattern of Christ, asking God to forgive the ones who pummeled him to death.

Jesus is our ultimate model, our heavenly pattern. The divine Son deserved worship, but He was discarded like trash. Highest adulation was due His name, but instead He received nails in His hands and feet. Yet still He forgave.

And, of course, it is our Lord Jesus Himself who is the highest model for blessing in the face of persecution. Battered and bloodied, humiliated and shamed, still He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). If anyone has ever had the absolute right to rain down fire and destruction upon his persecutors, surely it was Christ. But He did no such thing. He did not curse them but blessed the very ones whose sins He bore on the cross. Here is our ultimate model, our heavenly pattern. The divine Son deserved worship, but He was discarded like trash. Highest adulation was due His name, but instead He received nails in His hands and feet. Yet still He forgave.

Rarely will it come easily for us to exhibit the same wondrous mercy to those who persecute us, even in small degrees. But if Christ is in you by His Spirit—and He is for every believer—then He surely can empower you to return blessing for reviling as you seek Him in faith.

This article was adapted from the sermons “Responding to Persecution — Part One” and “Part Two” by Alistair Begg.

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