The Reason for Christian Suffering
Dr. Tim Savage is the Senior Pastor at Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He is the author of three books: No Ordinary Marriage; The Church: God's New People; and Power Through Weakness. Dr. Savage received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition and active blogger. You can follow his personal blog at www.timothybsavage.com.
Have you ever heard of Antiochus IV? Probably not. He was the relatively lightweight ruler of Syria in the second century B.C. and a person long forgotten to history, but not in the biblical book of Daniel. Surprisingly, while major kings such as Cyrus of Persia and Alexander the Great of Greece receive only scant attention in the prophecies of Daniel, garnering only a couple of sentences each, Antiochus IV features in an extraordinary twenty-four verses in chapter eleven alone. Why would a historical nobody such as Antiochus IV earn disproportionate interest from the prophet Daniel?
The answer is simple: suffering. Few inflicted more pain on the people of God than Antiochus IV. He sought to impose Greek culture on the Jews, and when the Jews resisted, he savagely attacked Jerusalem. In 167 B.C., he sent 22,000 troops into the holy city and butchered nearly all of the male inhabitants and enslaved the women and children, leaving only a handful of survivors. He banned the Torah, prohibited circumcision, and forbade the practice of Jewish religion. To top it off, he sacrificed a pig to the pagan god, Zeus, on the high altar of the temple of the Lord.
But none of this should have occasioned surprise. It was all prophesied hundreds of years earlier in Daniel 11:31. “Forces from him [Antiochus IV] shall appear and profane the temple and fortress and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate [a reference to the swine sacrificed in the Holy of Holies].”
While the Jews have suffered greatly throughout their turbulent history, rarely have they endured such terrors as those meted out by Antiochus IV. His pogroms became a prototype of the sufferings of God’s people in the past, present, and future – which of course is why Antiochus IV tallies twenty-four verses of prophecy in Daniel 11.
Why do the people of God suffer? We find a striking answer in Daniel 11:36, where the character of Antiochus IV is exposed. “And the king [Antiochus IV] shall do as he wills. He shall exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall even speak astonishing things against the God of gods.” In other words, Antiochus IV will be his own god, doing what he wants to do, pursuing his own will, worshipping his own desires. He will set himself in opposition to rival gods, and especially to the true God, the God of gods. For such a God would pose a mortal threat to the desire of Antiochus IV to enthrone himself as god.
This is a critical insight. In a modern world where people want to pursue their own desires, to make a life for themselves according to their own ideas of what their lives should be, indeed to be their own gods, any suggestion of an alternative God represents a mortal threat to their vision of life. And when people are threatened mortally, when people are confronted by those who stand firm in the faith of the one and true God of the Bible, people strike back. People will defend what they hold most dear. They will inflict suffering on anyone who opposes, by words or actions, their passion to deify their own desires.
It is almost incomprehensible that something as good as Jesus Christ can elicit such opposition. Christianity is the best thing going. It sets us free from sin and death. It fills us with newness of life, indeed with all the fullness of God, and does so without end, eternally. How can such a winsome, comforting, and triumphant gospel produce for itself so much suffering? It makes no sense. Except when faced by people infected by the Antiochus syndrome – which, sadly, amounts to a large number of people. For such people, anyone presenting an alternative to the human desire to be the god of one’s own life must be silenced at the least, and eliminated at best.
Jesus warned it would be so. “The world will hate you because you are not of the world” (John 17:14). Because you are not like the world, because you do not make your appetites your god (see Philippians 3:19), because you do not worship your own image (see Romans 1:21-23), you will be roughly treated by those who do. In fact, perhaps the clearest outward sign that you are a true Christian is the suffering you elicit from a hostile world. This is not a truth to which we warmly gravitate, but it is reality. Little in the Bible is stressed more than the fact that in this world Christians suffer.
“In this world you will have tribulation,” said Jesus to his disciples (John 16:33). “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me they will persecute you” (John 15:20). The apostle Paul agrees. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). “We are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him” (Romans 8:17). “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). “[Let] no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3).
Hence while our sensibilities may be shocked by the suffering of Christians around the world, our expectations are not. The seventy churches burned to the ground by Muslim extremists in Niger; the scores of Christians crucified for their faith by ISIS in the Middle East; the forty-four Christian policemen shot by rebels linked to Al Qaida in the Philippines; the massacre of 2,000 Christians in northern Nigeria by fundamentalist Muslims; the church-goers (mostly women, children, and the elderly) mowed down by the guns of Boko Haram in Chad; indeed, the estimated 100,000 Christians who die for their faith in Christ every year according to The Centre for the Studies of Global Christianity – all of this should prompt revulsion and grief, as well as calls for justice and change, but not surprise.
What ought to surprise us is that there are Christians anywhere who can actually escape persecution, if not bodily injury, then at least social ostracism. Remarkably, some Christians – perhaps especially Christians in the West – customarily express relief that they are not called to endure much affliction, protected as they are by governments tolerant of Christianity. But as we have seen, indeed as Jesus himself has warned, any self-centered culture will thumb its nose and worse at those regarded as a mortal threat to its pursuit of self-seeking desires. Is it possible that Christians today have cleverly moderated their allegiance to God in ways that cause their world to take little offense? Have Christians today become chameleons, adeptly changing their colors, so that they blend in with their milieu? If so, what is lost is greater than what is gained.
The teaching of the Holy Scriptures, as well as the testimony of the church of Christ throughout history, is incontrovertibly that every great advance of the kingdom of God is brokered on the backs of Christian suffering. It was certainly the pattern of the apostle Paul, the one called by God in the first century to light a spark for Christ that would ignite a conflagration in every corner of the earth. Suffering was inseparable from and indispensable to his ministry, and Paul never hides it. “I want you to know how great a struggle I have” (Colossians 2:1). For it is a struggle that guaranteed fruit: “we carry in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our bodies” (emphasis added, 2 Corinthians 4:10). “I rejoice in my sufferings” (Colossians 1:24). “I boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (emphasis added, 2 Corinthians 12:9). “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (emphasis added, 2 Corinthians 12:10). Indeed, my sufferings are “all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (emphasis added, 2 Corinthians 4:15). In other words, “death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12).
This is the way it was for Paul. It is also the way of Jesus. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces” (Isaiah 53:3). So, too, it will be for every true Christian. It is by suffering that the Lord makes human vessels fit for a manifestation of his power. Stripped of any dependence on themselves, they look to God alone for strength, and he proceeds to channel his limitless power into them, which translates into a great work through them in the lives of others for his glory (2 Corinthians 4:7).