China’s New Religious Regulations: Suffering in the Shadow of the Cross
Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.
“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.”
1 Peter 4:1-2
What if I told you that for Christmas someone was going to give you something you have desired for a very long time? I’ll bet your mind is working in several directions. At the very least you can probably think of one thing that you would really like as a Christmas gift. Maybe a new smart phone to replace the one you have with a cracked screen, dwindling storage, or phone camera that was already outdated three phone generations ago. Or maybe you’re thinking of some clothing item that you’ve been checking out online or in the stores. Perhaps you have been coveting a vacation somewhere sunny and tropical, or a ski trip to the mountains during the winter months.
I could go on and on, but here you are, waiting expectantly for this gift that someone has promised you. You’re counting down the days to Christmas until, finally, the day arrives, and the person who promised you this long-expected gift tells you they lied. They were not actually planning on giving you this gift. In fact, they are so broke they are wondering if they could borrow $100 from you.
You can already feel the disappointment in your heart, can’t you? It is precisely the kind of disappointment you would experience if someone promised you that the Christian life would be easy, and in the end, you come to discover they lied. In fact, the Christian life is quite difficult.
What would you wish this person had told you instead? You would probably wish they had told you the truth, that being a Christian is not easy. In so many words this is exactly what the apostle Peter is telling those read 1 Peter. This message had particular relevance for the Christians in his day who were struggling with a very real, and very dangerous, enemy in the form of the Roman Empire.
This message travels two thousand years of Christian history though both space and time to speak to every generation of believers with a resounding message. For us today it says that to be a Christian means we arm ourselves with an attitude anticipating suffering. This is what Peter says in 1 Peter 4:1, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” The Greek word translated as “way of thinking” in the ESV is also translated as “attitude” or “intention” in other translations. The notion here is that we prepare, and we expect to suffer.
In China we are all waiting to see what February 2018 will bring. The government’s new policies on unregistered Christian gatherings and activities could bring many of us, both locals and foreigners who are involved in such kinds of unregistered ministries, a lot of trouble. I was just in a meeting with our local presbytery discussing how churches will respond to potential arrests, confiscation of property, or disruption from the authorities of our normal church life. For all of us leaders this is not theoretical. It is reality. It is part of the docket of items that must be discussed and addressed alongside how we are going to handle other “normal” items of church life.
This is one kind of suffering. In Peter’s day the stakes were even higher. Christians were being called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of Christ and his holy name. Peter calls his audience to endure unjust suffering in 1 Peter 2:20-21, “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” The powerlessness of these people was certainly an issue that this Christian community grappled with and was being called upon to embrace. Certainly, God poured out an extra measure of grace for them, but that didn’t mean it was easy for them. I call this suffering the suffering of living in the world. It may look different in different contexts, but it is unavoidable. Being a Christian in this world necessarily involves suffering and struggle with the order of the world and the things the world values and prioritizes. James 4:4 tells us, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
For us Christians in the West, this means facing the powerlessness of being part of a marginalized community whose worldview is constantly being ridiculed. The forces for secularization and modernization are powerful and the affect they have on the church is to undermine the plausibility of the Christian worldview. I’ve recently been reading The Sacred Canopy, published in the 1960s by sociologist Peter Berger, who recently passed away. In it he describes the forces of secularization and modernization and their effects on the church with frightening accuracy, and he concludes that these forces will ultimately lead to the total demise of the church in the Western world.
Thankfully his conclusions were not correct; but many of his analyses are strikingly descriptive and relevant. In the buffet of competing worldviews available to the Western mind, the Christian worldview has become less and less plausible as time goes on. As Christians we must face the reality of this kind of suffering with the same weapons with which Peter informed his audience in the first century to arm themselves.
Another kind of suffering is the suffering of the flesh. Peter speaks to this in 1 Peter 4:1-2. Whereas in chapters 2 and 3 he describes the kind of suffering that comes in the form of persecution, in chapter 4 he describes a different kind of suffering that involves denying the fleshly pleasures of this world. In fact, it seems that he is implicitly linking these two kinds of suffering together, essentially saying that if you suffer as a Christian in the arena of the world, you are better prepared to endure the sufferings that entail denying the temptations of the flesh.
I have heard more than one Chinese pastor in mainland China exclaim that they do not pray for the suffering and harassment of the church in China to cease; rather, they pray that God would use it to continue to purify the church. It is important to make a point of clarification here about what Peter is not saying. He most certainly is not saying that if you suffer in the world you will automatically not have to suffer in the flesh. Rather the emphasis is clearly on arming ourselves with a mindset that in some way or another we will suffer. To put it another way, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
So how are you experiencing this? If you are a Christian living in America, you need to recognize you are not part of the majority. You are part of a community that is increasingly losing power. How should you respond? Should we lie down and take it? Should we power up and dominate political and legal structures to gain a voice? Peter would call to us and say that we ought to arm ourselves with an expectation that is consistent with the Christian witness of two thousand years.
The language of arming ourselves with a mindset of suffering is ironic and strangely contradictory; yet, that is exactly what we are called to do. The phrase “arm yourselves” appeals to a military image. We are to be militant about our willingness to suffer, in a way that brings glory to Christ.
I would go as far as to say this. Unless you somehow identify with the weak, seemingly insignificant, marginalized, outnumbered posture of the church in some way, much of the Bible will make no sense to you. Some of the Psalms we read seem so foreign as we read the Psalmist’s imprecatory words of judgment on God’s enemy. They only make sense when we connect with the sentiment of a beleaguered, powerless, rag-tag, group of people who have no hope of surviving; whose only hope is to call on the sovereign Lord of the universe to save them.
One of the blessings of working with the house church in China is that they are a marginalized, disadvantaged community. At the same time, they are a growing and influential community. So much so that both Christian and non-Christian journalists and scholars cannot ignore the impact the church is having.
As a result of my own ethnographic interviews, church leaders have identified themselves as a “teenager” in comparison with what is going on in the church globally. A teenager that is eager to learn, but sometimes cocky about what they know. A teenager that is growing fast, but needs to learn how to govern themselves through wisdom. They admit they have much to learn.
But our “teenager” brothers and sisters in China also have something to teach the rest of the world. They know of suffering in the shadow of the cross. With them, it is time we all grow in our understanding of the theology of the cross and of Peter’s words: “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.”