A Chinese Perspective on Christian Suffering
By its very nature, suffering has its roots in this fallen world. But in the hands of a saving God, suffering turns into an inevitable, glorious mark of true Christianity. 1 Peter 4:12-13 admonishes us, “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.” The reality of our resurrected lives in Christ as we await his return in this fallen world necessarily implies that we will suffer with and for Christ. Our suffering is a spiritual continuation of his suffering in this world and from this world. It is embedded in our union with Christ that bestows a life of new creation and the rich heavenly benefits of justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification. Looking from the other side of heaven, standing in this world, we recognize that all of these have the inescapable feature of suffering.
But what does this suffering look like? The degree and form of suffering is largely determined by the context of the surrounding culture, by our flesh, and by the devil. When the devil uses the world to challenge our faith, particularly through political force, we have external persecution. In those situations, we are isolated and marginalized in the culture, left with little opportunity in the society. As the result, the temptation of our flesh is often greatly restricted by such external force. We can joyfully embrace suffering because God intends to use it as a means to purify and grow his people. After all, according to Psalm 119:71, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.”
Usually, when the external persecution is too heavy, people are scared away from Christianity. This was exactly the case in China during the 1950s and 1960s. But as a consequence of the social-economic impact of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government started to loosen its control of social life. Christianity began to grow in China’s rural areas under moderate political persecution. In the past thirty years, unprecedented and successful economic reform and development has brought great social impact in the area of individual freedom. The Chinese government has largely retreated from the arena of ideology; tensions with Christianity are more about the control of power. Christians and churches are given great room to grow, though there is still cultural hostility and government disapproval. This situation helps keep religious consumers away from Christianity, maintaining the purity of the church to a certain degree. Governmental concern about church size has led to action against some churches in urban areas, but as the side effect, these actions have indirectly catalyzed the growth of the church.
China’s dazzling church growth has amazed many. While hailing the explosion, people often ask and conjecture about the numbers. After all, numbers do speak. But we must be informed that the astonishing growth of the Christian population comes in the context of a “religious demographic dividend.” Large numbers of people who previously called themselves atheists are now entering into different religions including Buddhism, Christianity, and folk religions. The roots of this religious outbreak can be traced back to 1919 when Chinese intellectuals blamed their cultural roots and attempted to eradicate Confucianism entirely. This agenda was further executed from 1949 to 1979, particularly intensely during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, effectively replacing Confucianism with Marxism. The magnitude of what China has done to its culture is unprecedented in the history of the world.
Amidst such quick numerical growth, the church in China must clearly understand that its greatest challenges come from within, not from without. Atheist China is becoming a secular country with plural faith. The gospel has a unique opportunity to dialog and interact with the Chinese people and culture. The gospel has the chance to shape and transform Chinese culture through various ways, especially at its core values concerning the meaning and significance of humanity. The challenge the Chinese church faces is the temptation of the flesh, a different form of suffering and one that the devil uses through the world to corrupt our faith. If the church fails in this after such a wave of cultural reformation, Christianity will eventually be marginalized once again in China and become irrelevant.
All this hinges on our deep understanding and grasp of the gospel that Jesus Christ died and rose again. We must live out the reality of his resurrected life in us and fellowship in his suffering. The new life, new age, and new humanity recreated in Christ must redefine who we are and how we live. It is time to pray, to ponder, and to act for our glorious Lord.