I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
Philippians 1:20 (NIV)
I always have to remind myself when I read Philippians that it was written by a man in jail! Except for some small mentions of his circumstances (for example, 1:14), you would never guess it from the tone of the letter. The whole epistle is upbeat and enthusiastic with frequent rejoicing throughout.
In 1:20, Paul seems to be concerned that he might become discouraged by his long ordeal. (Acts 28 seems to indicate that he was in the Roman jail for quite a long time.) But, overall, he expects that he will have sufficient courage to keep his faith strong and thriving, no matter what his outcome turns out to be – even if he is condemned and executed!
What a difference from most of us American Christians! We have grown up in a society where freedom of religion is pretty much taken for granted. We have not been persecuted for our faith, beaten or barred from the marketplace, or had to forfeit our property, as many believers in other parts of the world have. And so we have developed a unique sort of theology – the kind that can only be developed in a privileged place like America. In this uniquely slant faith, we expect that, if we are faithful to God, that our lives will be blessed – characterized by freedom from want and freedom from trouble. If something bad does happen to us, whether disease or injury, or loss of job, or any other bad thing, it can really take its toll on our faith, causing us to doubt God’s goodness, or His omnipotence, or both. We scour the pages of the Bible, and read, and talk, and listen, trying to make sense of the so-called “problem of evil.”
But I don’t see the New Testament saints agonizing over the evils that befell them (and ALL of Jesus’ apostles and very many of the later disciples DID experience powerful persecutions). Instead, the whole tenor of Jesus’ teachings, and many of the epistles in the Bible as well, clearly indicate that if you really follow Jesus and live a Christ-centered life, trouble and persecution will be a part of it. (For example, Matthew 10:17ff, 24:9; Luke 21:12; John 15:20, 16:2; 2 Timothy 3:12; Revelation 2:10; and many, many others.)
Christians all over the world, right this minute, are experiencing persecution, and are encouraged by these Scriptures to know that it is all exactly what Jesus predicted would happen. And He also promised to be present with His people no matter what they might be going through. That becomes the “blessing-side” of the persecution – they get to experience the presence of Jesus in powerful ways that only those suffering for the sake of the gospel can know!
These days the enemies of the gospel in America have nearly intimidated the Church into silence by accusations of narrow-mindedness or judgmentalism, or political incorrectness. (You don’t want to offend anyone, you know!) But our call is to ignore those who would silence us and pray that God would empower us to speak his Word, to never be ashamed, but to testify even MORE boldly. (See Acts 4:19-20, 29-30.) If we end up suffering persecution, we can count ourselves blessed to be suffering for the cause of Christ along with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. But if we allow ourselves to be silenced by those around us, then our society will continue its slide toward the abyss. Now, more than ever, American Christians need to put aside our theology of “easy Christianity” and commit ourselves anew to the cause of Christ, counting the cost and boldly moving forward.