On Sunday morning, November 5, 2017, worshippers at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church heard shots ring out in the parking lot, and looked up in horror to see a man in the doorway, wearing black tactical gear and wielding a semi-automatic rifle. He began systematically shooting virtually everyone in the pews. When the massacre was over, 26 men, women, children and babies lay dead or dying, with another 20 injured.
The killer was from our nearby community of New Braunfels, Texas.
As I was praying over my brothers and sisters, God reminded me of the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Because that’s what it was like. We have seasons of victory for the Kingdom when souls are being saved, and people are being healed and delivered, and we’re exulting on the mountaintop, and then suddenly the Adversary is pulling us into the Valley of the Shadow with suffering and trauma and persecution. He wants to stop us doing what we’re doing.
And so, I wanted to share this series of posts on persecution, perseverance, and prayer – so we can understand what’s happening when it’s happening, and know what to do when it happens. To begin with, we need to understand the difference between types of suffering, and why God allows the suffering of persecution.
What’s the difference in the kinds of suffering we experience?
James 5:13 says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray.” Three types of suffering or affliction might come our way.
- We suffer because we live in a world that is cursed.
Jesus, in Luke 13, talks about the Tower of Siloam: “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” What Jesus was saying was that they weren’t being punished by God – it was an accident. There’s a curse on the land. You live in a fallen world! Stuff happens.
- We suffer because we have an enemy who comes to steal, kill and destroy. We are born in a war zone.
A few months before the Sutherland Springs church shooting, another tragedy struck a church in our community. A group of senior citizens from the New Braunfels First Baptist Church were returning from a retreat, when a pickup truck driven by a young man high on marijuana and Clonazepam crossed into their lane and struck them head-on, killing 13 of the senior citizens. The 20-year old didn’t set out that day intending to kill elderly Christians, but his bad choices led to the tragedy. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes the innocent are the victims of the sins of others.
When I found out about this horrible accident, I went into prayer — I went into intercession, as I took it personally. We had declared New Branfels our city. We had been having our “#LoveNewBraunfels” outreach that weekend, and we were declaring life and love in the city – reaching out to serve people – to share the love of Jesus. We’d had crazy testimonies of healings and three creative miracles. And now…this! This was not a coincidence! It was like retaliation from the enemy. “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 NIV)
- We suffer from sickness (but we don’t have to).
James 5 says that if you are suffering from sickness, you are to have the elders lay hands on you, anoint you with oil, and pray for you so that you may be well. He is talking about physical pain, illness, disability, those kinds of issues. And there is an expectation of healing happening. That’s the point. “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up…Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:14-16). We have a command and a promise here, thus we expect and claim healing for our physical bodies.
- We suffer from persecution (because of our faith).
When we are making a difference in the Kingdom of God, we can expect persecution. We don’t go looking for it – but we have to recognize that we will be persecuted. We are not to be surprised at the fiery trials that come upon us (1 Peter 4:12).
I fully believe that the thorn in Paul’s flesh was not an ailment. I don’t think he was dealing with something internal – an illness or a disability. I think he was dealing with persecution. Any time that phrase “thorn in the flesh” is used elsewhere in Scripture, it’s talking about Israel being harassed by ungodly nations (Numbers 33:55, Joshua 23:13, Judges 2:3); it’s never talking about sickness.
I think Paul was dealing with a person (or persons) empowered by a spirit (a messenger of Satan) that was going around persecuting – and it was harassing him everywhere he went, and it was getting annoying. He asked God to deliver him, and God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Why does God allow persecution?
Persecution is “Father-filtered.” That doesn’t mean that God sends us suffering – we have an enemy that does that. It’s Father-filtered in the sense that God takes the persecution sent by the Adversary, and turns it around to accomplish His ends – both in and through the church, and in and through us personally.
Paul, of anybody, did the most writing on persecution. He glorified the chains. He gave glory to the Lord and he boasted in the Lord in everything – even persecution. He talked about the suffering that was persecution, and how that developed him, and how everyone else would benefit. So, how does persecution develop us and benefit the church, His people?
- Persecution purifies and grows the church (Acts 8:1; 11:19-21).
When persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, the believers scattered throughout Israel and to other countries. And as they went they shared their faith in the Lord Jesus, and a great number of people believed.
Paul said his chains and imprisonment advanced the Gospel (Phil 1:12-18, 4:22).
When he was in prison, other brothers and sisters became more confident and fearless in proclaiming the good news. Paul was able to minister to the guards who were chained to him and ultimately Caesar’s household. And let’s not forget that Paul wrote a significant part of the New Testament while in chains.
- Persecution produces perseverance. (Romans 5:3-4, James 1:2-3)
It’s not fun. It’s not easy. But yet, we are supposed to rejoice in our persecution. We’re to consider it pure joy. Why? Because the testing of our faith produces perseverance. And perseverance produces character. And character brings hope.
Persecution is Father-filtered in that He’s never going to leave us or forsake us, we never go through it alone, and it will make us stronger. It will renew our faith, build our faith, and strengthen our faith. It will grow in our character. As we persevere through persecution, it will produce the fruit of the Spirit when we’re stubborn enough in our love for God that we know, no matter what, that He’s good. And we’re going to stand on what He says!
When persecution presses in, we may be perplexed and confused – what we’re going through might not make any sense. But we stand firm in our knowledge of our Father – in our encounter with Him. We have to know our identity in God and have that intimacy with Him – that childlike faith – as we allow Him to grow and develop us even in the fire – because He’s right there in that fire with us. He is refining us so that He can use us to more effectively grow His church.
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