There are two ways to learn life’s important lessons: by observation and study of the information available to us (the wise way of learning), or by the experience that comes from not observing and studying (commonly called “learning lessons the hard way”).
I’ve often heard it said that persecution would be a good thing for the church, but I think that view is based on the second way of learning – the idea that we would learn the lessons of persecution the hard way. But I’m not convinced we have to go through persecution to learn. Shouldn’t we be faithful and do the things we’re supposed to do without having to be threatened first?
On the other hand, maybe these are just lessons we do have to learn the hard way. Whether it takes that catalyst or not, the lessons are there to be learned just by looking at what happened to the early church. Here are four that stand out to me:
- We would be fully dependent on one another. The kind of love and unity Jesus commanded in John 13-17 would Jesus followed “Love one another as I have loved you” with “the world will hate you” in John 15:12-25, and John did the same thing in his letter (1 John 3:13-16). The answer to persecution is care for one another. If we are confronted everywhere without with hatred, the only natural choice is to turn within to find love and support.
- A lot of our petty divisions would go away. The more the world hates us, the more we turn toward each other for love and community. And when we do that, we begin to realize that we’re on the same team with people we might not have cared for before. I’m not saying doctrine would be thrown out the window. What I am saying is that the minor issues that divide us now – matters of opinion, personality disputes, judging one another, etc. – would suddenly be seen for how ridiculous they truly are. Church hopping or avoiding one another would be a thing of the past. Congregations looking down on each other or refusing fellowship with each other over minor differences or past hurts would be unthinkable. Unity of the church isn’t valued very highly right now. Throw in threats of financial loss, imprisonment, or even death, and I suspect we’d start finding more reasons to get along.
- Half-hearted Christians would have to make a decision. Right now it’s incredibly easy to be a “Christian.” Very little commitment is demanded of most churchgoers today. Should we come to a time in which following Jesus is life or death, however, casual Christianity would rapidly disappear. Jesus said, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much” (Luke 16:10), a point he reiterated in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:21, 23).
If a person can’t sacrifice time, preferences, sinful habits, or the things of this world for Jesus now, why would they be willing to do so at the cost of their own life? On the other hand, those who are faithful in that way now will be the only ones who remain should times of persecution come. There will be no such thing as a half-committed Christian.
- Prayerlessness would be absurd. In my experience, prayer is often an afterthought today. We add a couple of prayers to our worship times. We keep a prayer list of those who are sick. But the idea of regularly (as in, every week or so) gathering solely for the purpose of prayer is given little thought in many cases. If we were dealing with great persecution, though, I suspect that’s another thing that would change quickly.
Just look at the early church in the book of Acts – they didn’t do anything without prayer. One of my favorite examples is found in Acts 4:24-31, where Peter and John were released from arrest and immediately gathered with the church to pray – not that they would not be arrested or persecuted again – but for more boldness and confidence to keep preaching. Once again, the point is that we shouldn’t have to learn the hard way. It shouldn’t take imprisonments and death threats to get us to do what we should already be doing. The question is whether we’re willing to learn from the knowledge that is readily available to us, or if we will stubbornly refuse to do what we should unless we are forced to do so.
Will we learn from the information available, or will we wait until times are difficult before we do what they did?
It should not take external pressure to make us love each other with the same self-sacrificial attitude Jesus had (Philippians 2:1-8). We should do so because He first loved us.
It should not take the threat of persecution to get us to find out what is really essential and what is merely preference or personal pettiness. We should be willing to look past differences of opinion without being forced to do so (see Romans 14).
Churches should not tolerate half-hearted, one foot in and one foot out Christianity. Jesus challenged those who would follow Him (Luke 9:57-62), yet we try to provide as easy of a path as possible to get as many as we can in the door. Let’s not wait for persecution to force our hands in challenging people with the call of Christ.
Prayer should be one of the driving factors of every single congregation. It shouldn’t take a severe illness or hardship to call us to prayer now, and it certainly shouldn’t take mass persecution to cause us to devote ourselves to prayer in the future.
What lessons do you think persecution would teach us? Can we learn them without having to be persecuted first?
Jack Wilkie is the editor of focuspress.org and author of “Church Reset: God’s Design for So Much More.” He also preaches for the Forney church of Christ in Forney, TX, where he, his wife, Allison, reside with their four children. You can find his full bio here.