Persecution: The call to believe that His presence is enough

By Jill Waggoner

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:10)

A few years ago, a series of events led to unprecedented emotional suffering in my life. I had walked with Christ for decades, but my experiences that year unearthed an anti-gospel that had taken root in my heart. I believed that if I did the right things, then God would reward me and so would the good people around me. I had subconsciously made what C.S. Lewis might call a “bargain” with Him.

The first major blow that revealed this thinking: my stillborn niece. My family foggily worked through our grief, and I began to build a theology of suffering. Then, in the same year, my husband and I waded into the depths of relational ministry. About that same time, my husband was involved in enacting church discipline.

We were surrounded by relational conflict. My husband’s actions were misunderstood and sometimes maligned. We had to extinguish gossip, while seeking to give those involved appropriate privacy. There were some aspects of the situations we couldn’t even talk about together. We were hurting and looking to God in confusion. We sought to confess and repent for our mistakes as they were revealed, but also act faithfully and biblically.

The emotional and relational realities of these days were unlike anything I had previously experienced. I was a mess. God did not do what I asked or what I thought He would do. Neither did the people around me. I hesitate to use the word ‘persecution’ as it applies to that time, but biblical passages on that topic ministered to me in profound ways as I tried to make sense of it all.

Beginning with the biblical truths regarding suffering, God began to weave other teachings, including persecution, Godly discipline, and the kingdom. As I searched the Scripture, God revealed the beauty of His ways in passages such as Hebrews 12, 1 Peter, 2 Corinthians 6, and Matthew 5.

In Matthew 5:10-11, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me.” (CSB)

I would bet that the crowd hearing the Sermon on the Mount that day felt like I did. Jesus didn’t say what they thought He would say, or what we would say, if given the chance. We would say, “If you follow me, then I will make your life great!” But Jesus was proclaiming the good news of a kingdom that is not of this world.

It struck me that many of the blessings and promises found in the Sermon on the Mount are future, but this claim is present tense. The insults and persecution co-exist with the reward.

I began to believe that the difficulties of that year were not God’s judgment or a lack of care from Him, as I had once felt. They were an invitation into a new way of life with Him. Revelation 3:19-20 says, “As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be zealous and repent. See! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

The call in Matthew 5 is ultimately a call to faith, to trust in the work of Christ, not in some deal that we have made based on our “good” works. It’s a call to believe that His presence is enough. It’s call to look directly at the hard things and welcome them, as we welcome Him, knowing there is more to this life than its rewards or comfort — and even more in the life to come. Matthew 5:12 says, “Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

Psalm 25:14 says, “The secret counsel of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and He reveals His covenant to them.” I believe God used that time of difficulty in our lives to call us near and reveal new truths about Him. He was working on our hearts, changing the way we live and see and serve.

I pray for my brothers and sisters who face difficulties and even greater persecution today, and I join in His words to call them “blessed.”

Published January 29, 2018

Jill Waggoner

Jill Waggoner is wife to Brandt, a small groups and missions pastor at Foothills Church. She's a mom to two blonde-headed boys in Maryville, Tenn. She has served with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for 11 years and is currently deputy press secretary and lead brand strategist for Global Hunger Relief—a cooperative Southern Baptist hunger initiative. Find her on Twitter at @jjwaggoner.