The apostle Peter encourages the addressees of his First Letter that “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16). He contrasts it with the exhortation that no one should suffer as an evildoer (v. 15).
Now suffering innocently is by no means a thing easy to endure, but this is not what I wish to focus on here. Rather, I’ll center on the question “When do I know that I’m suffering as a Christian rather than as an evildoer?”. Silly question?
Imagine people always told you unmistakably that they’re persecuting you for your faith. “We put you in prison because you are a follower of Christ.” “We wish you dead because you keep forgiving people in the name of Jesus.” “We will mute you because you proclaim the truth of the Gospel.” The hardship of persecution notwithstanding, you’d be honored. For it would be clear that the hatred is unfounded, even perverse. Their very own hatred would condemn people.
But unfortunately, people mostly don’t do one the favor of specifying the exact reason for their resentment. There are two main reasons for this. First, they may not know themselves. They may feel a diffuse but strong aversion against you, without being able to say exactly what causes it. Second, they may know but use pretexts in order not to present themselves in a bad light. This is what happened to the apostles and early Christians, who were charged with freely invented accusations like acting against Caesar (Acts 17:7) or teaching against the Jewish religion and desecrating the temple (Acts 21:28). Christians nowadays can also tell you a thing or two about such denunciations. In Islamic countries, the ‘Western spy’ card is led; in Western countries, Christians are often falsely denounced as ‘homophobic’, ‘intolerant’ or ‘right-wing’.
Why should anyone care, you might reply? If the charges are totally unfounded, why bother? The problem is of course that none of us is totally innocent. I know of myself that not all such accusations are untrue all the time. So are the bullies right after all? The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that acting Christianly sometimes means being totally at odds with people’s ideas about ‘love’, ‘kindness’ or ‘helpfulness’. Suppose your spouse bullies you (because you’re following Jesus, but he or she won’t tell you), and continues to do so even after you told him or her in a kind, calm and loving tone that their behavior deeply hurts you. Is it right to live the conventional notion of love, namely to categorically affirm your spouse and never criticize them or draw consequences? But if you do what prophets and Jesus himself have done before – confront a person with the heinousness of their conduct precisely because one loves her – chances are you’re hated even more. “You don’t act like a Christian.” “You’re fooling yourself. God is love. You’re not in the love. You don’t know God.”
One better knows exactly what is Christian and what is not, and what recognition (or the lack thereof) to expect of people.
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