International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (Romans 8:14-39)


We’re joining churches all around the world this week who are praying for the 200 million Christians who are being persecuted around the world. The real heart of this service comes in a few minutes when we will actually join together and pray for these persecuted followers of Christ.

Some of the stories we hear about are tragic. Late last month, three Indonesian girls were beheaded for no other reason than their faith in Christ. Just last week, two more girls were shot in the head, and one of them has since died. Three Chinese Christians are in prison right now for the crime of publishing Bibles for the Chinese people to read. These stories are just a few of the 200 million stories out there of believers who are suffering for their devotion to Christ.

As we hear these stories, we are humbled that we have the opportunity to remember them and to pray for them. Today we stand in solidarity with them and remember what Hebrews says: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3).

But I also have to admit that I have questions. What in the world would make somebody willing to give up everything, including life, for Jesus?

When I was a kid, I had a book called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. I remember wondering what would cause these people to die, if that is what it took?

I mean, some of these people have a choice. We just watched a DVD and saw that some of the people who have been jailed and threatened could easily have gotten out of trouble. All they had to do was to keep a low profile or say a few words and they could have been out of trouble. But you could see in the video that for a lot of these people, they saw suffering as a privilege, something they were glad to do. You could see that, to their way of thinking, it actually make sense to suffer for Jesus Christ.

I’ll put it differently. Here in North America, we often find ourselves following Christ for how it will benefit us. We tell people that if they follow Jesus, they will be better people, hopefully have better marriages and jobs, and they will live the abundant life. We follow Jesus, but in the back of our minds is the question, “What will it do for my life?”

In some of these countries, it’s quite the opposite. Sign up to follow Christ in Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, or VietNam, and you’re signing up for trouble. You’re not signing up for a better life. You’re possibly signing up to lose your life, to go to jail, to lose your job. And yet people willingly make that choice. What is that about?

It’s like the choice between the red pill and the blue pill in the Matrix.

You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe.
You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

We can take the blue pill and go back to Christianity as we know it that really costs us nothing, or we can take the red pill and discover an alternate reality, the reality that exists, in which it actually makes sense to die for Christ if necessary.

I don’t want the blue pill. I want the red pill. I don’t want to suffer, but you don’t have to suffer by taking the red pill. You just have to be willing to suffer.

When Texas pastor Jim Denison was in college, he served as a summer missionary in East Malaysia. While there he attended a small church. At one of the church’s worship services, a teenage girl came forward to announce her decision to follow Christ and be baptized.

During the service, Denison noticed some worn-out luggage leaning against the wall of the church building. He asked the pastor about it. The pastor pointed to the girl who had just been baptized and told Denison, “Her father said that if she was baptized as a Christian she could never go home again. So she brought her luggage.”

This teen took the red pill. She lived in the reality of choosing to suffer even though it cost her the approval of her family. I want what she has – not the suffering. I want that type of faith.

So how can we live in the reality of the red pill, the reality in which it makes sense to suffer for Jesus?

To answer this question, I want to look at a passage that was written in the context of persecution. It’s written by somebody who knew what it meant to be persecuted. He spent a quarter of his missionary career in prison and eventually died for his faith. He wrote this passage to Christians who are living in what will become the epicenter of persecution in the first century.

Paul mentions three truths that will shape a reality in which it makes sense for us to suffer rather than to live an easy life that costs us nothing. We may not be called to suffer the same way as these 200 million Christians, but we can’t afford not to be shaped by these three truths. Let’s look at them together. They’re found in Romans 8.

What truths should shape our reality so that it makes sense to suffer for Christ if that’s what it takes? You can put up with suffering if three things are true:

If we get our identity from God
If we get our hope from the future
If we get our confidence from God’s plan

1. If we get our identity from God

The first reality has to do with our identity. I have coffee occasionally with people who are going through a bit of an identity crisis. That’s not a bad thing. It happens eventually to all of us. We graduate from school, get a job, get married, get divorced, get a job, lose a job, have our kids grow up, retire – all of these massive life transitions involve a change of identity.

The problem is that pretty much everything that gives us our identity is subject to change. If you get your identity from being married or from your job or wealth or accomplishments, all of that is subject to change. The more we depend on these things for our identity, the more trouble we’re in when they change.

Paul writes about our identity, except he stakes our identity on something that is dependable and that cannot change. Romans 8:16-17 says:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

If we get our identity from anything else than God, we’re in trouble the source of our identity is taken away. If you get your identity from your job, it’s a pretty serious thing to lose your job because of your devotion to Christ. If you get your identity from your relationships, it’s hard to follow Christ when your boyfriend isn’t too happy about it. The only safe place to get your identity, according to Paul, is from God. We are God’s children, he says, and co-heirs with Christ. That identity will not change, and it anchors us no matter what else in this world might change.

Paul goes even further. He says that part of our identify is that we are sufferers along with Christ. Verse 17 says, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” The verse assumes that part of our identity in Christ is that we will suffer along with Christ. When we understand our identity in Christ, we don’t get too worked up about persecution because that’s part of the deal. It’s part of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

Why is suffering part of what it means to follow Christ? Because Jesus completely subverts the system of the world. It is an alternate kingdom that turns everything completely upside down. It’s swimming upstream and living by a completely different set of values. Following Jesus means you get your identity from God, and that you’re okay with the fact that this might threaten every other identity you have. Suffering is part of that identity.

Suffering won’t make sense if we get our identity from anything other than Christ. Our suffering is actually a sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. “The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his” (George MacDonald).

Suffering makes sense if we get our identity from God.

2. If we get our hope from the future

I’ve noticed something. If I serve something gross for dinner – eggplant or zucchini or some other vegetable that kids hate – my kids won’t eat it. There is an exception. I can sometimes bribe them to eat whatever – even mushrooms! – if dessert is good enough. The better the dessert, the more they can put up with whatever comes before.

If my kids get their entire enjoyment from the vegetables, then we are all in trouble. They won’t call it a good meal. But if you ask them what the meal was like after they finish off that double chocolate cake with ice cream, they will say it was a good meal. The dessert made the whole thing worthwhile.

Paul writes in verse 18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

In verses 19 to 27, he goes on to describe the condition of the world today. His point is that things really are in bad shape today. In fact, all of creation, he says, is “subjected to frustration” and longing for the day that it will be liberated. That’s what I love about Paul. He doesn’t deny that things are bad today. If anything, he says they are worse than we think. If we get our hope from this world, then we’re in big trouble. Paul says, instead, to get hope from the future rather than the present.

This hits me, because I tend to be centered on what’s right before me much more than what lies ahead. We all tend to see the next year or two of our lives and worry about them. Paul says that whatever we go through right no, no matter how bad – and it can get bad – none of it will compare to the glory that’s in store for us.

Jesus said something similar:

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life. (Luke 18:29-30)

It’s tempting to put our hope in what’s right in front of us. The problem is, it’s not that good in the first place. The world is not a kind place, and we often find that we’ve misplaced our hopes and become disillusioned with the brokenness we encounter all around us.

Paul says, yes, it is bad now, and it’s even worse when we’re suffering – but it will be worth it in the end because this isn’t where we place our hope. Our hope is ultimately in God, not in what happens now.

Not only that, but God will help us deal with all of this while we wait for the future. Look at verse 26: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” The Spirit knows it’s hard, and he even prays for us as we suffer. His prayers can’t even be put into words. They’re “wordless groans” or “inexpressible groanings”.

That is why someone can say, like we saw in the DVD, “Kill me? Sure, whatever. Either way I win.” These people aren’t putting their hope in this life. They have put their hope in the future glory that will be revealed in us, that makes everything that we go through here worthwhile. They also know that the Spirit is praying for them while they suffer.

To recap: there are some people who live so radically that it makes more sense to suffer for Christ than to sell out and life comfortably. How do they manage to put up with suffering? They get their identity from God and their hope from the future. One more. We can put up with suffering…

3. If we get our confidence from God’s plan

When you’re in the middle of suffering and persecution, you don’t always know what’s going to happen. You’d think this creates a lot of uncertainty. The reality is that things don’t always get better. Many people have died throughout history. The stories often don’t have happy endings.

So we know we’re not always in control, and the endings aren’t always happy ones. The whole situation can seem like it’s out of control.

It’s here that Paul steps in and reminds us that we don’t get our confidence from how things turn out, because really there is no such thing as a bad ending. It’s like we saw in the DVD. One woman said, “Kill me, that’s fine. Let me live, that’s fine too. Whatever happens, I win.”

Paul puts it this way in a familiar verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We usually use this verse to say that God always brings a happy ending. Not really. There are lots of bad endings. What this verse says is that even the bad endings accomplish God’s purposes.

Suffering, according to Paul, doesn’t remove us from Christ. If anything it carries us to our ultimate goal. If you kill us, well, fine. We’ll be glorified sooner than if we had lived. If we live, well, fine. God will still complete his work in us. It’s like what Paul said: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

According to Paul, God’s plan for us can’t be thwarted. No human opposition can touch what God wants to do with our lives. He says that God being for us outweighs everything else. Paul asks, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?” (Romans 8:33) No charge can ever be brought against a Christian because God has already given a verdict of not guilty. And nothing can separate us from God’s love.

Why follow Christ, even if it leads to suffering? Because suffering makes sense when you get your identity from God, your hope from your future, and your confidence from God’s plan.

Listen to what a church leader said. He was reflecting on his time in Romania under Communism when Christianity was illegal.

During communism, many of us preached…and people came at the end of a service, and they said, “I have decided to become a Christian.”
We told them, “It is good that you want to become a Christian, but we would like to tell you that there is a price to be paid. Why don’t you reconsider what you want to do, because many things can happen to you. You can lose, and you can lose big.”
A high percentage of these people chose to take part in a three-month catechism class. At the end of this period, many participants declared their desire to be baptized. Typically, I would respond, “It is really nice that you want to become a Christian, but when you give your testimony…there will be informers here who will jot down your name. Tomorrow the problems will start. Count the cost. Christianity is not easy. It’s not cheap. You can be demoted. You can lose your job. You can lose your friends. You can lose your neighbors. You can lose your kids who are climbing the social ladder. You can lose even your life.”
Let me tell you my joy—when we looked into their eyes, and their eyes were in tears, and they told us, “If I lose everything but my personal relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ, it is still worth it.”

We can take the blue pill and keep on living the way we’re living. Or we can take the red pill and discover what it means to say, “If I lose everything but my personal relationship with my Lord Jesus Christ, it is still worth it.”

We’re going to pray for the persecuted church and for those who persecute Christians. But let’s also pray that we will have the same faith that they do.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada