“Where does persecution in America come from? Because I can’t figure it out.” The man, a lifelong missionary only recently driven home by health concerns, glared at the class, his eyes piercing students’ hearts.
He had just lamented the increasingly weak witness of the American church after recounting stories of persecuted believers — the ones being tortured, dragged from their homes, or thrown in prison — who can’t imagine giving up their witness.
The only answers he got were blank stares. I certainly didn’t have an answer.
Why is our witness so weak when we have easy access to reach our neighbors with the gospel? What stops us from walking across the street or going into the unreached parts of our towns and cities? If our brothers and sisters are risking their necks to do it around the world, why aren’t we doing it here?
These questions haunt me.
But I may have figured out the answer (or at least part of it) to where American persecution comes from.
Where Persecution in America Comes From
Where does persecution in America come from? Nowhere.
Let me explain by looking at the effects on believers of living with and without persecution.
Persecution causes would-be believers to count the cost before following Jesus. The knowledge that you’ll likely lose your home, family, and job because you were baptized into the Christian faith makes you think more than twice about pledging allegiance to the cross.
But when there don’t appear to be any real costs to following Jesus, as is the case in America, what’s the big deal in saying you believe? This is changing in America, to some extent, but the odds of a professing believer losing their job or family because of their belief are very slim compared to other parts of the world. Without counting the cost, the odds of being choked out by the cares and riches of the world (Matthew 13:22) are much, much greater. This is one big reason why American Christianity is filled with so-called Christians who no longer practice the faith.
Persecution results in suffering that can catalyze sanctification. This is why the church is called to rejoice in its suffering, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Christians are called to count it a joy when they meet trials of various kinds, because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. And when steadfastness reaches its full effect, we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).
But without persecution, the drive for sanctification has to come from inside believers. Sanctification requires self-control, or self-discipline. Without self-control, there will be little sanctification. There has never been a freer society than modern America. Yet for all our freedom, I doubt anyone would say Americans are among the most self-controlled people to have lived. In fact, we might say the opposite.
Persecution forces Christians to focus on what’s important and to band together to thrive. You’re not too concerned about your brother or sister’s views of the end times when you know you’ll be dragged off to prison if the wrong person stops by your house church. This leads to a great deal of unity, which was chief among Christ’s concerns for his church (see John 17).
Without persecution, the church is at peace. Every solider knows that in-fighting happens during times of peace, not times of war. Divisions can grow like wildfire when there is no common interest or sustaining cause. Christians in the U.S. are as divided as any group of believers has ever been.
America looks more like a country without persecution. We can incorrectly identify the pressures on American believers as persecution if we assume society is always persecuting Christians. But persecution is not the real problem in America. Assimilation is.
When Persecution Gives Way to Assimilation
Babylon, the great and terrible symbol of corrupt society in Scripture, didn’t burn Christians and throw them to the lions like Rome. Babylonians noticed that persecution of religious or ethnic minorities led to unrest and political instability, so they decided to try something new. Babylonian kings told those they conquered that they were welcome to keep their gods and customs — so long as they conformed to the Babylonian way of life. As long as they kept their culture and religion to themselves, they would be fine.
When persecution gives way to assimilation, the witness of the church dulls. It doesn’t have to, but it almost always does. Cultural assimilation, the particular brand of assimilation most effective at rendering the church impotent, allows worldly beliefs to seep into the heart, mind, and soul of the believer, slowly taking over until they don’t even know they’ve been overtaken.
J.D. Greear often says, “Distraction has sent more people to hell than doubt and disbelief ever have.” Assimilation is cooridnated cultural distraction. It is the coordinated, ongoing effort to so blend the beliefs of its subjects that they can no longer taste the individual ingredients.
How to Survive Assimilation
The Bible tells of four men who successfully resisted assimilation into the great Babylonian empire: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The latter three you’ll recognize by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their pagan names were the first step in Babylon’s attempted assimilation of these men and their fellow Jews.
But time and time again, Daniel and his companions withstood the mounting pressure to be absorbed into the fray. How did they do it? I’ve written previously about three postures Daniel assumed to faithfully engage his culture so I won’t recount those here. Instead, it’s crucial to point out what quality these four Hebrews had in common that bolstered their spirits against assimilation: self-control.
Read through the first six chapters of Daniel and you’ll see the four men resist the Babylonian diet that would be unclean according to Jewish law (ch. 1); Daniel remain steadfast under threat of death (ch. 2); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisting to bow down and worship a false God (ch. 3); and Daniel sticking to his regular practice of praying three times a day with his windows open towards Jerusalem (ch. 6).
How were they able to hold strong against all these pressures, most of which were life-threatening? Self-control, or perhaps more appropriately, self-discipline. They were disciplined not to lose their Jewishness despite their exile. They did not cede that which made them strong in the faith. Without formative practices like adhering to the food laws and practicing regular prayer, they would not have kept the faith.
When we lack the discipline to exercise our faith in the world and aren’t willing to endure suffering, we will never be all that God has in store for us. Persecution provides the means for sanctification and the impetus for mission. If there is no (real) persecution, you need disciplined, determined believers who understand that complacency isn’t an option.
Training for Godliness
Paul understood that complacency in the face of assimilation was a death sentence for a believer and for the gospel. That’s why he told young Timothy, who was facing cultural pressure to conform to Ephesian ways,
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. —1 Timothy 4:7-8
It takes self-discipline to train one’s self. Without self-discipline, an athlete won’t achieve their desired prize. Without self-discipline, a believer won’t achieve their desired crown.
What does it mean to “train yourself for godliness”? It means to institute the use of spiritual disciplines in your life. For thousands of years, the church has identified and employed the use of certain practices which, when pursued with pure motives, are ideal for forming heart, mind, and soul into the image of Christ. These “spiritual” disciplines include fasting, reading Scripture, prayer, silence, solitude, and celebration, among other practices.
In his comments on fasting that can be applied to each of the disciplines or the disciplines taken together, C.S. Lewis wrote,
Fasting asserts the will against the appetite — the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride. … But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices [or spiritual disciplines], which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God.
The disciplines are necessary if a believer is going to assert his will against his desires, thereby reducing the power of his desires over time. This he is to do in preparation for offering himself up to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).
The persecution in America comes from nowhere. Rather, persecution has given way to assimilation, a more formidable foe. The only way believers in America will be able to withstand assimilation is by dedicating themselves to the ancient spiritual disciplines that saw Daniel and his friends through the pressure to assimilate.
Will we in the American church train ourselves for godliness?