“Satan keeps people in darkness by means of their fear of death,” writes Josef Ton, the distinguished octogenarian Romanian theologian and author of the seminal Suffering, Martyrdom, and Rewards in Heaven. “When a witness to Christ demonstrates that she is free from that fear, by accepting to die out of love for the very people who kill her, the bondage of slavery to fear is broken.”
In other words, when with the love and character of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit we willingly and even joyfully endure taunting, abuse, and death, we spread in blessed contagion the freedom from the fear of death that, according to Hebrews 2:14-15, is back of all of our cowardice as Christians, as well as the cowardice of our human race. As my friend and colleague, Doug McKenzie, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs Canada, says, “This is a faith worth dying for.”
It is not, however, a faith worth killing for, whether that murder comes in the form of “protecting” Christians from martyrdom through military intervention or strongly-worded denunciations and expressions of outrage. “Violence and murder are part of Satan’s nature,” Ton reminds. “Christ could not use violence and murder as His methods of operation.”
What method was left for Christ to use? He was confronting the one who was evil, who used lies to deceive people, who was hateful, and who used all forms of violence and ultimately murder. In stark contrast to this, Jesus was all goodness and truth and love, and He was in no way inclined to use violence and murder. He came with goodness, expressing the truth of God, and doing it in love. But what was His ultimate weapon? We know it, don’t we? His supreme weapon was self-sacrifice, a process by which He absorbed into Himself all the evil, all the deception, and all the hate of the world and died with them on the cross, melting them in His own blood!
Therefore, we should not respond to the persecution of Christians by holding them in admiration and awe, nor should we teach or encourage others to do so. This causes Christians to think of martyrdom as an extroardinary and commendable action, when truly it is distinguishable from the rest of the Christian life in degree but not in kind, i.e., taking up your cross daily across the whole of your lifetime is not different than taking up your cross in a moment, unless you inappropriately spiritualize the daily carrying of the cross.
Nor should we respond to reports of Christian persecution with outrage and anger, as if what was happening was tragic. Outrage and anger are not the weapons with which Christ has armed us. He disallowed their use during his own persecution (crying out for all time, “No more of this!”), and when he is shown addressing a persecutor, there is no outrage in his countenance or speech. When martyrs call out for him to be outraged, they are instructed in no uncertain terms to be patient. There is a purpose for persecution, and Christ himself knows experientially (and perfectly, according to the author of Hebrews) that there is no other way for this purpose to be accomplished. Writes Ton:
Satan no longer has a legal right to anyone, yet people are free to believe his lies and to fulfill his evil desires. Thus, they remain enslaved by him. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, when the Light came into the world many people preferred to remain in darkness, because their deeds were evil (John 3:19). The Father sent Jesus Christ as a Lamb, that is, as a totally gentle and defenseless being, to meet the cruel and merciless beasts of this world. He was to defeat them with the Word of truth, proclaimed in goodness and love and sealed with self-sacrifice. And He did it! Now, however, He turns to us, His branches. The Lamb of God says to us: Although I have won a major and decisive victory, the war is not yet over. It must continue, so that we may win more people for our Kingdom. You are the ones who must engage in this war! I send you out as lambs, totally defenseless and vulnerable, to the cruel wolves of this world. You are equipped now with the Gospel of Truth, which you will impart to them in goodness and love, and if need be, you will testify to this Truth to the point of self-sacrifice.
Provocatively, Ton notes that self-sacrificial love is not a way that the gospel is spread, but the way, which reminds us once again that martyrdom is the liminal edge of self-sacrificial love but not a different plane. Ton says he learned this through his own suffering:
Jesus addressed me personally when He said: “As My Father sent Me, so send I you.” I came to see that for two thousand years, Christ has been conquering more and more territories on this earth through people who accept to go and preach the Gospel to evil and hateful and cruel people, and who accept to give their very lives in the process. Most of the places conquered by Christ were won when a martyr sprinkled that territory with her blood! In short, I understood that martyrdom is not a tragedy. On the contrary, it is a method of conquest!
Persecuting Christians may be a strategy of the enemy, but enduring persecution in love unto death is God’s strategy, his only one. That we turn to other less costly strategies is a sign that we do not understand the enemy’s power of deception nor the reliance of human beings on sin in all its forms as a life-sustaining oxygen. That we can free the mind of others without suffering in our own bodies is a tragically poor reading of Scripture. The disciples’ hearts may have burned within them when the resurrected Jesus opened their minds to the centrality of divine suffering in Scripture, but it was not until he broke bread–and thus reminded them of his sacrifice unto death in the sacrament given for that express purpose–that they recognized him and were “at once” transformed into evangelists.
As Ton notes, this is why in the early church the believers did not respond to incidents of persecution with calls for government intervention and protection but instead “when a persecution started in Smyrna and some of the Christians were arrested, tortured, and martyred [between A.D. 156 and 163], others rushed to the authorities and tried to turn themselves in so they could become martyrs as well.”
So how should we respond when we hear reports of brothers and sisters being persecuted and martyred?
- By praying for the Lord’s continued provision to them in the time of trial.
- By giving thanks to God for the “better resurrection” that awaits them.
- By repenting at the reminder that suffering disgrace for the Name is a privilege, not a tragedy.
- By explaining to others that what is happening is not a tragedy or surprise but rather God’s great love for sinners on display through his children, calling all to repent and believe. Invite them to receive this same love.
- By living a life of self-sacrifice so that everything you do is consistent with rather than in stark contrast to those being martyred. This is your reasonable service, nothing more.
We conclude with Ton’s note that
In the cruel act of crucifixion, the true nature of God was revealed. His essence was shown to be perfect love, utterly and unconditionally giving itself to others, even enduring torture and death for them. The glory of God shines through the beauty and splendor of self-sacrifice as nowhere else and, most importantly, this glory of God, the glory of His self-sacrificial love, shines out again and again in each martyrdom. For this reason, John referred to the martyrdom of Peter as the “kind of death” by which Peter “would glorify God” (John 21:19). It was also the reason why Paul was so determined to glorify Christ by his own death (see Philippians 1:20).
So we also should be determined–joyfully determined–to take up the cross, that the glory of God would shine most brightly in our own lives, whether as martyrs in an instant or martyrs across a lifetime.