Written by Dan Armistead
It’s one thing to suffer when caught in the whipping whirlwind that life often brings into our lives or because we did or said something stupid. (Can I get an “Amen?”)
But it’s altogether different when we suffer for doing what is right.
Having served as a pastor for thirty-six years, I’ve done and said some bone-headed things, and I’ve suffered for them. I’ve also experienced the circumstantial suffering that all of us are destined to encounter in life. In my soon-to-be-released post entitled, The Birth of Hope, I describe the most difficult three years of my life, so far.
I’ve also suffered for doing the right thing.
And I’m going to tell you the truth: suffering for doing the right thing doesn’t make suffering any easier. In fact, it can actually make suffering harder. Sleepless nights, stomach tied up in knots, feelings of betrayal, these are just a few of the things that righteous suffering brings into our lives.
I’m certain Jesus experienced all these things and more. His night in the Garden of Gethsemane alone was more than most of us will ever experience when it comes to righteous suffering.
But here’s the good news: suffering for what is right, regardless of the pain it brings into our lives, leads to incredible blessings or, to use the modern-day term, success.
If you haven’t read my posts entitled, Successfully Miserable and God’s Idea of Success, I suggest you check them out.
For those of you who read these previous posts, remember that the biblical word “blessed” is a rich, almost untranslatable word, meaning content, happy, fulfilled, satisfied or, if you will, successful.
Also, remember that the world’s idea of success rarely, if ever, brings these things into our lives. Often we trade these things to experience worldly success.
In his most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promises blessings for those who suffer for “righteousness sake.” Here’s what he says in full . . .
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10, NIV)
Unlike the previous beatitudes in this passage, Jesus elaborates on this one saying, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12, NIV)
Notice three key phrases in these verses: (1) “the kingdom of heaven,” (2) “because of me,” and (3) “the prophets who were before you.”
I want to explain these three phrases using the most non-churchy language possible. When I began “Church on the Edge,” I wanted to present a Jesus who was not institutionalized. As I say on the website video, I’m not opposed to the institutionalized church, but I believe there is a need to communicate the teachings of Jesus and the Bible from a different perspective.
I don’t believe most church-going Christians today realize the difference between our church/Bible language and the language of the broader culture. And I’ll go one step further and say, I think the language we use often hinders our own understanding of what Jesus and the Bible really teaches.
Anyway, back to the three phrases listed above.
The kingdom of heaven or kingdom of God is best understood in the light of the prayer Jesus taught us to pray saying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Notice how the kingdom is explained as God’s will. This is what is known as Jewish parallelism, a common form of teaching in the Bible. A phrase is repeated to help explain its meaning.
When God’s will is done, his kingdom comes. It comes into our lives, our marriages, our families; it comes wherever God’s will is done. When we suffer for doing the right thing, we can be certain that we will experience God’s kingdom in our lives.
It may not feel like it at the time, but I can tell you from personal experience that suffering for what is right builds character, integrity, and the courage and self-confidence that leads to self-fulfillment or what the Bible refers to as blessing. And that’s the kind of success we could stand more of in our world today.
What about that phrase, “because of me.” This is where Christians are often blinded by our institutional interpretations. The result is we miss what is being said.
So without discounting anything else this phrase may mean, let me explain it using Jesus’s own words as he describes those he affirms and welcomes at the end of the age . . .
“Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:34–36, NIV)
After hearing these words, we read the response of those who heard them, and I want you to notice how those people are described so I’ve placed it in italics — “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The king will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:37–40, NIV)
When we read these words, we see that the phrase “because of me” refers to lives that care about the needs of others, especially those who suffer.
Are we really persecuted when we care about others and take a stand for them, or for that matter when we take a stand against those who treat them callously or abusively? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
The final phrase, “the prophets who were before you” is one that, once again, needs to be explained apart from the institutionalized interpretations found in seminary classrooms, church pulpits, and the religious language that so often neuters the full meaning of Jesus’s words.
I talk about modern-day prophets in my book, Prophets or Patriots: How Evangelicals Are Giving to Caesar What Belongs to God. My chapter entitled, “Amos: Businessman or Prophet” describes these modern-day prophets.
Here’s a quote from that chapter . . .
“For starters, a prophet is a seer. He or she “sees” beyond the surface of things. They are intuitive. They recognize the signs of the times. Those “signs” may be seen in world events or family relationships. But while others never really bother to reflect on these things, asking the deeper questions underneath the obvious external events, prophets cannot help but reflect on the less obvious, but more important issues beneath the surface.”
When Jesus uses the word “prophets” in the Beatitudes, I believe he is referring to a more generalized and broader understanding than we often have in the church. One more like what I’ve described above. We may someday be surprised that the words of the prophets really are written on the subway walls!
All of this brings me back to Psalm One which we began to look at in my first post, Successfully Miserable.
“Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.” (Psalm 1:4–6)
Once again, we get caught up in phrases like “the wicked.” Sadly, many Christians consider “the wicked” to be those who are not Christians. But that’s something I’ll address at a later time.
For now, don’t trip over words that are loaded with meanings that detract from the message. And no, I’m not saying there aren’t wicked people in the world. Again, later.
The message of the above verses is simply this — What often appears to be successful lives and legacies is just chaff to be blown away by the winds of time. This is especially true of those “successful lives” that ignore the deeper things of life like kindness, mercy, peacemaking, and the pursuit of freedom and justice for all. (to add a little pledge of allegiance that us citizens of the United States often repeat.)
Like sandcastles on the beach at high tide, a whole lot of what is considered success in the eyes of many will be washed away. But for those of us willing to pay the price for true success in life, the tides may rise, and the rains may come, but the lives we are building will stand.
I hope this inspires a clap or two. I’d also like to encourage you to check out my book, Prophets or Patriots: How Evangelicals Are Giving to Caesar What Belongs to God. You can follow me more closely at Church on the Edge.
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