If you’ve walked with Jesus for any length of time, you probably have heard something about “persecution.” Whether recalling the words of Jesus when He affirmed that because He had been persecuted, His followers would also face persecution (John 15:20) or Paul’s reminder that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12), most Christians understand they might face persecution.
But, for many of us, if we are honest, we are not being persecuted in any significant way. Sure, a co-worker might dismiss us if we mention something about Jesus or family members might not understand why we go to church on a beautiful Sunday morning rather than sleeping in or heading on an outing. But that hardly rises to the level of the kind of persecution mentioned in the New Testament–or the genuine persecution being experienced by Christians in certain places around the world.
But, we do experience hardship. All of us do. And we must be careful not to confuse life’s troubles with persecution. This became clear to me in reading the end of the book of Acts.
In chapters 27 and 28, we learn of Paul’s journey to Rome. Jesus has told him that he would testify of Him in that great city. He had been arrested in Jerusalem due to some genuine persecution (some Jews even vowed not to eat until they killed him!). After being overlooked and left biding time in prison in Caesarea, he finally was heading to Rome (as a prisoner). But what happened on that trip . . . well, it wasn’t persecution, but it was hardship! (Please read about it in Acts 27 & 28.)
The ship he was on ended up in a severe storm. Against Paul’s advice, the captain set out from a relatively safe harbor only to encounter a storm that threatened the very life of the passengers and crew. Having received a word from God through an angel, Paul told those on the boat that God was going to preserve their lives–but the ship would be lost. When it happened as Paul had explained, all on board were spared and washed up on the shore of Malta. As they were drying off at a fire, Paul, having collected wood for the fire, was bitten by a serpent that squirmed out from the wood he had gathered. The locals assumed the viper’s bite would kill him–but (miraculously) it didn’t. A storm, a shipwreck, and a snakebite. None of those things was persecution; all of those things were just hardship, trouble.
Reading the account, you might want what I wanted as I read: Why take Paul through all this? Although one of the outcomes of this troubling adventure is that Paul was able to minister with power to those on the island of Malta, I still wrestle with why take this route to get him there. Really, Lord, the only way to reach those on Malta was to put Paul through all that? Or was there something Paul was supposed to learn through such hardships? Only there is no mention of him learning anything as he walked this hard road.
So where does this leave me . . . beyond a little puzzled? Here’s what I’m thinking.
I shouldn’t confuse hardship with persecution. My car breaking down, an unexpected illness, the loss of a job, being overlooked for a promotion at work might have nothing to do with persecution for the faith, or even primarily to serve as a teaching moment. It’s not that I cannot learn to live well in such hardships, but approaching all such difficulties as if there was a lesson to be learned can leave me puzzled, confused, and anxious.
“What am I missing? What did I overlook? I hope I learn what I need to learn so I can get out of this storm (only to get shipwrecked and bitten?!?).”
Maybe, like Job in the Old Testament, we won’t ever know (this side of heaven) all that God was doing in overseeing and orchestrating the troubles and hardships we face. Maybe, as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, God does what He does in a way that leaves us not fully knowing what He is doing (Ecclesiastes 3:11-14).
Maybe, like Paul on his journey, we could know with certainty that Jesus will take us to His intended end for us (Philippians 1:6; 1 John 3:2). Paul arrived in Rome, regardless of the troubles on the way. By grace and through the Spirit’s ongoing leading, we will arrive at Jesus’ intended end for us, regardless of the troubles on the way–even when we don’t understand why the things that are happening do happen.