"Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse."
Romans 12: 14
CONTINUING with the apostle Paul's instructions for living the Christian life, we come to this one concerning how the Christian should react to persecution. Immediately we come face to face with a fact concerning being a Christian in the world, which is that although Christ taught the way of righteousnes and peace, yet the way of Christ attracts opposition from the world, and this will mean that those who are true disciples of Christ will inevitably experience persecution from the world.
THE FACT OF PERSECUTION.
Paul writing to Timothy, in his second letter, warns Timothy "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Timothy 3: 12). Christ never hid this fact from his disciples. Jesus taught his disciples in John 15: 18ff that the world would hate them. Jesus told them "As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you."
This truth is not one that is much spoken about in the church today, but it is one that has a prominent place in the bible. The truth is the world hates Jesus. When we look at the Gospels we will find it impossible to miss how the world, represented by the religious people of society, hated Jesus, and did all they could to oppose him, ending in seeking successfully to end his life in the cruel way of crucifixion. The fact that Jesus came into the world to give his life in death on the cross, and this was the moment of his great triumph, which worked salvation and made possible for sinners to be released from Satan's bondage, and freed to become citizen's of the kingdom of heaven, does not alter this fact. The whole intention of the world represented by the Chief priests, the Pharisees, and the Jewish rulers, was to silence Jesus, and get rid of him at any cost.
Jesus teachs us in John 15: 18ff that those who become his disciples through faith will suffer the same treatment from the world as the world inflicted on him.
REACTING TO PERSECUTION.
The fact of persecution calls us to consider how the Christian faces and deals with persecution, and this is what Paul is teaching in this verse. This is not the only teaching on this subject, and it is not all that the Scriptures teach concerning dealing with persecution, but it calls to us to consider seriously the action and reaction to persecution which Paul speaks of here.
Perhaps, before we launch out on the teaching of the verse, it will be good to remind ourselves that persecution is not the sum total of Christian experience. Although the world will persecute Christians who are faithful to Christ, the Lord tempers the experience of persecution so that we can bear it, and there are times when persecution is not present. Also when Paul teaches in Philippians 4 to rejoice in the Lord, he is telling us that the Christian has rejoicing even in persecution. We have in the Lord a joy which the world can never take away. So we rejoice in the glory of the person of Jesus as God who has risen from the dead, and as man who has descended from the family of David. We rejoice in the knowledge of his victory over Satan and the world. We rejoice that He has overcome the world, and that he will give us the victory over the world by his mighty power. We rejoice in the glory of God which we see in his face. We rejoice in the salvation which he has won for us which assures of peace and joy in the world to come, and fellowship in the presence of God in the trials of this life. The more we are taught of the truths of the Gospel, the more we will have to rejoice about, and the more we will be rejoicing even in persecution. In his teaching in the sermon on the mount Jesus teaches "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5: 10).
In dealing with persecution Paul speaks of two things. One is blessing and the other is cursing. Paul teaches us not to curse under persecution, not to curse those who are doing the persecution. Paul also teaches us that we must bless those who persecute us. We need to enquire now what this teaching means.
a. Curse not.
It may be thought that it was sufficient for Paul to tell us to bless those who persecute us, and in one sense this should be enough. However the fact is that though created new in Christ, and become a new creation in Christ by new birth, yet the corruption of our human nature, our flesh, remains. Not only does this corruption spring up when we our persecuted by others, but Satan is active immediately in persecution to excite this corrupt flesh, and cause us to want to retaliate in mind, even if not in action.
So what are we facing here. What is it to curse our persecutors? The idea of putting a curse on someone may have been something used in the past, but in our modern age we don't put much significance and sense in this. However cursing is something that ferments in the mind in the attitude we may have to those who hurt and harm us. So cursing begins with hard thoughts towards the one who has hurt us, and from this comes bad thoughts towards them. We begin the process of cursing when we harbour these thoughts, and dwell on them. This process can continue in the mind so that we think of all the things we would like to say or do towards the person who has harmed us, and although this may not turn into direct action it does corrode our mind and heart and causes us to have some hate towards the one who persecutes us. There is an element of cursing in this because it effects our action and reaction towards that person. We turn away from him or her. We may even say hard things about such a person to others, seeking to cause others to have hard and judgemental feelings against them. This in turn will effect relationships, and cause disharmony.
The trouble with this sort of thing is that it damages us who have been persecuted, and makes the persecutor victorious in our lives. It also damages the glory and image of Christ in the view of that person doing the persecuting, and so is against blessing.
There is, of course, such persecution which Christians have suffered, and still suffer, all down the ages, which damages life. It destroys our possessions; makes it impossible to exist; and even brings death in its path. The martyrs down the ages have been persecuted down the centuries in this way. Still our attitude towards them must never be cursing in the sense we want to retaliate, and this must be expelled from our minds and hearts as contrary to the law and love of Christ.
Paul instructs us to bless those who persecute us, so what does this mean in practice. For understanding what blessing means we have both the example of Jesus and the apostles. When Jesus was on the cross he gave us an example of what it means to bless his persecutors. In Luke 23: 34 Jesus prays to the Father "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." Then we have a similar example from Stephen whose martyrdom we read of in Acts 7. As he was stoned and facing death he prays "Lord don't hold this sin against them." (Acts 7: 60). Here is a remarkable demonstration of the action of blessing and not cursing. This is what we must seek to emulate.
When we read how Jesus and the apostles faced persecution we can discern three actions which can be said to constitute the action of blessing.
a. Return good for evil.
In the sermon on the mount Jesus has much to say about returning good for evil. He teaches that we must not resist an evil person. (Matthew 5: 39). He goes on with the words - if someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek, in other words return good for evil. Then again if someone takes your tunic, don't fight back but give him your cloak also. In other words if people take from you, the way forward is not to hate them, but seek to do them good, and when they are in need to help them and supply their needs as far as we are able.
Jesus goes on by saying we must love our enemies, for this is how our heavenly Father wishes us to behave. Loving again is not a feeling but good action towards the people who harm us. Peter speaks of the example of Jesus in 1 Peter 2: 23 "When they hurled insults at Jesus, he did not retaliate."
b. Pray for those who persecute us.
We have seen examples of this already in the example of Jesus on the cross, and Stephen when he was suffering martyrdom. This is the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5: 44 "But I tell you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." In Luke 6: 27 Jesus says "Pray for them that persecute you."
Praying for those who harm us is not only good for us, but it is also good for our persecutor. It is good for us because in bringing the persecutor to the Lord in prayer we are turning from hate to love, and so defending our souls from the corrosion of hate which is the way of evil and the devil. It is good for us in a further way, because by prayer we are leaving our case in the hands of the Lord who works all things for our good. It is good for our persecutor because we are seeking the Lord to change them and bring a better spirit, even the blessing of salvation. After all Paul was one of the greatest persecutors, and he was changed, and no doubt as the consequence and answer in some measure of prayer.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4: 12 "When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure." Then Peter in 1 Peter 2: 23 says of Jesus, "When he suffered, he made no threats. He entrusted himself to him who judges justly." Here is an example of endurance. We endure by committing ourselves in our affliction to the Lord, who is ruling over all.