How Should Christians Respond to Persecution?
“…they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).
These are some truly exciting times to be alive! We Christians have won some significant spiritual victories lately; hopelessness is turning back into faith and a confident expectation of God’s goodness. However, making progress for the Kingdom of God rarely comes without cost. Indeed, persecution against Christians and the Church appears to be on the rise in response to every victory.
The disciple Stephen was persecuted and stoned by the religious rulers of the day, for the sin of his faith in Christ Jesus. Stoning was one of the most painful and horrific ways to be put to death. People would heave large, heavy rocks toward the victim’s face, head and body, over and over again – until he was brutally crushed under the weight.
Today, we don’t practice biblical stoning in our society. And thankfully (at least for the Church in the West), our persecution has largely been limited to cutting words, insults, gossip, rumors and lies.
That said, the fact remains that everybody doing anything for God still gets “stoned” some time. While not physically crushing, these stones of persecution can cause emotional pain and cause real damage, for example, loss of jobs, reputations, and relationships. How we handle being stoned has a lot to do with how effective we can be in life and how our example affects others.
Stones Come from Both Haters and Fakers
Presumably, Stephen personally knew and attended Temple (perhaps for years), with his persecutors. Clearly, stones can come from the “haters,” but also the “fakers.”
Actually, we expect stones from haters, but stones from fakers can really cause damage: people who said they loved you, people who you’ve helped, people who’ve shared a meal with you, people who live in your house, and people who attend your church. (Personally, I think religious stone throwers are most hurtful. These are the people who twist a Scripture around a verbal stone, and pretend their stone throwing is an act of God instead of an act of sin.)
Stones Come because of Success
Stephen was stoned by those who knew him and decided they didn’t like him. He had been touched by the grace of Jesus Christ and experienced genuine transformation. He became sold out to the cause of Christ, serving widows and ministering to the sick. Signs and wonders flowed through his hands, and God was using him to help people get set free.
And most of all, he couldn’t help but tell everybody that the reason for the change on the outside is that Jesus Christ had done something on the inside. He let everyone know that the same Jesus that was crucified was also risen, and is the promised Messiah.
Stephen was experiencing great success; clearly God was with him. And because of that success, small people started throwing stones at him.
When a person’s success shines a spotlight on someone else’s deficiencies, they will often respond by throwing stones. Most stones often come from insecure people, envious people, jealous people. It’s how rumors get started – by jealous people.
Stones Come because of What You Represent
Stephen represented a new Covenant, different from the old Covenant. It was a new way of thinking, and represented the grace of God, as opposed to the law of God.
Stephen represented a crucified, resurrected Savior, Who paid the price for the sin of all who would believe. The Pharisees represented a law based on cleansing rituals and good works. What Stephen represented is diametrically opposed to what they represented.
People will often throw stones at you, simply because of what you represent.
So you’ve got to be sure that what you represent to the world is something you are passionate about and fully committed to. Because when the thing you represent is different than what others represent, be ready – their stones are coming your way.
Take the High Road of Forgiveness
“Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”
Forgiveness is not easy.
When someone stones us, hurts or wounds us deeply, forgiveness is not the natural human response. It is more common for people to retaliate in kind, to attack them back. And if we are super-spiritual, we may pray and ask God to do the attack, wrapping a Scripture around our stone.
"Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord" (Romans 12:19).
That was one of my favorite Scriptures of all time, until I learned what it really meant. I loved it because I interpreted it to mean that if I don’t retaliate against a wrong done to me, then God would get them for me, and even worse than I ever could. Like some kind of “attack God.”
But then I learned a few things about the grace of God.
I learned that the “vengeance” that was due me, Jesus paid for on the cross. That God poured out His wrath caused by my offenses onto Jesus, so that He would not have to pour it out on me. And I learned that God does indeed repay injustice. But He did that by shedding the blood of His own Son.
When God says in Romans, “vengeance is mine,” He is reminding us to step back after being “stoned” and allow Him to offer them the same type of repayment that He gave to us.
As difficult as taking the high road of forgiveness is, it’s the right way – the Scriptural way – to handle being stoned.
Follow the Master
In fact, when we offer forgiveness to others who have stoned us, we are more like Christ in that moment than at any other moment. Remember what Paul (and Proverbs 25:21-22) instructs:
“Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).
In those times, if your hearth fire went out in the middle of the night, you would have to go to your neighbor’s house, knock on the door, wake him up and ask for some of his hot coals so you could get your fire restarted.
And as you walked back to your home carrying the coals in a vessel balanced on your head, everyone who saw would know what a good and compassionate neighbor you had.
When you offer someone forgiveness who has stoned you, you demonstrate the truth that you have been changed, touched, and saved by the goodness of the Master. In fact, you are acting like Him when you take the high road of forgiveness.
When we forgive others, we are doing what God did for us. We remember that once our sins were as scarlet, but He made them white as snow. Once we were enemies of God, alienated from Him, but now we are reconciled as His beloved children.
Forgiveness is not ignoring, justifying or even sanitizing their stones, but it’s simply acknowledging that God’s grace is greater. Indeed, true forgiveness is divine. And again, when we offer it to those who have stoned us, we are more like Christ than at any moment in our lives.
“Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:17-18).
Reconciliation Is Another Matter
God expects and commands us to forgive everyone who has stoned us. But He does not demand that we reconcile with them. That is, forgiveness requires giving up the right to retaliate, and heals the emotional wounds, but it does not mean you must put yourself in a position to be hurt over and over again.
Toxic relationships with abusive people are not God’s plan for us. At times, removing and protecting yourself is better than reconciliation with someone who is being used by the enemy to wound you. Eventually, they can damage your relationship with God; bitterness can be a real spiritual killer.
Forgiveness is a must, but reconciliation is dependent. Release them, but don’t necessarily reconcile. And as far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men, because forgiveness is the determining factor in whether you walk in victory or defeat.
When God Stands
Because of the way Stephen handled himself, forgiving his persecutors and demonstrating God’s grace in a supernatural way, it appears he got a “standing ovation” from Jesus Himself!
“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
Now that’s the ultimate win – the approval of God received by our obedience doing things His way!
Winning is not always getting what we want. It’s living a life that pleases Him. It’s living in such a way that we hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Winning is living in such a way that Jesus is proud of us!
It means we determine to live a Godly life as a person of integrity and strong character. It means being a light in a dark world, and living for an audience of One.
And it means handling persecution in a God-honoring manner: refusing to retaliate, taking the high road of forgiveness, and letting God demonstrate through us what He has done for the world.
Let your life be a light; use those stones to demonstrate the love and forgiveness that Jesus Christ came to offer to the lost. How we handle being stoned affects more lives than we will ever know this side of eternity.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/SI Photography
Frank Santora is Lead Pastor of Faith Church, a multi-site church with locations in Connecticut and New York. Pastor Frank hosts a weekly television show, “Destined to Win,” which airs weekly on the Hillsong Channel and TBN. He has authored thirteen books, including the most recent, Modern Day Psalms and Good Good Father. To learn more about Pastor Frank and this ministry, please visit www.franksantora.cc. Photo by Michele Roman.