Persecution refers to unfair treatment of a person or group that stems from a hatred of the group or its beliefs. It goes beyond mere discrimination and can be violent and unrestrained. In spiritual usage, it refers to attacks on God’s people by worldly people, or by demonic spiritual forces.
When the term persecution is narrowly defined as an unfair attack on a person or a group, then its spiritual usage needs to be clarified. For example, if God stirred up the enemies of the nation of Israel and caused them to attack Israel because He was angry at His people, then the attack could be considered persecution from the point of view that the enemies of Israel always hated God’s people and didn’t need an excuse to attack them. Yet, spiritually this is also an example of God punishing or chastening His people. On the other hand, if the enemies of Israel attacked them merely out of hatred for them, and if God was not angry at His people, then the attack is mere persecution. Thus, it is really God’s motive and purpose that determines the meaning of adversity.
This is important to us for 2 reasons. First, if our trials are chastening or punishment, then we need to respond differently than we would to mere persecution. If we humble ourselves and exercise contrition and repentance in response to chastening, then we gain from the experience. In contrast, it is of no benefit to assign some wrong to ourselves if we are merely being persecuted. Second, the response of God to our enemy will be very different if the attack is mere persecution. God will defend or reward His people when they are persecuted; but He will allow our enemies to continue to attack us until we repent if His anger against us is the reason He stirred up the persecution to begin with.
In practical terms this means we should always strive to walk blameless before God, in trust and obedience. Then, when adversity comes to us we won’t have to immediately feel guilty and conclude that we are being punished for sin. We joyfully endure our suffering, trusting God that it is for our good. We may not know initially why we are having a trial, and we should ask God to search us and “see if there be any wicked way in us”, but in the absence of conviction our acceptance of persecution, our joyful sharing in Christ’s suffering, proves our status as children of God.
In a nation such as the United States and in times like these, there is very little direct personal persecution of Christians from humans. Media, the entertainment industry and educational institutions may distort or distain godliness, but even in those cases the judgment of God against Christendom and against the abuses of the visible church is operating. With time, we may experience a more pure form of persecution against a more pure form of Christianity. In that case, we will see yet another benefit of persecution: when the sun rises in its scorching heat, there is a distinction made between the plant growing in deep soil and the plant growing in shallow soil, which withers whenever trials or persecution increase.
See also Suffering.