Most parents are thrilled when their teens take an interest in church activities. Mine forbade me to participate in them.
Their decision made sense. My Jewish parents understandably hoped to erase my youthful profession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah by starving it out. For the first three years I was a follower of Jesus, I wasn’t permitted to attend any sort of Christian activity, save one week at a Young Life camp in Colorado. (To this day, I’m still not certain why they said yes to that request.) I occasionally found ways to visit various church services and Bible studies because I had some pretty well-honed teenage sneaking skills.
I loved my parents, and the fissure in our relationship because of my faith persisted for decades. Though my teen years were difficult and oppressive, my experience was not as drastic in scope as the challenges faced by other young believers whose parents do not share their faith. There are many accounts of Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu young adults who have been disowned or beaten, and a few extreme cases of some even being put to death.
While most of my believing teen peers were enjoying church and youth group activities, I was holed up in my room, listening to sermons on the radio or reading Christian books I’d smuggled into the house. I may not have known anyone in my life who was facing even mild forms of persecution, but I found some helpful companions in certain books I read at the time. These included: Tortured for Christ—pastor Richard Wurmbrand’s vivid descriptions of his imprisonment in Romania; —Corrie ten Boom’s World War II account of countercultural courage on behalf of the Jewish people; and occasional forays into Reformation-era church history via Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Followers of Jesus would not be able to hang on simultaneously to both their current life and life with Him.
These persecution-themed books affirmed what I saw in my reading of Scripture. When Jesus called people to follow Him, He wanted them to know it could be a costly decision. His followers would not be able to hang on simultaneously to both their current life and life with Him. I heard it in His unflinching words:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it (Matthew 10:34-39).
Jesus blessed those who act as peacemakers (Matt. 5:9) but never sugarcoated the reality that following Him was going to do violence to cherished relationships. Back when I was first wondering who this Jesus was, even before reading a single page of the New Testament I knew that seeking answers to my questions was likely going to be a very costly pursuit. And it was—and continues to be, in different ways, 45 years into my journey with Him.
The persecution I faced clarified for me from the start that Jesus wasn’t ever meant to be the cherry on top of my life’s blessed sundae.
In recent decades, Christianity has often been preached as if it’s merely an addition to our comfortable lives, a value-added benefit to the American dream. Jesus never framed His life in these kinds of terms. The persecution I faced clarified for me from the start that Jesus wasn’t ever meant to be the cherry on top of my life’s blessed sundae. If I wanted a quick on-ramp to the American dream, it would have been far simpler to do what my parents asked when I was a teen and walk away from my newfound faith.
Yet we were not designed to live in comfort, but rather to abide in communion with the One who created us and came to save us. Jesus concludes the Beatitudes with some powerful promises for those who experience persecution, telling them in Matthew 5:10-12 that even as their enemies rage against them in earthly time, they are simultaneously experiencing the eternal reality of the kingdom of heaven. This is not masochism, but freedom. Isaac Watts’s hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” captures something of what it means to lose our life and find His:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
My experience of mild, barbed persecution turned out to be a clarifying and profoundly formational experience in my life.
Today, I would even call it blessed.
Illustration by Adam Cruft