Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). We may think this is a command we cannot obey, because it is about feelings. But feelings can be trained and Jesus tells how: by trusting Him (John 14:1-2).
As we build up our faith, we will also develop “holy courage” and fortitude – an inner strength enabling us to endure prolonged danger or suffering ― and we receive His peace (John 14:27).
Holy courage, flowing from faith, is the antidote to the fear that can lead us to fail the Lord in times of danger or hardship. It will enable us to bring Him glory and keep our own hearts at peace.
Courage is catching: other Christians will be emboldened if they see us facing difficulties bravely. How can we develop fortitude and holy courage?
Stand up even when it’s hard or dangerous.
1. Make sure we are right with God.
Unconfessed sin and a guilty conscience are hindrances to persevering in times of suffering. We must be at peace with God in order to reap the harvest of blessings that suffering can bring (Romans 5:1-5).
Confidence that we are in the place and ministry where God wants us to be also gives “staying power”.
2. Wean our hearts from worldly pleasures and comforts.
Many Christians live today in luxury in societies that prize physical wellbeing. We do not necessarily need to give these things up ahead of time, but we need to prepare our hearts to be ready to do so without it being too painful a wrench.
We must wean our hearts even from the love of liberty, so that we can face unperturbed the possibility of imprisonment.
3. Understand our enemy.
He is not as powerful as our God. He wants to damage us spiritually more than he wants to damage us physically. His principal method is temptation.
Especially in the context of persecution, he may present us with new temptations we have not encountered before, or temptation from new and unexpected sources such as a beloved spouse (Genesis 3:6; Job 2:9), Christian friends (Acts 21:13) or even a Christian preacher or pastor.
Persecution may also create the subtle temptation to spiritual pride. From what God has revealed to us of the battles in the heavenly realms, it seems that Satan’s priority is to bring down those who are closest to the Lord.
So any of us under severe attack can draw comfort from the thought that perhaps Satan has targeted us because we are such a challenge to him.
4. Develop a habit of remembering the presence of God in every situation.
We should pray as much as we can. Not only is it an outlet for our feelings of distress but also spending time with Jesus makes people brave (Acts 4:13).
We can cry to God for deliverance but we cannot demand that He answers with miracles. He may deliver us or He may not. If He does, He may do it supernaturally or naturally.
Our heavenly Father knows best. We can also pray that our faith will not fail and that we may respond to all our trials in a Christ-like way: this we can be sure is praying according to His will.
5. Be careful not to use “prudence” as an excuse for cowardice.
Distinguishing prudence from cowardice can be very difficult. It requires great discernment, Christian maturity, an understanding of our own hearts and a sensitivity to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Equally we must beware the temptation to seek personal glory or the thrill of adventure by “courting danger” unnecessarily; we must not put God to the test (Deuteronomy 6:16; Luke 4:12). May God guide each one of us.
6. Appreciate the inner effects of suffering, especially suffering for Christ.
Some Christians have found their time in prison or laid aside with sickness to be filled with blessing and joy as they were able to focus on the Lord more than when they were free and busy, or healthy and busy, even if they were busy in His service.
We could emerge from a time of testing with our characters like gold (Job 23:10).
7. Think of the example of other brave and persevering believers.
8. Remember the heavenly reward that we are promised, better than anything in this life (Hebrews 10:34) and far more glorious (2 Corinthians 4:16-17). This can help us to accept and even embrace suffering more readily.
We know that we will have to die one day, so how much does it really matter if our earthly life is cut short a little?
We have desired so long to gaze on His beauty (Psalm 27:4) but can see only a dim reflection (1 Corinthians 13:12). The sooner we pass from this life to the next the sooner we shall see God’s face (Revelation 22:4).
9. Love and forgive our enemies and persecutors.
By doing this, many have found that their pain and suffering are assuaged and healing, peace and wholeness come.
To prepare for persecution, we must sharpen our loving and forgiving “skills”. We can practise them by loving and forgiving whoever is most difficult to love and forgive in our lives at present.
Then we will be well equipped, with the right habits of thought, if the greater challenge of loving and forgiving cruel persecutors arises.
10. Nurture our love for the Lord Jesus so that it will inspire us to endure for His sake. We could read the Gospels, meditate on the cross, sing Christcentred hymns and songs, or simply rest in His presence.
STANDING FIRM WHEN GOD SEEMS FAR AWAY
Typically, Christians experience the presence of the Lord in a deeper way when they are suffering, especially if they are suffering for Him. This is very precious and helps to sustain them.
But sometimes He seems – for a while – to stand aloof and leave us struggling alone, even if we are following Him faithfully. We must be ready even for this form of suffering.
BE ALERT FOR ANGELS, BUT DEPEND ON CHRIST ALONE
When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was in mental agony, struck with terror, almost dying of sorrow (Luke 22:44; Mark 14:33; Matthew 26:38, Amplified Bible) but God sent an angel from heaven to strengthen Him (Luke 22:43).
Early Church traditions record many other supernatural interventions to help faithful Christians, especially those facing torture or painful martyrdom. We cannot demand that God sends angels to help us, but He might.
Ultimately, we should depend on Christ ― not on ourselves; not on our own strength or abilities; not on other Christians around us; not on the preparation we may have undertaken to face persecution; not on the hope of angels; not even on whatever gifts or other blessings the Holy Spirit has given us. We must depend on Christ alone.
A longer version of this article appears as chapter 7 of Dr Patrick Sookhdeo’s new book The Mystery of Suffering.
Photo by Johanser Martinez on Unsplash; Photo by Henrik L. on Unsplash