It doesn’t take a long time in the Sermon on the Mount before you realize that what Jesus says makes someone blessed is different from what most people think being blessed is. For instance, if you ask a cashier how she is doing and she responds, “I’m blessed” it is unlikely that you will in turn respond with “I’m sorry that people are making up lies about you.” (Matthew 5:11)
So when we see a disparity between the “blessedness” of our culture and the “blessedness” of Jesus, we naturally should gravitate towards the way of Jesus. I mean, we are Christians, right? But in trying to do so, I ran into something of a tricky question. So there I was, trying to be a good Christian, praying through the Sermon on the Mount.
Blessed are the pure in heart
“Lord, help me to be pure in heart”
Blessed are the peacemakers
“Lord, help me to be a peacemaker”
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake
So what do we do here? Jesus says that those who are persecuted are blessed. Is this something that we should seek? Something that we should pray for? Should we pray that persecution comes upon us?
Because, on one hand, in many ways persecution can be a blessing. Persecution can strengthen the strength and resolve of the church. (Philippians 1:14) Paul even spoke of his imprisonment as a grace. (Philippians 1:7) But it is my conviction that praying for persecution is misguided. A few reasons.
First, because we are specifically commanded to pray for our rulers so that we would have a peaceful and quiet life. (1 Timothy 2:1-2) The implication is that we don’t want persecution. Our prayer is to live under good rulers who would allow us to preach the gospel without pushback. We know that won’t always happen, but that’s what we pray towards.
Second, persecution is complex. Persecution sometimes strengthens the church and sometimes it kills it. God can work great grace through persecution and Satan can work. Sometimes we think of persecution in the simple framework of “a good thing” or “a bad thing.” I would commend A.W. Workman to you for his great job in highlighting the heartbreaking complexities of persecution.
Lastly, praying for persecution is unloving. This is especially true when we talk about praying for the persecution of a segment of the church (The American church, The Western church). Think about what you are doing. You are actively praying that your brothers in sisters in Christ would be slandered, hurt, or killed. We ought instead to pray for the good of others, especially those of the household of faith.
So what should a Sermon on the Mount-informed prayer sound like?
Here’s my shot at it:
“Father God, You have said that those who are persecuted for righteousness sake are blessed. You have said I am blessed when others revile me, when they persecute me, when they utter all kinds of evil against me on the account of Jesus.
I know that the reality is that if I desire to live a righteous life, I will be persecuted. Therefore, give me the courage to not do what is unrighteous in order to avoid persecution. When I am given the choice between being persecuted and doing what is right, help me always choose what is right.
I know that I will be slandered, I know I will be out of step with the people around me, I know that I’ll never quite fit in. But keep my eyes on my true home and on my true reward. Let me live like a citizen of my real kingdom, knowing that I will always be a foreigner.
And help me never to stop speaking the gospel. Help me not to try to blunt its offense to save face. Help me to speak the gospel in such a way that it is convicting, that it is biting, and that it is saving, even if my hearers turn on me in the process.
And when I do suffer, let me take comfort in the fact that you suffered first and that you sympathize with me. Let me comfort in the fact that I can bear on my body the marks of Jesus. And let me take comfort in the fact that in this persecution, I am blessed.”