“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12 ESV)
Puppies. Texas BBQ. Riding a motorcycle. Sunsets. The smell of the ocean. Golden fields of wheat. The first snow of the season. Children at play. The first kiss of the newly married couple at a wedding. Sitting in the midst of good company.
The list above are things that bring me great joy. Even as I wrote the list, I smiled at the memories of experiencing each of them. It is not difficult to have joy, or to rejoice, while experiencing the list above – or whatever your list might be. But Jesus tells us that having joy or rejoicing is not simply reserved for our lists of things we love. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his followers to have joy – to rejoice and be glad – when we are persecuted and reviled and disgusting lies are told about us. That’s a more difficult list to remember with joy or to rejoice in the midst of experiencing them.
If you have been a believer for any length of time, my guess is you have such a list, a set of memories where you felt like an outsider or the “weirdo,” where you felt persecuted, reviled, or at the very least misunderstood and maligned. For me, the first emotion that comes to mind when remembering these moments is not joy. I don’t feel like rejoicing. I want to tell God, and anyone else who will listen, how unfair it is and that I deserve to be treated better.
However, the Kingdom perspective is different. The perspective that comes from being filled with the Spirit is one that can produce joy even in the midst of the worst of circumstances. Jesus reminds his followers that if we find ourselves in these circumstances, we are in good company. We are in the company of spiritual giants who also experienced the pain of rejection and persecution, and this side of the cross and resurrection we know we are in the good company of Jesus Christ.
I write this not to say these experiences are not painful – they are – or these experiences do not cause suffering– they do – but through the miracle of God’s redemptive work, even suffering can ultimately produce hope and even pain can be experienced with joy.
Tied to Jesus’s statement here about rejoicing in the midst of these circumstances is the promise of heaven. I believe there is a heaven and that someday, either at Christ’s return or at my death, I will experience heaven more completely. But more and more I believe that heaven is the inbreaking of God’s Kingdom even now. At the very least, we are to pray and strive that God’s will would be done and his Kingdom would come right now, right here, as it is in heaven. Therefore, I don’t think I need to wait for death or Christ’s return to experience his promised reward. I can find joy in the midst of my struggles, in the midst of my suffering, even in the midst of persecution, because when I am in the midst of this, I am in the midst of good company. I am never closer to the King of Kings than when I am in the midst of these sufferings, for the King of Kings is also the Suffering Servant. May this promise produce the fruit of joy in our lives.
—Written by Kerry Bender, VP of International Missions.