Learning About Suffering from the Margins

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Editor’s note: Sa Zhongzi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American serving the church in China, assisting with the support and strengthening of the house church.

A number of events have transpired in my life over the last few years that have led me to consider the importance of addressing a subject that, as Americans, we may not readily be drawn to consider, especially among majority culture Americans, of which I am one.  These events in my life include being expelled from China, strained relationships with missionary co-workers, and conflicts in the church in China.  However, the events in our lives most directly related to this subject are connected with the experience of watching helplessly as our national ministry partners in the house church were arrested and detained, with some even sentenced to prison.

Isaiah 53 gives us a messianic picture of one who is “oppressed,” “afflicted,” “acquainted with grief,” and marginalized. These are powerful words in today’s culture wars. Careless use of them may bring about being labeled as a “liberal” within our evangelical community.  I have witnessed strong language in my own denominational community directed at the dangers of the social justice movement.  I confess I often think twice when using these words in sermons or writings.  But there are real social problems that must be dealt with, and real confession and repentance is needed as we examine our own lives before a holy God; therefore, we cannot afford to neglect this vocabulary.

Long before these terms took on a political tone, they prophetically described our Savior. He embodied someone who was oppressed, afflicted, and marginalized.  In Romans 8:16-17, Paul clearly articulates a simple “theology of the cross” by telling us: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Anyone living in relative comfort (I include myself in this) may struggle to understand just what Paul means. On one level any Christian who seeks to live a holy life will suffer appropriately as he or she seeks to mortify the flesh; nonetheless, we struggle to understand other passages like, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Am I suffering? Am I being persecuted?  Does being laughed at by my non-Christian colleagues or friends because of my faith really constitute undergoing persecution? 

When I read this passage and look at my own life, I am immediately confronted with these kinds of questions, as well as the troubling thought that, if I am not really suffering for my faith, why not? Why am I not being persecuted or suffering as a Christian? Is something out of place in my Christian life?  


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To answer this, one must do a bit of soul searching and, with Holy Spirit-filled wisdom, ask God for guidance to find the answers. I would like to suggest some possible ways to approach answering the question of suffering – or the absence of it – in our own lives.

A biblical way of  responding to these questions should drive us to enter into the lives of those with whom we share “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” that is, the worldwide body of Christ. This is part of what is behind Paul’s exhortation to: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.”  We have the opportunity to take on the posture of a humble learner and enter into the suffering of those who experience persecution, oppression, affliction, and marginalization because of Christ, even if we ourselves are not undergoing those experiences. 

This has been part of my journey as a missionary working among house church pastors in China. I have a deeper appreciation for scripture passages such as Rom. 12:15-16 because of co-laboring with these pastors. For me, part of weeping with “those who weep” has been an experience of corporate suffering that goes beyond my own individual sphere of direct experiences and enters into suffering with those who are suffering. This kind of suffering has been indirect, as I have watched my close friends being beaten and imprisoned because of their gospel witness.

I believe the church in the U.S. must engage in precisely this kind of indirect suffering to better appreciate what scripture passages like this mean. The more we invest in learning the stories of the persecuted and oppressed church, keeping their struggles a part of our daily prayers, and connecting with their suffering, albeit indirectly, the better we can make sense of the experience of suffering and persecution. This blog provides readers with information, stories, and news that helps churches and individuals connect with those suffering by reading individual testimonies of pastors and other house church Christians. Educating ourselves and praying informed prayers are two very real ways to engage that make a difference. 

A deeper understanding of the sufferings of real Christians also reveals that they are real human beings that struggle with sin, just as we all do. They are not spiritual super-heroes endowed with super-human abilities. We do a great disservice when we misunderstand them and believe they possess some kind of elevated spiritual status that makes them immune to things such as besetting sins. My friends who have suffered have confessed to me their “unholy” thoughts, wrestling with anger, feeling weak, doubting God’s goodness. They are every bit as human as we are and in some ways maybe even less mature, yet they have the privilege of suffering for Jesus in this way.

According to Romans, when we enter into their suffering it is no less real than if we were to directly experience persecution, beatings, and imprisonment. God calls us to obedience, and obedience recognizes an array of different callings. As the body of Christ we are all called to enter into one another’s struggles, especially the struggles of the weak and marginalized. 

Another response to 2 Tim. 3:12  may involve driving us to enter into the lives of those around us here in the U.S. who experience oppression, affliction, and marginalization.  Many years ago when I worked at a church in the inner city of Washington, D.C., I saw profound brokenness, oppression, and marginalization before my eyes, the kind that easily overwhelms a person. There were many times that I felt useless and ineffective. These experiences helped me to develop more of a heart for the marginalized and inevitably showed me that that feeling helplessness is where God meets us to show us his love. He came down and walked through this helplessness so we could have hope. He suffered so that we might have new life in him. He who had no sin became sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

These responses are not mutually exclusive. It is not one or the other. In fact, ideally we respond to 2 Tim 3:12 in both ways: entering into the lives of the worldwide body of Christ, while also entering in to the suffering of the weak and marginalized here in the States. It is in this that we learn to “suffer with him” and grow in relationship with Christ and with his people while also learning to love the lost.

FOR REFLECTION:

Are there struggles , either of the marginalized around the world or in your community, in which God is calling you to join?

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Further Reading

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The Internal Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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The External Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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Qingdao: How to Pray
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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