“The message of Jesus is the most powerful message in the world. It is good news. It changes lives. It changes cities and cultures. Yet it is also a message that provokes opposition. God equips you to pass on the message by giving you the Holy Spirit.” (Nicky Gumbel)
The Rose Garden at Alnwick
Lynn Anderson wrote a song in 1970 which had the words ‘I never promised you a rose garden.’ My father had a rose garden for many years. Although I love roses – their varied colours, their delicate petals, their sweet fragrance – I hated the rose garden because it was also full of thorns and was off limits for play. In later years, when gardening became too much for my father, the rose garden became a veritable jungle, a place associated with cuts and scratches, a place that was even more off limits!
Nicky Gumbel’s words remind us of the apparent contraditction in the message of the gospel. The news Jesus brought of peace with God is the most radical and powerful message known to humanity, but it is a message which sharply divides and has prompted fierce opposition throughout history. As the song comments, there is no easy life for God’s people: ‘along with the sunshine/ there’s gotta be a little rain sometime.’ We would prefer the easy life, and often think of the book of Acts as a triumphant procession of miracles and conversions, with thousands being added to the church on a daily basis. The truth is that alongside these happenings, there were beatings, imprisonments and even deaths, simply for preaching the message of Jesus.
This opposition has continued throughout history to the present day. Open Doors, a Christian charity working on behalf of the persecuted church, identified 4,761 Christians killed between October 2019 and September 2020 for their faith. 4,488 churches or Christian buildings were attacked. 4,277 Christians were unjustly arrested, detained or imprisoned. 1,710 Christians were abducted for faith-related reasons. In countries such as North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and China, persecution of Christians is fierce and faith must withstand great opposition.
Instead of being intimidated or disheartened by these figures, we should pray with empathy and boldness for our persecuted fellow believers and remember that they are blessed. (Matt 5:10-12) We should also ponder on the paradox of the rose, something so lovely yet so spiky! The two co-exist for reasons we cannot fathom. In the same way, God allows the refining fire of persecution for reasons we may never understand, but He also provides the help, deliverance and sustenance each believer needs. Grace is not a theoretical concept; it’s a sustaining, life-giving principle. Mojtaba Hosseini, an Iranian pastor imprisoned at the tender age of 20 for running house churches, said, “It doesn’t matter what situation I’m in. I can work in God’s kingdom wherever He places me.” He found a ministry among prisoners when he was in prison. God is able to work for good in every situation in our lives.