Christians being persecuted for their faith is a daily reality in contemporary Nigeria. I live in a community where Christians are discriminated against and denied our rights to development, good infrastructure, stable jobs, education, and so on. We also face the danger of being attacked by our Muslim neighbors. I still live with the traumatic memory of the death of my dear cousin who pastored a church in the city of Kaduna. During the religious crises in Kaduna, he was killed in the presence of two of his children.

Christian farmers, in particular, face persecution as Muslim herdsmen migrate into our region and seek to overtake our ancestral land. Guerrilla warfare and raiding tactics are often used to chase rural Christians out of their farmlands. In many cases, herdsmen release their cows to graze on a Christian’s farmland, destroying the farmer’s crops and livelihood. Last year, Zinnia (a pseudonym)—a Christian mother of four who was the breadwinner for her impoverished family—lost four hectares of crops in this manner. Her fields were so destroyed that Zinnia could not harvest a single grain. Zinnia felt she wouldn’t be given a fair hearing and that seeking legal justice could instigate more raids against her community. So she decided not to take the case to court. Her family endured this tragic loss because of their faith in Christ. Experiences like Zinnia’s are shared by many Christians here.

Faith in Christ does not shield us from suffering or pain. In fact, Scripture assures us that our faith in Jesus will often bring suffering. As the apostle Peter wrote, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world” (1 Pet. 4:12–13, NLT). Our natural instinct is to avoid pain, yet when Jesus foretold his crucifixion, he linked his suffering directly to our discipleship: “The Son of Man must suffer many things . . . and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. . . . Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:22–23).

Jesus wants our idea of suffering and pain to be transformed to such an extent that we begin to see it as a positive way of life. Our human view of happiness as the absence of suffering, sorrow, and pain must give way to Christ’s perspective. “Unlike the Christian symbol of today, Jesus’ first hearers knew the cross only as the ultimate instrument of torture, humiliation, and suffering. Following Jesus means denying ourselves and allowing Christ to work in both blessings and trials. It means choosing to desire whatever Christ desires. It means bearing suffering and persecution from the world like Jesus did,” the Africa Study Bible notes. “People who believe that Christians should enjoy life on earth free from suffering or persecution of any kind do not fully understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”

To follow our crucified Lord means to willingly follow him into mistreatment, rejection, and suffering. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first,” Jesus told his disciples (John 15:18). He also said, “You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matt. 24:9). Jesus willingly and resolutely absorbed mistreatment and suffering in his ministry and on the cross. By calling us to take up our cross daily, Jesus wants us to recognize the significance of suffering in our walk with him. If Jesus suffered, leaving us an example to follow, it then is a serious spiritual shortcoming if we try to ignore or reject suffering. In fact, our knowledge of Christ will be incomplete if we aren’t willing to experience suffering. Consider what Paul said: “I want to know Christ . . . I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Phil. 3:10, NLT). There is a unique knowledge of Christ that we can gain only as we walk through times of suffering.

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To have a testimony in this life requires the willingness to face pain and persecution. For some, this means enduring severe hardship, trauma, violence, and even death. For others, this means enduring milder forms of mistreatment, such as being mocked, misunderstood, or ostracized. But whatever our context, if we don’t cultivate a willingness to suffer with and for the Lord, it is impossible to please God. And without a knowledge of the place of suffering in God’s eternal plan, we’ll be unable to endure that suffering.

If we see suffering only as a terrible thing that we must resist or avoid, we fail to grasp its significance. Suffering is meant to help us find the secret of real joy and true happiness—the kind that can be attained only through persecution. Suffering exposes our vulnerability but also causes us to dare greatly. In this sense, suffering can be an expression of God’s love—a method of pruning, refining, and purifying us. And Jesus—the Son of the Father of all creation, God’s Chosen One—has majestically displayed the significance of suffering by taking away its pains, curses, and shame and replacing them with blessings, honor, and eternal glory! What Christ has done on the cross can transform our perception of human suffering into a rich experience with far-reaching implications for this life and the life to come.

Of course this does not mean we aren’t hurt, wounded, or traumatized by persecution. But it does mean we find resilient hope and joy in God’s eternal plan. As one Nigerian Christian expressed, “Believers should be hopeful that one day all suffering, persecution, [and] killing by Fulani jihadists [and] Boko Haram will become just a past story.” God allows us to suffer, in part because true suffering prepares us to experience eternal, divine joy.

We find a strange happiness as we grow in our willingness to suffer for the Lord: Somehow we are mysteriously participating in the sufferings of Christ. If we are insulted for our faith, we are blessed as “the Spirit of glory and of God rests on [us]” (1 Pet. 4:14). If we suffer for Christ, we can praise God for the privilege to bear his name (vv. 12–19). When we share in his sufferings, we know we will also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17–18).

When Zinnia told me about her ordeal, she was happy that she was persecuted because of her faith in Christ. She told me that what happened made her faith even stronger. She was determined to serve Christ, come what may. There can, indeed, be joy in suffering—when we know that it is for Christ’s sake we are being persecuted. It gives us a perfect opportunity not only to read or know about the suffering of Christ but also to participate in it.

Sunday Bobai Agang is an ordained minister with the ECWA and provost of ECWA Theological Seminary in Nigeria. He also serves as an associate research scholar in systematic theology and ecclesiology for Stellenbosch University, South Africa.

This piece is part of The Cross, CT’s special issue featuring articles and Bible study sessions for Lent, Easter, or any time of year. You can learn more about purchasing bulk print copies of The Cross for your church or small group at OrderCT.com/TheCross. If you are a CT subscriber, you can download a digital copy of The Cross free at MoreCT.com/TheCross.