The Apostle Paul asked the Thessalonian church to pray that he, Silas, and Timothy be delivered from wicked and evil people (2 Thessalonians 3:2-3). Jesus prayed in John 17:18 that the Father not take his followers from the world, but that they be kept from the evil one. How do we harmonize Paul’s expectation to be persecuted and even Christ’s statements that all of his followers will be persecuted (John 15:20) with the prayer to avoid persecution?
What may be generally true is not necessarily God’s will in each instance. Paul, for example, had a calling to work in that particular case. The key to understanding Paul is to realize that foremost in his mind was to do God’s will. Paul would not intentionally seek persecution, but if it came his way in the course of doing God’s will, he would endure it if necessary. In some cases persecution would be an unnecessary distraction and delay, sidetracking him from doing the work he was supposed to do. When he was healed, he would resume the work. The Ephesian Church begged him not to go to Jerusalem because he would be killed but Paul was determined to go because he was sure that this was God’s will. Jewish and Roman authorities sent him from Jerusalem to Rome where he was martyred. In the meantime he preached the gospel to persons who could not have had the opportunity to hear the gospel had he not gone there and been martyred.
The point is that Paul single-mindedly sought to do God’s will, using discretion in areas where caution was called for. If he suffered he was assured that God had allowed it to complement and supplement his work. We do not recklessly run toward persecution nor do we shy away from it when it becomes evident that it has been providentially ordained for us at that particular time. This would reflect Paul’s method of work and mission.
The great Church Father, Athanasius, had to defend his decision to escape to Alexandria, Egypt to avoid persecution. The people who called him a coward were the ones who desired to kill him. He felt no obligation to submit to their demand and taunting to come forth and be judged and punished. He had important work to do defending orthodox teachings. He was forced into exile numerous times because of his orthodox belief in the nature of Christ. Few today in the Western world are persecuted for believing in doctrinal truth but around the world many are dying each day because of their belief in Jesus as Lord, which is an important theological statement. Some are able to flee from persecution, but some are caught up in the evil schemes of men. In all cases the purpose is to do God’s will. Persecution may be a consequence of this work. It is perfectly appropriate to pray to escape persecution if that is not God’s will for the occasion.
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.